Marking Time: Objects, People & Their Lives, 1500-1800

How do we measure the days of our lives?

Through more than 450 objects from an extraordinary private collection of fine and decorative artworks, Marking Time: Objects, People, and Their Lives, 1500–1800 considers that profound question. During these years, early modern Britain experienced extraordinary social transformations, many concerning time and the way it was understood. Each of the objects catalogued in the book bears a specific date (or dates) marking a moment of significance, for reasons personal or professional, private or public, religious or secular.

From paintings to porringers, teapots to tape measures, these beautifully crafted objects display a range of materials, forms, and functions, of interest to any reader with a love of handmade objects, history, and storytelling.

Edward Town introduces a new book on British Material Culture …


– Mary Backhouse (aged 22) is betrothed to John Grub

– American congress carries Declaration of Independence from Britain

Alongside the factual information about the materials and provenance of the objects catalogued in Marking Time are many small and often poignant stories—about makers, traditions, owners, and gift recipients. For example, this wooden stay busk, with a heart-shaped brass top, was a gift for twenty-two-year-old Mary Backhouse in that most auspicious of years 1776. Mary would have inserted this busk within her stay (or bodice), leaving the engraved portion visible—displaying her name, her age, splays of decorative leaves, and the year.

Stay busk. Mahogany and brass. (33.7 x 4.1 x .95 cm) Inscription: MARY|BACKHOUSE|Æ.22.|1776

During the early modern period, a woman’s acceptance of a love token like this one could be considered an acceptance of marriage. So it is perhaps unsurprising to learn that Mary married a man named John Grub in May of the following year in a clandestine marriage in the precinct of the Fleet prison. It is not known whether Mary Backhouse was aware or affected by the momentous events under way across the Atlantic in colonial America during that year of her betrothal, but this momentous event in her life is recorded for posterity through this object.

Marking Time opens with seven essays that explore various aspects of the experience of time in the early modern period within Britain and its colonies: among them, the revolutionary effects of “clock time,” time as a narrative framework and as an instrument of power, and the growing importance of temporal commemoration. The catalogue of objects that follows the essays is structured around the then prevalent notion of the “seven ages” of life: birth, childhood, and marriage; the establishment of a household and profession; the pursuit of social standing; and, finally, death and efforts to ensure an enduring legacy.

Together, the essays and objects in this book demonstrate the many ways in which the simple, everyday objects people live with—in every era—say a great deal about who we are and how we make our marks in time.

Edward Town is head of collections information and access and assistant curator of early modern art at the Yale Center for British Art.

From paintings to porringers, teapots to tape measures, Marking Time: Objects, People, and Their Lives, 1500-1800 is an engaging, encyclopaedic account of the material world of early modern Britain – offering a vivid sense of the lived experience of time as told through a unique collection of dated objects.

Distributed for the Yale Center for British Art – Visit their website here.

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