The Rocky Horror Coffin Clock

It’s astounding. Time is fleeting. Madness takes its toll

So sang Riff Raff in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  As the Transylvanian servant leads the unsuspecting young couple of Brad and Janet through the castle’s rooms, we’re dazzled with a riot of colour, oddities and wild dancing. However, for all the film’s amazing sets, a few props stick in the mind.

When Riff Raff moves towards a coffin with his duster, he flings open the hinged lid to reveal a very cobweb-ridden skeleton. This could be seen as a very fitting schlocky decorative choice, thrown together by the props department to hammer home the creepy nature of the castle… Except that it was real. Not only was the coffin clock a real antique, but held a real human skeleton.

The clock had been rented from Ken Paul’s London props company, which was once the largest repository for props in the capital. For decades, Ken Paul’s was the go-to place for anything antique and unusual, from bronze busts to rare taxidermy, production companies could fulfil all their needs under Ken’s 6 storey Hampstead shop.

In March 2002, following the retirement of Ken’s daughter Christine, the contents of the shop went up for auction at Sotherby’s, giving the public a rare glimpse into the worlds of film and weird antiques. In the auction were a huge number of recognisable props, including a globe from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, goblets from Gladiator and a hand mirror from Titanic. According to the Irish Times, the most grand of all was a ‘six-foot tall carved wooden Buddha from the James Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun, starring Roger Moore. Expected to fetch between £10,000 and £15,000 sterling, it also featured in Carry On Up The Khyber, starring Kenneth Williams as the Maharaja, and was hired for Tomb Raider and Blade 2.’[1]

Of course, the clock was always going to stir up interest, not least from a visual perspective, but even more so when the story of its skeletal inhabitant was released.

According to Sotherby’s press release, the full-sized mahogany coffin with elaborate inlay is rumoured to house the ‘remains of the young Italian lover and secretary of the Countess of Rosslyn.’

Depending on the source, the interred skeleton is either the husband or lover of the Countess of Rosslyn. When he died, the countess couldn’t bear to live without him and so carried his remains with her – all in a very fancy clock – for the rest of her days.

But is the identity of the skeleton correct? Unsurprisingly, opinions are divided. According to Jeff Nisbet’s article for Atlantis Rising, ‘The Countess of Rosslyn at the time of the skeleton clock’s manufacture had been married to the 4th Earl from 1866 until his death in 1890. Her own death, in 1933, would have provided the perfect opportunity for the rest of the family to offload Grandma’s Italian paramour to the escapologist – at an eminently negotiable price, I’m sure.’ However, the legitimacy of the story seems a little suspect in the Rosslyn timeline. ‘But the story of the clock’s connection to the Countess of Rosslyn seemed suspect. I knew of only one Scottish luminary who was intimately involved with an Italian secretary – none other than Mary, Queen of Scots.’[1]

Nisbet argues that this royal connection is far more fitting, as ‘on March 9, 1566, secretary David Rizzio was stabbed to death in Holyrood Palace for being the queen’s confidant and lover, and for being a Catholic. It has also been bandied about that he was the father of Mary’s son, the future king of both Scotland and England.’ Furthermore, it’s no great leap of the imagination to believe that Rizzio’s skeleton may have been preserved and celebrated, as with so many instances of Freemasonry and human remains of the time.

The coffin clock is a beautiful piece. The dial around the coffin lid is inlaid ivory on ebonised ground, with the larger design depicting scythes, skull and crossed bones, an hourglass and crossed spades, all being very clear symbols of the inevitability of death. The designs are surrounded by snaking laurel leaves, giving the macabre design a somewhat delicate feel.

Believe it or not, there are a handful of reported instances of wealthy women keeping their husband’s remains in longcase clocks, in some cases, even after remarrying.

Ken Paul originally obtained the clock from a Hackney-based music hall escapologist, yet how this was incorporated into his performance is a fact sadly lost to time.

The Rocky Horror skeleton clock, lot no. 1512, went on sale on 15th March 2002 and surpassed its £10,000 estimate considerably. Making the second highest price of the whole sale, the clock sold to an Italian private buyer for £35,000.

While I don’t think we’ll be seeing the clock in a museum collection any time soon, the temptation to grab a saw, some timber and start on a replica project is almost overwhelming. While I don’t have any deceased lovers to immortalise in a ticking coffin, I’d argue that it’s a conversation piece that every home needs.


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