Georgian Five Inch Sun Dial by Matthew Berge - Royal Observatory Interest


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Object Description

For sale, a fine George III five-inch miniature brass sun dial with original feet by Matthew Berge of London

Comprised entirely from brass, this diminutive sun dial is perhaps the most beautifully engraved example that I have yet come across. It has a roman numeral scale, marked with hour points and two further circumference rings divided for twenty and four minute intervals. The scale is surrounded by a dart pattern engraving which culminates at the South position with floral scrolls and the centre point denoting the famous London instrument maker, Matthew Berge, London.

The inner section of the dial is provided with a sixteen-pointed compass rose with minutely engraved floriat arms at the eight main compass points and a beautifully designed miniature gnonmon to the centre.

Of significant rarity are the three base feet which still remain with this dial and coupled with the definition remaining on the engraved dial, it strongly suggests that it has never been installed during its long existence.

To return to the dial engraving, a small additional feature between the compass rose and the outer roman numeral dial provides an interesting and most unusual conundrum, an arc seconds latitude reading for 51-28-39. It is highly unusual to encounter such a precise reading on a sundial, so it is interesting that the co-ordinate for which this sundial was produced, relates to an area of land which cuts directly through Greenwich Observatory.

Rather than suggesting a firm attribution I will temper this owing to the lack of a corresponding longitude, however, given the maker, the proximity of his workshop and the quality and likely expense of this piece, it is at least a reasonable likelihood that it might have been manufactured for the Observatory at Greenwich. As mentioned below, we do also know for sure that Berge and Ramsden before him, were commissioned by them to carry out manufacture and installations.

We should also consider who might have been capable during this period of providing a surveyed latitude of such precision. I suspect the Observatory archives held at Cambridge will not have a record of purchases so this is probably as much as can be suggested at this stage.

Forgetting for a minute, the difficult, yet interesting possibilities of provenance, this sun dial stands alone as a very fine and rare example in its own right. There is only one other Berge sun dial recorded in the British Sun Dial Society’s records and this is in somewhat poor condition. A Berge sun dial of this size, in such fine condition and complete with its feet is an extraordinarily rare encounter.

Matthew Berge featured amongst the honoured list of Jesse Ramsden’s apprentices. Born in 1753 it is thought that he was apprenticed to Ramsden in 1767 whilst his older brother had been apprenticed to Peter Dollond a few years before.

Berge’s career decision to remain working with the hugely famous Ramsden as his foreman means that his story is forever overshadowed but there is no doubting the trust and appreciation for Berge’s skill that Ramsden maintained throughout his career. Berge was perhaps the only person that Ramsden confided his methods to for hand dividing circles and he was also entrusted to complete the work on the Shuckburgh equatorial at the Greenwich Observatory following Ramsden’s demise.

These glimpses of Berge shining through the writings about Ramsden’s life are perhaps small appreciation, but with no wife (and a son who had joined the East India Company), it was Berge that Ramsden chose in his will as the beneficiary for his premises at 199 Piccadilly.

His will states:

“I give and bequeath to my old servant Matthew Berge, the lease of my house and workshops No 199 Piccadilly next St James’s Church with my working tools and stock except those before mentioned on condition that he pays the remaining debts for building and repairing left at my death, and I do so constitute and appoint the said Matthew Berge together with the above named Edward Pritchard to be joint executors of this my last will and testament”.

Berge continued to trade from Ramsden’s workshop at 199 Piccadilly and most of his work from this period is engraved as “Berge Late Ramsden” probably as a means of maintaining the connection with his master’s fame and notoriety. The shop became 196 Piccadilly following the building of Regent Street and he continued there for the rest of his life. Records show that he worked with the famous civil engineer Thomas Telford and later replaced Dudley Adams as the provider to The Board of Ordnance. A sale of The Duke of York’s instrument collection was held at Berge’s premises in 1807 and military patronage was continued by the like of Arthur Wellseley Duke of Wellington who is known to have used Berge telescopes and barometers whilst on campaign in the Peninsular and at Waterloo. Examples of these instruments now form part of the National Army Museum’s collection.

Matthew Berge died In 1819 and Thomas Jones (another of Ramsden’s apprentices) is documented as sending a letter to the Board of Longitude requesting that the circular and straight line dividing engines originally manufactured by Ramsden and owned by the Board, be entrusted to him. Jones had applied in the same manner after Ramsden’s death but Berge had been granted stewardship of the instruments at this point and was probably the catalyst for Jones’s patenting his own dividing engine.

Circa 1810

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