Our intricate pocket sextant is a navigational device that would have been familiar to Victorian explorers. Sailors used it to measure the angle between the sun and the horizon – frequently referred to as ‘shooting the sun’ – and could then determine their latitude from this figure. In fact, it can measure the angle between any two visible objects, making sextants a valuable tool for surveyors as well.
The sextant was invented in the mid-18th century, taking its name from the Latin word for ‘sixth’ because its scale shows 60 degrees; a sixth of a complete revolution. Ships in JMW Turner’s maritime paintings would have relied on the sextant, together with a compass and often a clock, to plot a course when no land was in sight.
Turner used brilliant colours to give the light in his landscapes and seascapes an almost spiritual effect, yet he also paid great attention to detail and had a fascination with contemporary technology. This glass and bronze sextant is a charming reminder of a device that’s likely to have fascinated Joseph Turner. It has a detailed semi-functional mechanism that is sure to start many conversations, whether left on a desk or seen in a display cabinet.