Clocks and time

The ticking of timepieces in room after room is symbolic of today’s living palace. Most of the clocks in the grand apartments of the Royal Palace of Stockholm still fulfil their traditional role of timekeeping during the Royal Family’s official representation. Timekeeping and objects that measure time have a long history that is closely linked to our perception of time.

The earliest mechanical clocks were not actually of any real importance in terms of measuring time. Life in the 14th century was governed by daylight, not by the time of day, and the first clocks were not accurate enough to rely on. For a long time, only an hour hand was used – adding a minute hand would make the inaccuracy obvious. It was not until the Dutch polymath Christiaan Huygens designed a working pendulum in the 1660s that clocks actually became useful instruments of measurement.

Clocks were mankind’s first truly successful machines. During the late Middle Ages, they appeared in public places such as on the towers of town halls and some palaces, or as astronomical works of art in the great cathedrals. Here in Sweden, such timepieces could be found in Lund and Uppsala.

During the Renaissance, as courtly tastes grew increasingly sophisticated, clocks appeared in royal palaces. They were still primarily collectors’ pieces; unusual gadgets in keeping with the contents of the royal cabinets of curiosities.

Changing views of time

A public debate on the golden age of mankind emerged during the 1680s in France. Since the Renaissance, the society and culture of antiquity had been regarded as the pinnacle of man. Now, however, radical opinions suggested that contemporary society had surpassed antiquity, and the prevailing perspective underwent a shift. A few decades into the 18th century, it had become an accepted truth that our finest hour was yet to come. As a result, the concept of time – and the devices used to measure it – took on a new and absolute authority, representing the route towards the best of all imaginable worlds. It was not by chance that table clocks and modern clocks capable of being hung on the wall became fashionable features of mid-18th century rooms.

Clocks at the Royal Palace of Stockholm

When the new palace in Stockholm was furnished ready for King Adolf Fredrik and Queen Lovisa Ulrika to take up residence in 1754, three clocks were deemed to be sufficient for the entire palace. Two of these were newly purchased and were positioned in the council session rooms, where they performed a practical function. The third was a longcase clock which stood in the queen’s guards’ hall.

King Adolf Fredrik, Queen Lovisa Ulrika and, later on, King Gustav III subsequently acquired clocks for the royal apartments through private purchases. King Karl XIV Johan modernised the palace’s collection of timepieces with the addition of many table clocks with gilded bronze surrounds. And many of the Rococo clocks that can be seen at the palace today were bought as antiques during the 19th century.

Most of the clocks in the collections still work, continuing to perform their function as timekeepers at the royal palaces.

Video: Kaffegruppen/

The clock shown here was made in Stockholm in the 1760s by the clockmaker Hans Wessman, and stands on the mantelpiece in Princess Sibylla’s Apartments. The clock strikes the quarter hour, and plays a longer tune on the hour.


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