‘Oh, it’s falling over’ the visitor said. They all say that about my sundial, yet they’re wrong. It’s actually a very unusual one, and something I’ve not seen anywhere else. Imagine a stout column of stone, like a Tuscan column, the shaft engraved with lines and figures, a gnomon sticking out of the flat capital, and shorter ones sticking out of the cusps. The column itself leans drunkenly north, and you can tell the time by looking at how the shadows fall along the lines engraved on shaft, or, if that’s too much trouble, by looking at the shadow of the gnomon.
It must be of the late 18th century, but I know nothing of its past, except that the house was owned by the village stonemason, and there are the remains of several other sundials scattered around the garden. Perhaps it was a sort of sundial showroom.
Alas, none of the ones original to the garden here have mottos. That’s a shame, for for all modern gardening’s emphasis on sheets of brilliant colour, on spring and summer, on warm and sunny afternoons, on neatness, high maintenance, there is, after all, an obverse side to gardening; winter, darkness, moonlight, ruin… We should acknowledge that, and what better than a sundial?
For sundials can be the perfect antidote to modern gardening. Perhaps one like the lovely battered one in a grand Scots garden near here, supported by four sad-looking lions, spouting water into the sundial’s pool. Around the margin is carved: ‘Today is thine… Tomorrow perchance cometh not… Yesterday returneth not… Misuse it not…’.
That’s a bit chilly, but they can get much worse. I’ve brought to this garden a sundial I acquired in my first one. Its mottoes are so gloomy that, once read, the warmest day turns icy. Its brass plate, avowing a date of ‘1637’, proclaims dismally that ‘Amidst ye floures, I tell ye hours. Tyme wanes away as flowers decay. ‘… and more in the same vein, with a touch of redemption at the end just in case you slit your wrists with the gnomon then and there.
It’s followed me around each garden I’ve built, but now has no competition. But it’s been near other sundials rich with some dark counterpoint to the vanity of gardening. They’ve said things like ‘As the sune runes so death comes’, the classier but just as chilling ‘Ut Umbra Sic Fugit Vita’, or the short and devastating ‘We must…’, all perfectly calculated to remind us that we’ve left the kettle boiling in the kitchen. Let the roses and the greenfly look after themselves.
In my last garden, as we recovered it from wilderness, we discovered in the centre a huge sundial that gloomily, and correctly, proclaimed ‘Sic Transit Gloria Mundi’. It had a point; someone had blinded it by pinching its plate.
Perhaps it’s all too sentimental. After all, there is that unfunny doggerel that goes ‘I am a sundial and I make a botch / Of what’s done far better by a watch’. O.K.
But sundials have a whole history, quite probably stretching back into prehistory, and spread over Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. Too many gardeners think of sundials as a brass plate on the top of a baluster. But during the great age of sundials, especially in the seventeenth century, they were far more various in shape.
The most exciting Scots ones appeared in the late 16th century. Frightfully grand gardens seem to have had whole columns of dials, piled one on another to make odd totems poles to time. With as many as forty or fifty separate ‘dials’, at all sorts of inclinations, flat, concave, even convex, they told the times in various elaborate ways, but told times in other places too (Prague, Paris, even New Amsterdam), rather like those vulgar stockbroker watches that tell their owners when New York closes and Tokyo opens.
Weirder looking were the so-called ‘lectern’ sundials (the sort that, secretly, I most want but have never, so far, found). Elaborate pieces of stonework, scalloped, horned and spined, they seem to have been used for astronomical observations (and were of use to astrologers too). They were valuable enough for their owners to take them from garden to garden if their fates or fortunes so dictated. Some even had dials designed to read by the full moon, and villagers believed their owners were wizards or warlocks. Pure magic indeed.
With the sun climbing higher as spring warms us, I’d love to have another one, perhaps high on the house gable, or in the middle of the pool. Perhaps we couldn’t stand it. One more sad motto would have us on all fours, sobbing. Still, a good sundial can have a real presence; in the moonlight the other night, looking out over the garden, I could see ours amongst the still, dark, apple trees, standing sentinel beneath the starry sky. Spring. Rebirth. How marvellous.