Social Science blog

28 June 2011

The clock's ticking

Simone Bacchini writes:

I was in Trafalgar Square last week, having left St. Martin in the Fields where I’d been attending a nice concert: Handel, Vivaldi, and Mozart were bound to put me in a good mood. The air was pleasantly fresh, only a few clouds in the sky and not too many people around. Perfect.

 As I stepped onto the area outside the National Gallery, now thankfully fully pedestrianised, I turned my head to take in the whole of the Square in all  its glory. And there I saw it, for the first time, standing by one of the two fountains and only a few yards from the famous Fourth Plinth, which now hosts an impressive ship in a glass bottle, by the Anglo-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare MBE. It’s not just a ship by the way: it represents HMS Victory.

 Behind me, something else I hadn’t seen before. A large panel has been installed outside the Gallery and on it, hundreds of plants have been arranged to create a “living painting” which forms a detail of Van Gogh’s A Wheatfield, with Cypresses, painted in 1889. People seemed to love it, judging by the number of photos of it being taken. I must admit the effect was remarkable.

 But I’m digressing here; it’s the Olympic clock I wanted to talk about. With its zigzagged lines and awkward colour-scheme, I’m not sure it’s much competition for the surrounding architectural grandeur. But it’s certainly eye-catching and it attracted a good share of photographers too, myself included.

 It seems appropriate to have placed the clock where it stands. After all, Trafalgar Square is one the city’s - and even the nation’s - big stages. From political protests to mass jubilation, this vast area in the middle of our capital has hosted the hopes, the joys, the anger and the frustrations of generations of Londoners. So three cheers for the Olympic clock – technical glitches notwithstanding.

 And one last thought. The world-famous gallery a few yards away is host to many paintings which depict, among other things, ticking clocks or sand glasses to remind the viewer that life is fleeting and it must end, the memento mori being a common trope in Western art (one of my favourites being van Steenwick’s An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life, painted around 1640). So, whatever you may think of the Olympic Circus coming to town, it’s certainly refreshing to have gigantic ticking clock to remind us there are things in life to look forward to, a memento vita. Whether the Olympics will count as one of those is down to individuals’ preferences.. To use the words of the Italian Romantic poet Alessandro Manzoni: Ai posteri l’ardua sentenza; “let posterity judge”.



Houseal, E.W.W.G. Poetical Pearls, Translated by E.W.W.G. Houseal.

London: printed for the author, 1849

London reference collections shelfmark: RB.23.b.6661.


Koozin, Kristine (1990). The Vanitas Still Lifes of Harmen Steenwyck: Metamorphic Realism.

Lewiston; Lampeter: Mellen, 1990.

London reference collections shelfmark: YC.1990.b.7615

Lending collections shelfmark: 7356.866470 vol 1


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