The Art of Distraction

Creativity, memory and our relationship with time

Dr Victoria Powell

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Sarah Sze, The Waiting Room at Peckham Rye station. Photograph: © Sarah Sze, Courtesy the Artist. Photo: Thierry Bal.

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I was led down a wonderfully distracting rabbit hole last week by Dr Rebecca Struthers, whose recently published book The Hands of Time: A Watchmaker’s History charts the history of watches and timekeeping. It’s one of those books where you find yourself googling ideas and images as you’re reading, and it led me into some geeky nooks and crannies on the internet. Her book is a brilliant example of rich history-writing that reaches into many subject areas because it examines the past through an unexpected lens — in this case a history of time told through some of the ingenious devices humans have invented to measure it.

Mechanical watches emerged relatively recently, in the last 600 years or so, but there is evidence that attempts at timekeeping have been ongoing over the past 44,000 years. It’s a fascinating story of technological development and it’s also a cultural and social history of Europe. Struthers weaves together a narrative about the gradual democratisation of timekeeping that includes aspects of religion, trade, migration, scientific ideas and the Industrial Revolution. She explains how all of these things impacted on the design and craftsmanship of watches.

I was as much interested in this history of our changing perception of time as I was in the writer herself: Rebecca Struthers is a rare breed of historian in that she’s also a creative practitioner. As a watchmaker and antiquarian horologist she has a hands-on relationship with the objects she writes about. The book is both a history of timekeeping and a personal memoir of her experience of learning about these finely-crafted objects. Over time Struthers has developed an intuitive understanding of their inner workings, and describes that experience of learning as ‘a process that takes time and patience with yourself as well as the things you’re making’. What I love about her is that she is…

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Dr Victoria Powell

I write about art, history, politics & culture, without the confusing art speak. Crazy about dogs. Victorian historian. 19th-century gentleman in a former life.