Antiquarian horologist Cornelius Lehr is dressed in a neat beige Chinese-style shirt and dark pants, with a trim salt and pepper beard, but I suspect under that perfect façade lurks a bit of a free-thinking hippie.
What I don’t need to speculate about is that he is a master craftsman, or, in his words, “a Jack of all trades, a master of one”.
I had gone to drop my beloved 30-year-old wall clock that needed repairs, and to collect a 100-year-old pocket watch he had repaired. I am thrilled with how the watch looks, and once he had explained the intricate work he had done on the watch, I had a greater appreciation of his craftsmanship. Two tiny springs had to be replaced, as was its glass cover. It was given new hour and second hands, and the balance wheel jewel was replaced. I feel privileged to own such a beautiful time piece.
I look around his workshop. The nooks and crannies are jam-packed with small sets of drawers; old cigarette boxes filled with tiny watch bits; glass cases containing clocks; a wall of grandfathers; high shelves lined with unusual clocks; glass bottles and jars bursting with watchy things; and a door decorated with rows of watch spanners. Clocks everywhere.
Wall of grandfather clocks (Cornelius Lehr)
A set of two catch my attention. One is a 60cm gilded bronze figurine depicting Toussaint L'Ouverture, a freed slave who became the governor of Haiti after the revolt against the French-occupied island in the late 1790s. He holds a long curved pipe held in one hand, the other rests on his large belly, on which the clock face sits. A nodding head with a broad smile is the pendulum. Alongside it is a gilded bronze Orpheus, leaning against the clock and holding a harp, with a lute propped up against the clock.
A third figure stands alongside these two, a miniature Samurai in full costume. It isn’t a clock but is in for replacement pieces, which Lehr will make.
Lehr with some attention grabbing pieces (Lucille Davie)
His craftsmanship is extensive and includes restoring all types of antique time pieces including tower clocks, vintage and pocket watches, music boxes, gramophones and automata. He has a fine mind which delights in taking on horology and ornamental projects that require forging, bronze casting, dial re-silvering, silk screening, woodworking, fretwork, inlay, carving and turnings. Well, I would call that master of many.
He says this craftsmanship is in his genes. His father was a printer, candle maker, enamel expert, also at times running a bakery and dabbling in rug making. His grandfather was a metal spinner, which means he made pots and pans. His grandfather had always said to him that he should “master the machine, don’t be mastered by the machine”.
He likes to call himself an “artistic craftsman”, and that seems perfectly apt. He records on his website: “I am, however, very specific, for me quality is at the top of my list.” He says he is able to remake missing or severely worn parts in the style of the original.
“All of my work is done painstakingly by hand and demands not only the use of traditional methods or ancient recipes, but a high level of discipline and concentration in becoming one with the piece,” he says.
He loves the fact that each piece that comes in for repair and restoration takes him on a path of discovery. “I have an insatiable curiosity to find out what methods and disciplines those clock makers of old used, to create these unique and fascinating mechanisms.” And that means that he endeavours to restore each piece in a way that resembles as closely as possible the original maker’s methods.
The workshop (Cornelius Lehr)
Born in Aberdeen
Cornelius was born in Aberdeen, Scotland but moved to Yorkshire at 3. There he was raised in a community of skilled craftspeople and artists. As a 13-year-old schoolboy he took his first watch to pieces for his classmates, because, he says “I was fascinated by small mechanical objects and how they worked”.
After school he became an apprentice in watch and clock making in Switzerland. He subsequently won the Swiss national championship and took gold in the world championship in horology in 1977. And in 2012 he was appointed to a Fellow of the British Horological Institute.
He arrived in South Africa in 1980 and is married to accomplished ceramicist Kim Sacks. And no surprise, their two daughters are a fine artist and a musician.
Now, after 40 years of this creative work, he relies on intuition, and “conversing with the pieces – it becomes a fine art”, he reflects.
He takes me on a tour of his ¾ acre property, running up the Westcliff ridge. In between the lush garden, with the wafting fragrances of several yesterday, today and tomorrow bushes, and a glorious jasmine hedge, he shows me around several other smaller workshops. One contains a homemade forge, another a woodwork bench, and still another where he does locksmithing.
It’s clear Cornelius has other talents too. He has designed and built a lovely long structure behind his conventional house. Downstairs is his large workshop, and upstairs are the main en-suite bedroom, and another bedroom. The best feature of it is a long balcony, to sit and catch the sunsets. Finished in rich terracotta, Kim has designed different decorative edges for each window.
I ask him what it takes to be a horologist. You have to have “golden hands”, he says. And what are golden hands, I ask? “Golden hands are hands that have a fine fingertip feeling and can fix most things, as opposed to 'all thumbs'”. Pretty much the same requirement for eye surgeons, or people making or repairing cameras that can be inserted into our arteries, he explains.
We end the hour with the question: what would you be if you weren’t a horologist? A kinetic sculptor. And what is that? “Kinetic sculptures are animated or moving sculptures.” No more questions now, as I ponder that.
Lucille Davie has for many years written about Jozi people and places, as well as the city's history and heritage. Take a look at lucilledavie.co.za