Thomas Cole English, 1800-1864



Until the publication in 1975 of John Hawkins's biography, Thomas Cole and Victorian Clockmaking, this famous clockmaker had been largely forgotten; his reputation having been eclipsed by his brother, James Ferguson Cole (1798-1880). Thomas Cole enjoyed considerable esteem in his day, both at home and abroad; and in the light of Hawkins's research we can once again appreciate his remarkable talent, his unique designs and superior craftsmanship. His relative anonymity was mainly a result of retailers, for whom he produced clocks, using their own name instead of his on the dial. Cole supplied London's most important jewellery, silver and clock businesses, including Hunt and Roskell, C. F. Hancock, R. and S. Garrard, H. and E. Tessier, E. Dent and Asprey.


Thomas Cole was born in Nether Stowey, Somerset, the son of a clock maker, James Cole. Little is known of Thomas's early training but like his brother, James Ferguson he probably learnt the rudiments of his trade from his father. In 1823 he joined his brother in partnership at 3 New Bond Street, London advertising themselves as 'chronometer, watch and clockmakers'. A portable astronomical clock of 1825, signed by both brothers is now in the British Museum, London. The partnership was dissolved in 1829 when Thomas went to work independently as a watchmaker. By 1845 he described himself as a 'designer and maker of ornamental clocks' - as Hawkins wrote, "They are completely original in their design and format and owe their inspiration to Cole alone. The metalwork of their cases, engraving and attention to detail set a standard rarely exceeded". Some pieces reflected the taste for the Antique, one clock, c.1850 was set in an urn standing upon a plinth, while a mantle clock (exhibited London 1862) displayed a sphinx and winged caryatids at each corner. In keeping with the vogue for naturalism, Cole constructed a tripod clock, c.1856 with supports cast as logs, while the pendulum was shaped as a cauldron over a camp-fire. He also produced clocks in the form of a cake basket and others as a candlestick. He produced a variety of very thin portable desk top clocks, one of which, 1862-4 included in its design the aces of hearts, clubs and spades. In addition Cole constructed some exceedingly fine and less unusual strut clocks as well as carriage clocks. He was elected to the Royal Society of Arts, 1861 and also the Royal Horological Institute.


The international exhibitions enabled Cole to promote his novel constructions. His first showing at the Great Exhibition, London, 1851 was a resounding success. In addition to his own display, he had products on stands of at least four different retail firms, each of unique design so as to prevent a conflict of interests. Cole also exhibited at the Paris Universelle, 1855 where, as his obituary writer noted he was given "a distinguished position for true artistic excellence and superior workmanship". He was awarded a medal for his display at the London International, 1862; Charles Frodsham, in the official exhibition report described Cole's work in glowing terms, noting "nothing could exceed the beauty of design and good taste of the varied models and general excellence of workmanship". Cole's work made such an impact that other London makers, notably E. White and W. Vasel tried to copy him but never surpassed the quality of his craftsmanship.


Copyright by Richard Redding Antiques Ltd.