A MAGNIFICENT IMPERIAL TRIBUTE ORMOLU, ENAMEL AND PASTE-SET Quarter striking AUTOMATON TABLE CLOCK, GUANGZHOU WORKSHOPS QING DYNASTY, QIANLONG PERIOD (1736-1795), MOVEMENT LATER
- Gilt bronze, enamel and paste
Formerly in the Collection of R. G. A. Wells Esq., London
Partridge Fine Art Ltd., London, 1985
From the time the first clocks were brought to China from Europe in around 1582, the Chinese Emperors were fascinated with European mechanical clockworks. As objects of curiosity and items of luxury, these early mechanical clocks incorporated mechanisms that could support accessory functions including music and animated figures. European clocks were called 'zimingzhong' or 'self-sounding bells' by the Chinese for their musical chimes and striking bells and were received by the Qing court with great enthusiasm. The demand was such that a workshop dedicated solely to western-style clocks was established by the Kangxi Emperor (r. 1662-1722) among the palace workshops which was to be the beginning of a native clockmaking industry. With the help of Jesuit missionaries who supplied the technical knowledge and skills, Chinese clockmakers were trained and soon Chinese-made pieces joined those clocks that continued to arrive from the West. Contemporary sources suggest that by the end of the first quarter of the eighteenth century, clocks in the numbered in their thousands. The Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736-1795) in particular was an avid collector of all types of timepieces and automatons and his enthusiasm for both European and Chinese-made clocks and watches saw no limit. He had thousands of European and Chinese clocks in his collection that were aimed at mesmerizing the beholder and prized for their novelty and design. More that 4000 examples were known to have existed in the Imperial Palaces and their chiming was to be heard throughout the day.
Distinguished by their magnificence, these timepieces rank among the most extravagant clocks made combining Western and Chinese decorative elements. The cases, of highly decorative ormolu, were often further embellished with brightly colored enamels and paste gems, the rich designs matching equally elaborate and complex clockworks and mechanical movements including musical movements and automata. Representing the Emperor's power and status, they were also regarded as the epitome of "Western" style and design. By the middle part of the eighteenth century, the fashion for Western clocks had disseminated from the imperial court to the upper levels of Chinese society, often rivaling the Emperor's own collection of clocks.
Many of these magnificent timepieces were inspired by the fabulous musical and automaton clocks commissioned by the English clockmaker James Cox, many of which were exported to the Far East during the 2nd half of the 18th century. While James Cox's fortunes declined in the later part of the 18th century, Chinese clockworkers had become expert at making clock movements in the English manner. At the same time, the Imperial workshops in the Forbidden City also raised their production of clocks and automatons recruiting the most skilled Western and Chinese craftsmen, artists and clockmakers from Guangzhou. Soon, a native industry emerged which supplied an increasing demand for magnificent clocks which were often sent as tributes to the Qing court by high-ranking members of society seeking Imperial favors. The port of Guangzhou in particular, developed as a manufacturing centre for clocks as Western clocks passed through the hands of many skilled craftsmen who not only studied them but also began copying them in a style that combined European and Chinese elements.
The present clock is remarkable in that it retains its rich original fire gilding and lavish paste jewels. The eye-catching performance of revolving waterfall rods and figures passing in a tranquil landscape setting before a mirrored background to the accompaniment of chiming bells still serves to astonish and amuse the present day connoisseur, just as it entertained and impressed an audience over two hundred years ago when the clock was made. The design of this magnificent clock combines the creativity, opulence and novelty that characterize so many of the finest works of art destined for Imperial use of the Chinese emperors in the 18th century.