STEPHEN RIMBAULT (1711-1786)
Location: No.7 Great St Andrew Street, now No.31 Monmouth Street.
Stephen (Etienne) Rimbault, a noted clockmaker of Huguenot descent, was based in Seven Dials between c.1744 and c.1770. His father, Paul, also a clockmaker, probably emigrated to London from Sancerre, in the province of Berry, France, close to the turn of the eighteenth century, together with his extended family.
Stephen married fellow Huguenot Catherine Gagnon in 1733, and the couple had two children, one of which, Paul Rimbault (1735–1785), would follow his father’s and grandfather’s profession as clockmaker, working mainly in nearby Denmark St.
Catherine died in 1741, and Stephen was married again, to Francoise Martin, in 1742. The pair lived briefly in Dean Street until moving to Great St Andrew’s Street c.1744. They lived on the north-west side of the street until July 1755, when they crossed over to the south-east side, at No. 7, on the site of the current No. 31 Monmouth Street.
Rimbault’s reputation is based largely on his production of musical clocks, which would play short tunes, usually at three-hourly intervals. Some had four tunes, some six or more, the largest number being twelve, for which Rimbault is probably best-known. As well as supplying a domestic market, Rimbault’s clocks were exported around Europe, and an early nineteenth century commentator recorded that he ‘principally traded to Holland’. For this reason, the most complex musical clocks became known as ‘twelve-tuned Dutchmen’.
Rimbault’s clocks are largely spring-driven table clocks, or longcase clocks, and tend to be housed in relatively decorative cases, sometimes finished using techniques such as japanning, and sometimes with the addition of elaborate silver or gilt-brass finials and mounts. Examples of his work are held in a number of public collections in the UK, including that of the British Museum and the V&A in London, and the National Trust’s Snowshill Manor, but the clocks travelled to distant locations, and a fine and elaborate example can be found in the former Imperial Collection housed at the Palace Museum, Beijing.
Who his casemakers and outworkers were is unknown, as is the size of his workshop. The identity of just three apprentices is known, but Rimbault’s complicated and expensive clocks were the products of many hands, and suppliers of specialist elements.
When Johan Zoffany (1733–1810), the well-known German-born portrait artist, first arrived in London in 1760, he lodged with another immigrant, the organ maker, Antonio Beloudy, who set out the positions for the pins on the barrels of Rimbault’s musical clocks. Following an introduction by Beloudy, Zoffany spent several months assisting Rimbault, working on the painting of decorative pictorial elements of clock dials. No parts of any Rimbault clock dials have however been convincingly ascribed to Zoffany. Nevertheless, Zoffany did paint a fine portrait of Rimbault, dated 1764, which is held by the Tate Gallery.
Francoise Rimbault died in 1767, and by the early 1770s Stephen Rimbault had moved to Denmark Street, lodging with Andreas Romer the engraver, at least for a time, so his fortunes may have declined. His last directory address was 6 Denmark Street. His son Paul died in mid-1785, and Stephen died soon after, in early January 1786, being buried at St Giles-in-the-Fields.
Dr James Nye www.ahsoc.org