Jason Clarke Antiques

Early Victorian Platinum Scale Stick Barometer by John Newman, 122 Regent Street London


For sale, a very rare early Victorian mahogany stick barometer by J Newman of 122 Regent Street, London with platinum scale.

Undoubtedly the finest example of an early Victorian domestic barometer that I have encountered. On aesthetic consideration it represents the more serious style of this period with a horizontal, graduated pediment and rectangular glazed scale front. Behind is a two-part inverted scale plate with thermometer over a Fahrenheit and Centigrade on the left, and barometer scale on the right. The scale measures 27 to 31 inches of barometric pressure with a slide Vernier attached to the edge, operated by the set key below. Engraved above the barometer scale, it states, “Corrected Scale for Capacity” and above the maker’s name of J Newman, 122 Regent St, London.

All are beautifully executed, but the material used for the scale immediately point to this being a unique domestic example. Instead of silvered brass as one would expect, the plates are comprised of platinum which is easily discernible from the bright lustre and the lack of any associated tarnish. They remain as bright as they would have been at the date of manufacture.

During this period, Newman was considered the most respected maker of meteorological instruments and the use of this material was not merely for decorative purpose. The refinement of platina or platinum was mastered by the prolific scientist and innovator, William Hyde Wollaston in the early 1800’s and small-scale production, allowed Wollaston a very good source of income until his death in 1825. Sales of the metal were initially managed by the famous London instrument maker, William Cary where it was primarily used in the formation of crucibles for chemical experimentation however, in the 1840’s, the Royal Society were still investigating this relatively new material as Wollaston did not divulge his refinement techniques until much later.

Following Wollaston’s demise, numerous experimental uses were considered for a material that was proven to be supremely heat resistance and resistant to corrosion. A reason why it was readily employed as a material for manufacturing touch holes for black powder arms at this time. Newman presumably employed platinum as a means of temperature compensation and for durability. The Royal Society employed him in the creation of a station barometer where platinum scales were also employed, and this is undoubtedly a domestic version devised upon similar principles.

The trunk of the barometer is similarly understated in design, with a simple reeded edge and choice mahogany being the only decorative attention, but upon reaching the cistern it is again obvious that this is no ordinary example. The plain cistern block is carved in simple relief at the front to accentuate a circular brass cistern case which protrudes through the cover, the centre of which is comprised of glass, showing the quick silver contained within.

Its relationship to the Fortin barometer and the new station barometer Newman had created for the Royal Society is striking and its invention was as a result of Newman’s lack of trust in the durability of the standard leather cistern base which had; and continued to exist for years. In 1833, Newman  created an iron cistern for portable barometers with similar attributes, however this cistern is comprised of a two-piece brass cylinder with glass tube and glass base incorporated inside. It’s similarity to the design of the Royal Society Station barometer is unmistakeable.

The corrected scale for capacities mentioned on the scale above is also worthy of mention, as it relates to the inter-relationship between the level of quick silver in the cistern and the associated level in the tube. With Newman’s understanding of the differences of capacity between these two elements, the associated scale engraving would have been minutely adjusted to compensate for any potential errors in the reading.   

I can find no other records for the existence of this barometer, and I suspect it was either created in an attempt to domesticise his station barometer design or rather it was created by special request from a customer. The sheer amount of scientific attention is breathtaking however I suspect the labour involved in creating it would have made it a less satisfactory commercial offering for Newman. However, without doubt, it is the most scientifically interesting example of its time that I have seen.   

Newman is hugely undervalued amongst the pantheon of makers which grace most good collections, he rarely figures amongst the best makers of the period (not a mention by Goodison in his barometer bible) and his history is somewhat less well known than his early Nineteenth Century counterparts however, he was a hugely respected figure during his time. Born in 1783, both he and presumably his brother George Newman were apprenticed to Philip Brock although there is also some association with a Robert Tangate to whom one or both may have been turned over to during this time. Tangate had previously been apprenticed to George Adams of Fleet Street so their education would have been of the highest quality.

Other Newmans of the period also seem to have some relationship with John but it is hard to unravel. This branch of the family were ultimately apprenticed through Tyco Wing who under Thomas Heath had been in turn apprenticed alongside George Adams and Troughton amongst other notable characters. A Thomas Newman eventually took over the Heath & Wing business and the commonality of names seem too obvious to ignore but would need some further specific research.

John Newman gained his freedom in 1807 and traded initially from his birthplace in Camberwell, moving to Lisle Street in Leicester Square in 1812 from where he continued to trade until 1827 and from there undertook laboratory work, chemical supply and manufacture for The Royal Institution where he associated himself with numerous leading scientists of the age. Prior to his departure from this address, he was commissioned by the Royal Society to create a standard station barometer which remains one of his most successful and well-known products used by observatories worldwide for its pin-point accuracy. Later, in 1824 he provided instruments for Rear-Admiral Parry’s voyage to find the Northwest passage.

Regent Street was newly built in 1827 when Newman secured his premises at number 122 proving a significant rise in success during this period and he remained at this address until his death. Whilst trading from these premises, he served the likes of Charles Darwin for whom he made a portable mountain barometer to take with him on HMS Beagle, he manufactured instruments for the Ross Expedition and for the scientist, Sir Charles Wheatstone. Newman was also an exhibitor at The Great Exhibition where he gained special mention for his air pumps.

He finally relinquished his position as instrument maker to The Royal Institution in the early months of 1860 and died in July of the same year. The business was sold shortly after by his son to the recently established Negretti & Zambra who took over the premises at 122 Regent Street and immediately made it their flagship London store. They also continued to produce and advertise Newman’s station barometers to the same design.

The legacy of Newman’s work was also continued by his apprentices Robert Murray and Charles Elliott. The former worked for Newman for most of his career until he finally departed to form Murray & Heath. This company specialised in photography which is perhaps unsurprising given that the upstairs premises at Regent Street contained a photographic studio run by Alexander Bassano and was frequented by Fox-Talbot during Murray’s career.

Charles Elliott needs little introduction, he left Newmans employ to join his Father’s business, William Elliott & Sons and later became one half of the hugely renowned, Elliott Brothers of The Strand. With this direct descendency to both Elliott and Negretti & Zambra it is baffling that Newman’s name is not more widely venerated.

I have seen a handful of London examples from this period which reflect serious endeavour by the makers to develop the stick barometer into a more accurate and scientific instrument for domestic use. I have an Andrew Ross barometer which bears much similarity in style and ingenuity to this one. It is interesting to note that just as these efforts were being taken to revolutionise this historic instrument, the Frenchman Lucien Vidi was in the process of developing his aneroid barometer which largely stifled this new creativity through the aneroid barometer’s benefits in ruggedness, size and materials involved.

Circa 1840

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