The figure of a naval officer on the St Martin clock dates from 1779

The figure on top of the drum is probably the most distinctive feature of the St Martin clock, and its oldest. Known affectionately as the Little Admiral he is also one of the most interesting.

History

Although the earliest reference to the figure is in an 1818 guidebook by William Hargrove, we can be confident that he was placed there by John Agar, the York clock and instrument maker, who was commissioned in 1778 to install a new bracket and ornaments. The figure was instructed to be retained in the 1856 clock, and although damaged by fire in 1942 was restored and returned in 1966.

Origins

Though it is the earliest datable example of such a figure, and the only one known to have been installed on a clock, very similar figures usually described as midshipmen probably because of their diminutive height were common at ship chandlers and instrument makers in the late eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. Many still survive. Charles Dickens, in his 1848 book Dombey and Son, refers to one frequently as the Wooden Midshipman or Little Midshipman. It seems unlikely therefore that John Agar invented the idea; more probably he made use of an already familiar trade sign even though such evidence is lost.

What does he represent?

Curiously, the early 19th century guidebooks refer only to the figure of a man, though in the 1856 specification he is described as an admiral. That is probably accurate, because although the uniform is not quite accurate the gold braid would only have been worn by an officer of that rank. In 1779 he can hardly have represented Admiral Nelson, promoted to captain only in that year, a later tradition notwithstanding. A more plausible subject for commemoration might have been Captain James Cook, killed in February 1779 and already famous as an explorer, but there is no evidence that was the intention either. Very likely he in common with others of his kind merely represented a generic naval officer and a characteristic user of the instrument he was holding. The uniform is discussed in some detail in Michael Dryland's 1991 article.

The subject of his correct paint scheme has been much debated. The navy blue of present day uniforms is much darker than was used in the eighteenth century, and for the 1995 repainting a light blue was chosen for the coat on the evidence of traces of a possibly original paint scheme. In practice that seemed very unsatisfactory because it was unlike any uniform known to have been worn, and very similar to the natural fading of the blue paint used at the time. For the 2012 restoration the choice was a fairly bright Sapphire Blue, similar to that appearing in contemporary portraits although gloss paint, necessary for lasting protection, cannot precisely represent woollen cloth. For the remainder of the figure a cream colour was chosen to represent the light colour of facings, and remainder of his clothing together with his skin; it is thought unlikely that the original had the features picked out in detail. Old photographs suggest, indeed, that for much of his life the paint was obscured under layers of grime.

What is he holding?

The strangest feature is the curious rod with three cross pieces that he is pointing toward the sky. The nearest approximation is to a cross-staff, a navigational instrument already obsolete by 1779, but it is such a poor representation that it is unlikely that whoever made it had ever seen one. The early 19th century accounts of the figure describe him as holding a quadrant, which may have been one of a number of similar instruments of which the most familiar to us today is the sextant, though the evidence of other figures is that an octant is likely. It is improbable that John Agar would have placed in the figure's hands anything other than a correct instrument, so the most likely thing is that it was lost by the time of the 1856 clock and that what he has now is a replacement.

The revolving admiral

William Hargrove described the figure in 1818 as 'always pointing to the sun'. That must mean that he revolved daily, and that is supported by a central hole in the base that could have contained a spindle. William Hargrove, as a local newspaper editor, must have been very familiar with the figure. By 1831 he had evidently stopped turning, since Thomas Allen, who admitted his indebtedness to Hargrove, said then that it 'formerly always pointed to the sun'.

His present condition

On a cast iron base to the knees, the bulk of the figure was carved in mahogany. The back was badly burnt in 1942 and known to have been replaced by the York Minster workshops along with one arm; a comparison with photographs taken before 1942 suggests that the hat and pigtail must have suffered some loss and been trimmed back, explaining why the brim and peak of his bicorn hat is strangely shortened. Fortunately, though, the remaining original timber proved in excellent condition prior to repainting.