Jason Clarke Antiques

Victorian RNLI Admiral Fitzroy Storm Barometer by Negretti & Zambra London


For sale, a Victorian RNLI Admiral Fitzroy Storm Barometer by Negretti & Zambra, London.

This rare example of its type has much the same design as the more commercially available models that were sold to wealthy Victorians, however, it is perhaps less well known that these robust stick barometers were originally conceived for use by the RNLI stations.  

The instrument is comprised of a dark oak body with a plain square cistern cover with scalloped side and screwed to the man body of the barometer. The trunk is adorned with a large 14 inch ceramic thermometer showing both Fahrenheit and Centigrade scales and headed with the company name of Negretti & Zambra London and the company’s NZ motif. It is enclosed in an oak case with chamfered glass front and is attached by screws to a plain graduated pediment and base.

The 10 inch scale plate contained in the familiar dome top style has an inverted porcelain scale to each side reflecting Admiral Fitzroy’s weather predictions and a scale of 27 to 32 inches of barometric pressure. The barometer tube rising between the scale plates is of an unusually thick bore and has a Vernier scale to the right hand side working on a rack and pinion movement adjusted by a brass setting key below. The head of the scale is again provided with the maker’s name of Negretti & Zambra, Scientific Instrument Makers and addresses for Holborn Viaduct, 122 Regent Street & 45 Cornhill. The domed top of the case is mimicked within the scale plate by a separate domed porcelain plate above, stating, “Royal National Life Boat Institution Supported by Voluntary Contributions – No196.” The latter serial is the RNLI’s numbering system for these barometers whilst the Negretti serial of 2997 is evident to the bottom right hand corner of the scale.

The typeface for this top piece is also a useful indicator of date for these RNLI barometers. There were two main issues of these examples, one in 1865 and a later and final issue in 1878 where the typeface became somewhat more italic in nature. Owing to this small detail, we can accurately date this example to that second and final RNLI batch.

Unlike the more generally available examples, this barometer is also fitted with large brass screw fixings to the head and the base of the instrument onto which ornate screw caps are fitted. These screws would have allowed these barometers to be fitted to a wall clamp top and bottom and secured by the brass caps. They were often provided for public viewing at RNLI station either recessed into a wall and covered with glass or provided for within their own box mountings to protect them from inclement weather. In this way, they would render themselves useful to both the RNLI crews and also to local fishing communities who may not have had access to such precision instruments.

The design for the this Barometer originally began life as the Sea Coast barometer and was conceived by Negretti & Zambra at the behest of Admiral Robert Fitzroy following a request to the company in 1857 to provide an example of a stick barometer that would be fit for installation at sea coast stations throughout the UK. Fitzroy’s new position at the Meteorological Office and his previous experiences in the Royal Navy and upon his famous expedition in HMS Beagle with Charles Darwin had shown him the importance of precise methods of weather prediction and his intent was to make these expensive instruments accessible to individuals who were involved in the maritime and coastal industries.

These iconic instruments were initially supplied through the Meteorological Office and paid for by HM Government but Negretti & Zambra were certainly advertising the early porcelain scaled version to the general public by 1864 as they are recorded in the company’s, “Treatise on Meteorological Instruments” with advertising that stated that, “many poor fishing villages and towns have therefore been provided by The Board of Trade, at the public expense, and through the humane effort of Admiral Fitzroy, with first class barometers, each fixed in a conspicuous position, so as to be easily accessible to all who desire to consult it”.

They also relate that the Royal Lifeboat Institution (with whom Fitzroy was also associated by 1859) had similarly procured examples for their coastal stations of which this instrument is one such example.

It wasn’t until Fitzroy’s untimely death by suicide in 1865 that Negretti & Zambra started to use the Admiral’s name in conjunction with the barometer, effectively leading to the birth of the Admiral Fitzroy’s Storm Barometer. With the immediate popularity of Fitzroy’s weather predictions and the more widespread availability of the barometer in general, Negretti & Zambra used the name in preference to the old “Sea Coast Barometer” naming convention and although it gained disapproval from Fitzroy’s successor at the Meteorological Office, the company may have felt somewhat entitled to use the opportunity given their early use of his predictions on their barometers and their support in proliferating the understanding of his new system.

The company’s famous and voluminous catalogue of 1880 shows just how this pattern had developed and indeed how popular it had become. The standard double Vernier version was retailed at £6,10 and was raised to £8,8 for an ornamental carved oak case. With the addition of opaline glass scales the pricing of this model was further raised to £15,15 and were considered, “very suitable for public institutions”. Perhaps the only places that would have been able to afford such an expense!

Variations of Negretti & Zambra’s storm barometer are becoming rare commodities but the perhaps plainer but supremely designed RNLI versions with their nameplates and unusual fixing plates are hugely uncommon in today’s market. They reflect more succinctly the use for which they were intended and are supremely important in the history of British Meteorology.

Negretti & Zambra were a leading name in the production of meteorological and scientific instruments and had a company history dating back to 1850 although their parents were amongst those Italian emigres that bolstered the British meteorological instrument making industry at the turn of the century.

Throughout their long and esteemed history they exhibited at British and international industrial fairs and became makers to both Queen Victoria and Edward VII. Owing to changes in the business, the firm ceased the public retailing of scientific instruments sometime around the late 1960’s and continued with a focus on the aviation industry in numerous guises until its eventual liquidation in the year 2000. They are today perhaps the most collected of the scientific instrument firms which bears testament to the quality of their work.

Circa 1878

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