Victoria Centre’s Emett Clock Turns 50 This Year

Words: Sophie Gargett
Illustrations: Ciaran Burrows
Friday 29 September 2023
reading time: min, words

Between the Market Square lions, Anish Kapoor’s Sky Mirror at Nottingham Playhouse and Les Johnson’s Brian Clough statue, Nottingham has its fair share of iconic public art pieces, but none perhaps more fantastical than Victoria Centre’s Emett Clock, which turns fifty this year.

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Officially titled the ‘Aqua Horological Tintinnabulator’ (a wonderfully whimsical appellation, for sure) the distinctive timepiece has been a staple sight of any visit to the Victoria Centre for the last fifty years, delighting both children and adults with its playful design and joyful tinkling at the strike of its giant metal hands.

This brilliant piece of local art celebrates its 50th birthday this year. It first appeared in 1973, commissioned by Capital & Counties Properties who began constructing Victoria Centre between 1967 and 1972 after the Victoria Railway Station ceased use.

Looking to create an eyecatching public art sculpture and local landmark in the shiny new shopping centre, they chose artist Frederick Rowland Emett (1906-1990) to design the clock. Chiefly a cartoonist, Emett often described himself as a designer of ‘things’ - his most well-known work can be seen in the inventions of Caractacus Potts (played by Dick Van Dyke) for the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), but his canon of work is a pleasing hodgepodge of mediums and results. 

Emett had the knack for tinkering with mechanics and design early - his father was an amateur inventor, while his grandfather was an engraver for Queen Victoria. At just fourteen years old, he took out a patent for a volume control on gramophones, and he was popular during his school days for creating amusing caricatures of his teachers. Going on to create cartoons for Punch magazine, his style had the eccentric and nonsensical charm of old children’s book illustrations, full of peculiar factories with towering chimneys, rickety trains and automobiles, and all sorts of mad inventions and characters. He designed a mechanical computer in 1966, which he named ‘The Forget-Me-Not Computer’, and other inventions he gave names such as ‘The Featherstone-Kite Openwork Basketweave Mark Two Gentleman’s Flying Machine’.

What exactly inspired the kinetic, water-powered timepiece in Victoria Centre is not documented, but Emett is quoted as saying, "It is a well known fact that all inventors get their first ideas on the back of an envelope. I take slight exception to this, I use the front so that I can incorporate the stamp and then the design is already half done." The far-out title, however, refers to its various features; aqua of course meaning water, horological relating to the measurement of time, and tintinnabulator referring to the ringing or tinkling sound created by the clock.

Playing Rameau's Gigue en Rondeau II from the E-minor suite of his Pièces de Clavecin when striking the hour and half-hour, the water surrounding the clock has become a popular ‘wishing well’, with the coins that are accumulated being collected for local charities.

Featuring a giant golden sunflower and an elaborate metal water wheel decorated with flowers, leaves and butterflies, a mere description of the sculpture simply does not do it justice. With its incongruous placement in a commercial setting, as if mysteriously sprung from the pages of a curious steampunk themed Suess-esque story, the clock has managed to pique the imagination of its audience over the past fifty years.

After being located in the lower mall for almost forty years, in 2014 the clock was taken away for restoration by local engineer Pete Dexter and The Rowland Emett Society, before starring in an exhibition of Rowland Emett's cartoons and machines at Millennium Point in Birmingham. Upon its return, gleaming and in pristine condition, the clock now sits in the upper mall of Victoria Centre, preserving an element of joy and whimsy to the bustling retail arcade.

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