Inside the Yorkshire workshop of a rare master at work as one of the nation's greatest clock conservators

Time means little to David Barker when he tinkers with fine cogs, scrutinising the rare craftsmanship of each grand clock to reveal its tiny flaws.

David Barker is one of only a few clock conservators who at 81 is still charged with some of the nation's greatest clocks. Picture Tony Johnson
David Barker is one of only a few clock conservators who at 81 is still charged with some of the nation's greatest clocks. Picture Tony Johnson

Mr Barker, at the age of 81, is one of only a few accredited clock conservators, protecting and repairing some of the world's finest hand-crafted machines.

A heady tang of polish and engine oil fills his workshop on the fringes of the Yorkshire Dales where he works under the clocks’ ballad of rhythmic ticks.

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Here is a master at work, with a rare expertise, and a true Yorkshireman's short shrift when it comes to authenticity.

David Barker, busy in his workshop with a moon face clock dated 1750 by John Greaves in Newcastle who was a Yorkshireman. Picture Tony Johnson

To call a long case clock a grandfather is an Americanism, he argues, while of a modern trend towards minimalism he reflects on the merits of "quality clutter".

"I'm interested in clocks and country house and church architecture, and I do like a bit of dry rot in my religion," he said.

On his other hobby, as a long-time member of the Vintage Motorcycle Club with which he still rides, he added: "They are both about gears. The first ever gearboxes were in clocks and windmills."

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The intricate parts of a clock kept in a kidney dish in the workshop to ensure their safe storage. Picture Tony Johnson

Mr Barker, born in Methley near Pontefract on the eve of Britain's declaration of war in 1939, had been destined for a life in the mines like his father and grandfathers before him.

It was his mother's intervention, insisting upon an education, that had kept him from the coalfields as he secured a scholarship to art school instead.

As a child he had been introduced to the workings of mechanics by his grandfather next door, who would tinker endlessly with pigeon fancier’s race recording clocks.

"I used to play with these tickers, watch him work," recalled Mr Barker. "He was what I would call a 'big hammer' man, working with a pigeon feather for oiling and a soldering iron.

A clock made by Jon Sanderson in Wigton Cumbria dating from 1740. Picture by Tony Johnson.

"And his grandfather clock, as far as I was concerned, was the only one in the village. I learned to tell the time on his clock. It made an impression on me."

His conservation career, launched under the encouragement of a man called Christopher Gilbert, once head of museums and galleries in Leeds, had propelled after a magazine article came to the attention of Antiques Roadshow host Arthur Negus, who enquired about a collaboration. So was born a book by Mr Barker entitled 'The Arthur Negus Guide to English Clocks' in 1979.

A medley of clocks

Ever since, it’s been about clocks. There are lacquer clocks, carriage clocks, and a winged lantern with a ringing peal so piercing it isn't wound for fear it will interrupt the news.

David Barker, busy in his workshop with a moon face clock dated 1750 by John Greaves in Newcastle who was a Yorkshireman. Picture Tony Johnson

Most striking are the long case clocks, or grandfathers, of all sizes. There are moon dials of every description, including one by Thomas Ogden of Halifax, and another from the Wigton school of clockmaking in Cumbria engraved with the phrase 'memento mori', or 'remember death'.

The past year has seen much of his traditional work covered in dust sheets, with museums and country houses closed. Instead, he has seen a recent influx of private custom, as people take stock of their immediate environments.

One clockface he is repairing in the workshop features a lunar calendar and tidal dial, from about 1750. This John Greaves example, with an engraved and silvered dial and walnut case, was loaned for exhibition at the Oxford Museum of History and Science in 2012.

Age of craftsmanship

"Clocks are a wonderful blend of carved wood and metal and engraving," said Mr Barker. "I know time is important, but I'm more interested in the aesthetics.

"To a lover of fine clocks, time is not the most important thing. The quality and the craftsmanship that has gone into creating it is."

David Barker is one of only a few clock conservators who at 81 is still charged with some of the nation's greatest clocks. Picture Tony Johnson

Mr Barker, a fellow of the British Horological Institute, has worked on some of the nation’s best clocks with the National Trust, English Heritage, and country houses throughout the North. He maintains contracts with the York Civic Trust, York Council, and the Bronte Parsonage Museum.

And while he is one of only a few accredited conservators of his kind, he has praised training incentives which he believes will soon see talented craftsmen coming through.

"Times are changing, conservation is now a well considered issue," he said. "That message has been absorbed, I've great confidence that all will be well in the future."

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The workshop on the fringes of the Yorkshire Dales. Image by Tony Johnson
David Barker is one of only a few clock conservators who at 81 is still charged with some of the nation's greatest clocks. Picture Tony Johnson
David Barker is one of only a few clock conservators who at 81 is still charged with some of the nation's greatest clocks. Picture Tony Johnson