Collecting vintage barometers

The forecast is fair for unique, weather-predicting instruments that blend scientific ingenuity with aesthetic appeal, says Virginia Blackburn

c1765 stick barometer, sold for £149,000 at Sotheby’s
c1765 stick barometer, sold for £149,000 at Sotheby’s

A fascination with barometers was fostered in Richard Twort from a young age: what began as a school punishment for misbehaviour – daily weather readings, even at the weekends – led to a lifelong passion. “My first barometer was given to me when I was about 12,” says the Somerset-based company director-turned-collector, who currently owns about 30 of these pressure-measuring, weather-forecasting instruments. “I find their myriad forms fascinating. I buy in antique fairs and shops, auctions and on the internet. I look for something novel and different, such as barometers with advertising slogans written on them.”

From left: Davis of Leeds c1830 mercury stick barometer, £2,250, from London Fine Antiques. Negretti & Zambra c1860 stick Met Office barometer, £1,450, from Richard Twort
From left: Davis of Leeds c1830 mercury stick barometer, £2,250, from London Fine Antiques. Negretti & Zambra c1860 stick Met Office barometer, £1,450, from Richard Twort

The immediate image conjured up by barometers might be of highly ornate antiques – along the gilded, extravagant lines, say, of the c1765 ormolu and mahogany stick barometer that sold in Sotheby’s 2016 Treasures sale for £149,000 – or the rather stuffy-looking scientific instruments used aboard ships, but striking, innovative iterations fill the space between. Twort’s personal collection ranges from smart, circular 20th-century barometers to elegant 19th-century glass-boxed barographs, which record changes in atmospheric pressure on a paper chart. These are represented in the selection he is selling, which includes a “fine, rare and possibly unique” art deco oak barograph/clock/thermograph (£6,000) and a c1860 brass stick Met Office barometer (£1,450), both by renowned British maker Negretti & Zambra, and a c1925 brass-cased version (£485) by another British name, Short & Mason, whose simplicity is offset with scrolling typography on the dial: Storm, Rain, Change, Fair or Very Dry. 

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“People don’t necessarily buy them to use, but as a decorative feature,” says Jamie Sinai, director of London’s Mayfair Gallery, who currently has a Victorian clock and barometer desk set (£7,500) in the form of two ships’ wheels in ormolu and agate. “Such pieces were bespoke or made in small quantities, sometimes marked with retailers’ names. They are beautiful – and represent a technological moment in time.” 

1890 sunburst barometer, $6,497, from Tara Shaw
1890 sunburst barometer, $6,497, from Tara Shaw

The barometer was born in a hotbed of 17th-century Italian scientific endeavour, based around the theories of Galileo Galilei and developed by his student Evangelista Torricelli and the mathematician-astronomer Gasparo Berti. The resulting water-based and mercury instruments could detect the decrease in atmosphere that portends stormy weather. A very rare, early-1800s alcohol and mercury example, signed “Barometro secondo Torricelli di Piana Giuseppe”, is available for €4,000 from Milan dealer Antik, alongside a late‑1800s mercury Siphon barometer (€4,200) by Anselm Mombelli of Lugano, with a walnut wall-mounted case displaying diagrams of European-city temperatures and the motion of planets around the sun. Meanwhile, London Fine Antiques has a carved-oak, c1830 mercury stick version by Davis of Leeds for £2,250. 

Negretti & Zambra art deco barograph/clock/thermograph, £6,000, from Richard Twort
Negretti & Zambra art deco barograph/clock/thermograph, £6,000, from Richard Twort

Such “stick” designs were later overtaken by circular dial-based barometers, which were much easier to read and often housed in a banjo-shaped case featuring a thermometer above the dial – a style that came to the fore around 1780. But it is the mechanical aneroid barometers, developed in 1844 by French scientist Lucien Vidi, that prevail on the vintage market. “You can find them surrounded by banjos, wheels and octagonal shapes,” says New Orleans-based antiques dealer and interior designer Tara Shaw, who currently has a particularly striking 1890 sunburst style in gold leaf for $6,497. 

Victorian clock and barometer desk set, £7,500, from Mayfair Gallery
Victorian clock and barometer desk set, £7,500, from Mayfair Gallery

“The barometer is a statement piece, especially indicative of the styles of the belle époque through to art deco,” agrees Judith Miller, author of the Miller’s Collectables series of handbooks. The art deco period saw houses such as Tiffany and Cartier take up the form: a 1960s Tiffany & Co barometer/clock/thermometer in orange glass and brass is being offered by Connecticut-based dealer Glen Leroux for $3,100. “People buy barometers to decorate their studies, libraries and solariums,” says Leroux, adding that “this Tiffany one is unusual because it was made in the latter midcentury period – and it’s also a great size.” Standing 19cm tall, it would add visual interest as well as usefulness to any desk. Desktop compendiums, or “weather stations”, are another desirable, including the version designed for Hermès by Paul Dupré-Lafon in his signature art deco style. With a stitched leather base, the cube comprises clock, barometer, calendar, compass and thermometer; Art Deco Gallery London has one in silver-plated brass from c1940 for £9,750.

Short & Mason c1925 barometer, £485, from Richard Twort
Short & Mason c1925 barometer, £485, from Richard Twort

The barometer’s mix of style and science has attracted such notables as Nicholas Goodison, former chairman of the London Stock Exchange, whose 1968 tome English Barometers 1680-1860 is still considered the definitive text on the subject. Another devotee is Philip Collins, whose huge collection is now known as Barometer World. Sometimes described as the world’s only barometer museum, it also offers items for sale and does repairs. “My tip to buyers,” says Collins, “is to look at the quality of the design and engraving – the mechanism can often be fixed.” 

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When in good working order a barometer can “predict the weather better than the forecast”, says London‑based property investor Bryan Richmond-Dodd, who owns more than a dozen that vary considerably in style and make – “from a piece from an airfield to a traditional banjo to one by Negretti & Zambra,” he says. “I bought my first piece about 25 years ago, a barograph that was very nicely inlaid.” But his favourite is a c1810‑15 Scottish barometer: “It has a lovely case and is just a beautiful piece of furniture – whatever the weather.”

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