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KEEPING TIME WITH AN AUTOMATON MUSICIAN

A George III ormolu quarter striking musical automaton table clock for the Chinese market, English/Swiss, circa 1790
JUMP TO LOT
80

KEEPING TIME WITH AN AUTOMATON MUSICIAN

A George III ormolu quarter striking musical automaton table clock for the Chinese market, English/Swiss, circa 1790
JUMP TO LOT

Details & Cataloguing

Treasures

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A George III ormolu quarter striking musical automaton table clock for the Chinese market, English/Swiss, circa 1790
3-inch enamel dial with centre seconds, paste-set bezel and surround, the Swiss two train chain fusee clock movement with verge and balance escapement, the ting-tang quarters and hours struck by the automaton figure on two bells, triggering at the hour a separate substantial Swiss automaton movement with chain fusee driving a highly complex pinned cam wheel causing the automaton figure of a kneeling boy to play one of two tunes on two nests of four bells using hammers held in his hands and turning his head from side, accompanied by a colourful paste-set metamorphic whorl above, the case with a simulated tiled canopy surmounted by the whorl  and sheltering the automaton figure, the base concealing both movements, on leaf scroll feet, mounted on a finely punched and chiselled plinth with knurled bun feet, the whole with gryphon, foliate, paste and neoclassical foliate mounts 
62.5cm. 24½in.
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Catalogue Note

At the end of the 18th century European horologists and craftsmen from other associated trades, dealing through London, were collaborating to produce fabulous clocks and watches with entertaining complications, in the hope that they would appeal to their wealthy Chinese clients. For over one hundred years the trade in silks, fine porcelains and tea had grown to an such an extent that it became necessary to attempt to correct the trade imbalance. The Chinese considered that there was very little produced in Europe that they were unable to obtain within their own economy, but their enthusiasm for highly decorative and novelty watches and clocks made in or sold through London provided an opportunity for trade. Since the end of the 17th century, London had gained a worldwide reputation for horological innovation and accuracy of timekeeping. However, the restrained characteristics of traditional English clock making did not satisfy Chinese tastes and it was necessary for English merchants to use the best Europe-wide resources available to them in order to appeal.  As trade in these novelties was established, the demand for ever-more complicated and decorative clocks grew and the Qing Emperors became some of the most important collectors.

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.

Treasures

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