Some of the most intricately decorated clocks ever made in the UK have returned to London for the first time since they were sent to the Chinese Emperor’s palace centuries ago.

Chinese Emperors wanted British clocks at a time when they were amongst the best in the world, to track time on earth and the movements of the celestial bodies in the skies above. However, no matter how accurate it is, a simple clock is not suitable for the Emperor, so they went for bling.

A lot of bling.

Huge decorated sculptures covered in gold and jewels and often activated by clockwork mechanisms, these automatons became known as Zimingzhong (凝时聚珍), or “bells that ring themselves”

Kept inside the Forbidden City, now the Palace Museum in Beijing, a new exhibition at the Science Museum is the first time a collection of Zimingzhong has been displayed together in the UK.

As an exhibition of clocks, you’re not here for the clocks themselves, which represent only a very small element of the larger automaton units. The sumptuous decoration is the draw here, with exceptional craftsmanship on display.

Each Zimingzhong has been displayed in its own glass case so you can walk around each and admire the backs as much as the front — and one which had a paper print pasted on the back.

In a room not unsurprisingly decorated in a Chinese style, the main room lined with smaller clocks and a grand clock at the far end felt momentarily not unlike a Chinese court with the officials sitting in attendance to the Emperor.

Although the room of clocks is filled with the sounds of bells and clockworks, the Zimingzhong themselves are not working, as it would require a considerable amount of effort to restore and keep the clockwork mechanisms working.

However, that would not add hugely to the spectacle, which is an exhibition of exceptional decorative riches, most of which was made here in the UK.

The Zimingzhong on display range from 1662 to 1795, when Emperor Jiaqing declared them as a frivolous waste of money and the trade declined. Some 230 years after the Emperor lost interest in them, we Brits can see what our ancestors had been so busy creating for him.

The exhibition, Zimingzhong 凝时聚珍: Clockwork Treasures from China’s Forbidden City is at the Science Museum until Sunday 2nd June 2024.

It’s also a very affordable exhibition, as you’re invited to pay what you want to visit, with a minimum ticket cost of £1 per person.


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