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Designing the time - sundials in the 21st century

— June 2011

Associated media

Piers Nicholson with a sundial he designed, North bank of the Thames opposite Tate Modern

Piers Nicholson, sundial maker, talks to Frances Follin

In the age of the digital watch and satellite-controlled clock radios, the sundial maintains its appeal. Piers Nicholson made the one by the Millennium Bridge, opposite Tate Modern. He explains how he got interested in sundials.

Piers Nicholson:            It was 35 or 40 years ago and like most things in my life it was an accident. I wanted a bench outside our cottage in Suffolk and I had two railway sleepers so I stuck one vertically in the ground and the other one horizontally between that and the house. I observed that the shadow of the vertical one was going round on the patio so I patted myself on the back for having constructed a sundial and prised up some of the paving stones and recast them with 9, 10, 11 on them. To my fury, a month later the shadow at nine o’clock was nowhere near the 9. This is the discreditable part of the story: instead of saying, ‘Here I am, the proud possessor of a Physics degree, why is it that this is not working?’, I said, ‘damn it’ and let the grass grow over the paving stones! [Reading a book by A. P. Herbert explained problem – see box.]

I then made a couple of sundials out of painted wood, which is a lovely material because you have a lot of design freedom and can be very colourful, unlike the stone, slate and metal sundials which I and many others now make.

The whole thing might have rested there but in the early 1980s somebody sent me a clipping from the Independent on the newly formed British Sundial Society. [Piers decided to join and went to the BSS’s AGM, where he suggested that a competition be held with awards for the best sundial. A similar award scheme has been run for many years by the ancient City of London livery company, The Worshipful Company of Tylers and Bricklayers, of which he is a member. So the BSS asked him to run the competition.]

PN            I thought I should do an apprentice’s test piece and for the next AGM in Wiltshire I made a small wooden sundial tower about three feet square and six feet high, and it had a sundial on all four faces, like St Margaret’s church at Westminster. I took this thing down and erected it in the car park, uncertain whether people would point and giggle, or whether it would be regarded as kind of OK, which it was.

Again the whole thing might well have ended there, but then Gillian [Piers’ wife] kindly took me on a bus tour to Guatemala. Going round these Mayan temples I found that they are all oriented so they produce interesting shadows at the equinox. Chichén Itzá[the largest ancient ruin on the Yucatan peninsular], for instance, has steps all the way up and in the middle there is a staircase with a low flanking wall and at the equinox you get the zigzag shadow of the steps falling on this wall. At the bottom there is a serpent’s head and at the top there’s its tail and the shadows connect the head and the tail and terrify the populace.

As a result of having time to think, I came up with a solution to what I then regarded as the central problem of the universe, which is, why are garden sundials so awful? Most sundials end up in cupboards because people don’t know how to set them up properly – they come without instructions and people may not know that they have to be pointed to true north. Or they try to do it with a compass and can’t remember how to adjust for magnetic deviation. [For Piers' clever solution, see box.]

I got one of my fellow members of the BSS to make up a brass model. They reckoned it would cost £300 each to do a production run, which was out of the question. Again, the whole thing could have been dead. Then I happened to meet a lady who imported a lot of stuff from India. She employed a fixer in New Delhi and she was sure he could fix me up with somebody who would make this sundial.

I sent out my model and over 18 months they attempted to make it. They thought of various ways of simplifying the design, which meant that the sundial wouldn’t work, and so it went back and forth, but eventually they did what they had been asked to do. I then set up the Spot-on sundials business and we have now sold about a thousand, in various sizes in brass. Later I started making them in heavy stainless steel in this country. These are more suitable for large gardens and public spaces; they give superb reflections and thus have a great ‘wow’ factor.

FF            And you have also made one-off designs like the one opposite Tate Modern.

PN            Yes, in fact there are three identical ones like that one. But before that I had been concerned with Sustrans, the cycle charity. [Sustrans asked Piers to make a sundial for them.] They selected the site and I designed a very simple horizontal sundial with a stainless steel gnomon. The sun only came out for five minutes the whole time we were doing this and the rest of the time it was raining. When we dug the hole for the concrete slab to hold the gnomon it immediately filled with water! Anyway it was jolly fun. The site turned out to be a disaster because it floods every winter, leaving a layer of mud over the dial circle.

[A couple of years later the Tylers and Bricklayers were considering what they could present to the City of London for the Millennium. Piers was on the committee set up to discuss this.]

PN            Whilst groping round for ideas I said: ‘Well, how about the Great Sundial at Jaipur? Which you will recall’, I said, ‘is a stone monument going up 60 metres with two huge semicircular arms’. They thought it might be a bit difficult to find a suitable patch of land, so that didn’t get immediate approbation.

So I started thinking about how you make a sundial out of bricks and tiles, and the brick bit was fairly easy because you can build the plinth out of brick. There was a problem making the gnomon and the original idea had been to have the top face covered with tiles and to have projecting tiles for the gnomon. That would not have been terribly robust and so we changed it to a stainless steel top.

 [Pier’s model of this] all looked tolerably good, but it was going to be fairly expensive to build and it was going to need some structural engineering input.

[At this point, the Royal Engineers stepped in and agreed to do the work as a training exercise, making five in all, including the Blackfriars one, opened by the Lord Mayor in November 1999, the year that Piers and Gillian went to Guatemala. ]

I hoped that the Blackfriars one would lead to further commissions, but it hasn’t so far.

FF            Are there any places you would really like to be asked to build a sundial?

PN            Well, I have one which I have been chasing for five years and it looks like it has finally eluded my grasp. [This was a site in Fleet Street.] It would not be a particularly brilliant sundial but the fact that you could get all the mastheads of the newspapers that used to be in Fleet Street on it would mean that it would be one of the most unusual sundials in England. I was trying to persuade the owner [of the site] to come to some arrangement about it but failed.

One day, if I ever won the National Lottery I would build a sundial house. Well, it would be a perfectly normal house, except that it’s walls would be oriented North–South and the two side walls would come up at the angle of the latitude, so that either side of the house you would get half a horizontal sundial.

FF            So the house itself would be the gnomon. That would be wonderful, but you would have no peace there as so many people would come to look at it!

[Piers told me more about his business]

PN             We do a polar dial and a universal dial, which is essentially a polar one mounted on a pivot, so you can change the angle of the gnomon.

FF            So it’s a travelling sundial, like a carriage clock of the sundial world!

PN            You can take it with you, so long as you stay in the Northern Hemisphere. If you go to the Southern Hemisphere, the numbers go the wrong way. There have been other sundials like this. In the heyday of portable sundials in the 1700s it was the equivalent of an iPhone. If you were a successful businessman, you had to have a portable sundial, which was two pieces of wood which hinged, and string for the gnomon, and a compass so you could hold it up out of the window of your carriage between Augsberg and wherever, and the top bit of the wood had a series of little holes labelled ‘Berlin’, ‘Munich’, ‘Vienna’, ‘Trieste’, to adjust the angle of the string. You can see those in museums such as the Museum of the History of Science.

FF            What do you think is the future of the sundial?

PN            They have got a lot more popular since the Millennium. I think people like sundials for all kinds of reasons. They obviously have an educational value so people with children quite like having them, and they do make you think a bit about things beyond one’s mundane concerns of what you are doing tomorrow and next week. That’s why sundial mottos have always tended to be rather gloomy, you know, ‘consider your end’, ‘carpe diem’, etc. Quite a lot of the stainless steel sundials I make are just vehicles for commemorative messages. So they have a small niche, which has got smaller over the last couple of years, along with everything else.

FF            David Cameron says that our future is with entrepreneurs, he’s going to do all he can to promote their work, so your sundials and Cassone magazine should flourish with his blessing. Maybe you can sell him a sundial!

In October 2011 Piers Nicholson will become the 432nd Master of the Worshipful Company of Tylers and Bricklayers. He may still be tempted by interesting commissions for sundials.


Frances Follin
Independent art historian

Media credit: Alan Butler

Background info

Sundials Old and Newby A P Herbert was the source of the information Piers needed to create his first working sundial. It explained that if the gnomon (the ‘pointer’ of the sundial)  was not at the same angle as the latitude (i.e. pointing at the Pole star– in southern England 51.5 degrees), the shadow would not fall in the same place at the same time each day. Getting this right is tricky! In Guatemala, Piers came up with a way of positioning the gnomon correctly every time. Instead of having a rod for the gnomon, Piers’ idea was to have a pair of plates with an air gap, so when the sun is directly overhead it creates a line of light extending through the gap. At exact solar noon at your location, you rotate the sundial so that you get the line of light and then you are bang on true north and the gnomon is correctly aligned. (Image at or in a larger size at )
With a more conventional gnomon, the easiest way to get everything aligned correctly is to make a polar sundial, where the face is a long strip tilted at the correct angle, rather than being horizontal and circular. Piers’ sundials opposite Tate Modern, the Museum at Chatham, and between the Dome and the Thames Barrier are of this type. There is one problem with polar sundials in that when the shadow of the gnomon has to extend over to the far side of the dial plate (in early morning and late afternoon), it is quite faint and so only the hours marked fairly close to the gnomon can be seen clearly. Piers’ idea was to curl up the ends of the strip so that the shadow does not have to throw so far to reach the earlier and later hours.

Editor's notes

To see more images of the wooden sundial tower that Piers Nicholson created as an ‘apprentice piece’ go to Examples of the perfected stainless steel ‘Spot-on’ sundials can be seen at and The Jaipur sundial can be seen on

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