KEEPING TIME WITH AN AUTOMATON MUSICIAN
In the Valleys above Neuchatel in Switzerland, the Jaquet-Droz were firmly established as the finest makers of mechanical automata by the third quarter of the 18th century. Singing birds, automaton figures and musical boxes were designed to amaze the observer and were an instant success with Chinese collectors. Henri Maillardet (1745-1830) had been apprenticed to and worked for the Jaquet-Droz in La Chaux de Fonds but by 1790 had established himself in London with his two brothers as makers of automata. With the automaton mechanism of this clock very much in the style of the Jaquet-Droz, it is interesting to speculate if it might have been commissioned from Switzerland or, perhaps, constructed solely in London but in the Swiss manner by the Maillardet’s. What is clear however is the close collaboration required between the case makers and movement makers in order to achieve the masterpiece of their arts presented here. Indeed, it would, of course, have been easiest if the two entities had been constructed in the same city rather than across a continent.
This remarkable and most attractive clock has survived in extraordinarily fine original condition. It is a rare example of a bell-playing or drummer automaton. Other examples are to be found in The Collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing. The highly complex mechanism is required to control the arms of the figure both up and down and sided to side in order to strike the bells to play the tune. At the same time, the figure moves his head as though looking where he is playing. The key component of this mechanism is the programmed cam wheel and, in this example, is typical of the work of the Jaquet-Droz and Maillardet’s. The fine ormolu case is a combination of styles incorporating neo-classical elements as well as alluding to the Orient. It is typical of the finest English metalwork of the period and is most interesting as it contains an oval mount also found on the rear of the exceptional Swan Clock sold in these rooms on 9th July 2014. The metamorphic whorl to the top of the clock is also very similar to the whorl on the Swan Clock and there can be no doubt that the same workshops were involved in the making of both clocks.
Grand Tours of the 18th and 19th centuries are well documented but it is less well known that they also continued well into the 20th century. For a wealthy young Japanese gentleman, it was fashionable to travel to see the great sights of Europe and America as well as Asia. Spectacular clocks such as this have always been highly prized and, having witnessed other examples during his personal Grand Tour during the 1930s, the grandfather of the current owner was determined to add one to his own collection. It is not known precisely where the clock was acquired but, as can be seen by his scrapbook and the labels on his luggage preserved by his family, figs. 1 & 2, his travel was truly extensive.
Sotheby's would like to thank Dr Ian White for his assistance in cataloguing this lot.
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