Ars Longa Vita Brevis!

The other day a photo of a watch was posted on Forgotten Berwick.  It was on sale on eBay.  Now, I’m not one to do family history but I thought I’d look into it.

And quite interesting it was!


Solid silver pocket watch, Ross & Ross, Berwick on Tweed, hallmarked in Chester, 1903.

There had been a few comments on the Facebook thread but I thought I’d have a look in a couple of trade directories to get a date and address for them.  No joy.

I then had a look on a genealogy website and delved into an online archive of old newspapers.  What a lot of Rosses there were! And all with the same forenames it would appear, no matter where they came from!  Bit by bit, the story unravelled.

Our story starts at the end of the Napoleonic wars.  Robert Ross (1787–1867) came from Edinburgh.  He was a gunner who fought in several battles including Waterloo in 1815.  After the wars, like many other soldiers, he came to Berwick and was appointed Master Gunner.  He and his wife, Janet (née Smith) had seven children.  Of these, two of the sons played a part in the future partnership via their own interesting stories.

Robert Thorburn Ross (1816–1876) was born in Berwick but moved to Edinburgh where he trained under George Simson, RSA and Sir William Allan.  He worked in Glasgow producing, in the main, pastel portraits.  In 1842 he returned to Berwick where his range of subject matter grew taking in what are known as “genre” paintings; pictures of working people in their landscape or home.  These were honest works unlike the many sentimental images so popular in the Victorian era.  During this time, he began exhibiting at the Scottish Academy.  After ten years in Berwick, he returned to Edinburgh and in 1869 was admitted to the Royal Scottish Academy.  In 1871, the Art Journal, said of him:

“This artist [Ross] has evidently studied Scottish life in the cottage, on the sea-coast, and by the river-side. His pictures are all of this class of subject, which he renders with fidelity, and under most attractive aspects. He is an excellent colorist, and shows true feeling for the picturesque, both in his figures and their surroundings, whether in or out of doors.”


The Salmon Fishers, 1869 by Robert Thorburn Ross, RSA
(Darlington Library) More paintings here

Robert and his wife Margaret had five children, three of which are of interest.  Christina Paterson Ross, RSW (1843–1906) lived in Edinburgh and was elected a member of the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolours in 1880.


Berwick on Tweed, 1893 by Christina Paterson Ross, RSW

Art ran deep in the family.  Joseph Thorburn Ross, ARSA (1849–1903) was brought up in Edinburgh and, after an education at the Military Academy, he worked in a merchant’s office in Leith and then Gloucester.  He returned to Edinburgh in 1876 and studied at the Edinburgh School of Art and the life school of the Royal Scottish Academy (1877–80), after which he became a professional artist.


Joseph Thorburn Ross, ARSA, by Robert Thorburn Ross, 1873
(Royal Scottish Academy)

Ross first exhibited in 1872 but  it was not until 1896 that he was made an associate of the Royal Scottish Academy.


Bass Rock, Joseph Thorburn Ross, c1900
(National Galleries of Scotland) More paintings here

The third of Robert’s children to enter the story was James Scott Ross
(1847–1917)—but more about him later.

Returning to Robert “Gunner” Ross, another of his sons was Joseph Ross
(1832–1891).  He was apprenticed to the renowned Berwick clock and watchmakers, John and William Nicholson of 62 Bridge Street.


Oak long case clock c.1840 by John Nicholson

After serving his apprenticeship, unlike most newly qualified craftsmen, he stayed with Nicholson, and after the master’s death, he took over the business.

He seems to have had some of his father’s skills as well.  He joined the Royal Voluntary Artillery in Berwick and was said to be the best shot.  Perhaps his watchmaking skills gave him an eye for accuracy!  He was also made a special constable.


Royal Voluntary Artillery training on Windmill bastion.

Joseph and his wife, Margaret (née Ord) married in 1857, the same year I can first find him described as a watchmaker; he may have recently finished his apprenticeship and therefore afford to have a family.  They lived in Hide Hill at his time but by 1864 had probably moved to Woolmarket.  They had nine children of which two became watchmakers.   Joseph Ross jnr (1871–1932)
became a watchmaker and jeweller with premises in Belford and Wooler before he was killed in motorbike accident. 

It was his younger brother Robert Ross (1864–1956) who took over the family firm after his father’s death in 1891.  By 1902, his cousin James Scott Ross became a partner forming Ross and Ross.  Presumably James, having no training in watchmaking (presumably), was more of a businessman and looked after the financial side of things.
One tiny and fascinating little detail is the fact that Robert lived at Bower Villa, in Palace Street.  That’s the one with the bust of Wellington above the door.  This is an early 19th century building.  The bust is probably by William Wilson of Tweedmouth who was active in the 1870s and so the bust must have been an addition.  It is intriguing to think it was added by Robert to honour his grandfather’s military service in the Napoleonic wars!


Bower Villa, Palace Street, with bust of Wellington, 
probably by William Wilson.

So, ars long, vita brevis—art endures, time is short—and so I leave it to others to look into the more recent history of the firm in detail but that’s all I’ve got, er… time for just now!


Better quality version here.


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