‘An extraordinary and minute copy of animated nature’ or so the auctioneer described the silkworm, or ‘Ethiopian caterpillar’, which was sold on the third day of the dispersal, following the death of its proprietor, of Thomas Weeks’s Mechanical Museum in Tichborne Street, London, on 16 July 1834, to a Mr Strachan for the princely sum of £5.15/6. Thus as Europe moved into the Railway Age, the era of marvelling at mechanical wonders drew to a close.
Weeks’s Museum had contained among other pieces, lavish clocks and automata originally created by James Cox for export to China and first exhibited in London in 1772. The following year Henri-Louis Jaquet-Droz had brought his three large androids, a writer, a draughtsman and a harpsichord player, from Switzerland for display in London on their travels through Europe. It was evident that at that time London was the main conduit to the lucrative Far Eastern market and it did not take long for the Jaquet-Droz and their associate Leschot to establish themselves there, taking on Henri Maillardet (1745-circa 1829) as resident associate in 1783. The surviving contract, to last 7 years, makes it quite clear that Maillardet and his employees were both making objects (‘fabriquer tels Ouvrages en Mechanique’) as well as putting together (établir) parts which would be sent by Jaquet-Droz from Switzerland. Stock inventories of the London branch in 1785-1787 list singing birds in cages, temples with waterfalls and turning columns, mechanisms for a Writer and Draughtsman but nothing of small size. Following deaths and financial disaster, the association ended at term although Leschot continued to use Maillardet, with increasing ill will between the two, as a London agent, for the temples and singing bird boxes Leschot was exporting from Geneva to the Duvals in London for trade with the Far East.
It appears that Maillardet had made himself or acquired a number of the larger automata, including a ‘Mechanical Musical Lady’ which he first exhibited at Cox’s former museum premises in Spring Gardens in June 1798. The first mention of one of the group of small animals appears to have been when he showed ‘a Siberian mouse’ among his ‘wonderful Automatons’ at the same venue two years later in June 1800. ‘An Ethiopian chenille d’or’, in company with the mouse and a mechanical tarantula, does not appear until an advertisement of 1811 when Maillardet was touring England and exhibiting his automata in partnership with a certain Philippstal (pseudonym of Paul Philidor), a pioneer of the magic lantern and phantasmagoria shows. The worm can clearly be seen in the illustrated print of the Gothic Hall exhibition of 1826 so was then still with the automatonshow of which at least a part share still belonged to Maillardet. The whole of the exhibition, comprising some 20 large and small automata, was put up for sale in London in 1829 and it is possible that it was at this time that certain items were acquired by Thomas Weeks.
Although Henri Maillardet and his showman partners exhibited the small animals, and members of his family also exhibited similar automata throughout Europe in the first part of the 19th century, it is still not certain who exactly was responsible for their inception and construction. From the few surviving examples, one can see that these are precious jewels quite unlike the larger automata the Maillardets exhibited. The materials chosen: gold, enamels, pearls and gemstones, are rich and the workmanship is exquisite. In style the decoration of the exteriors would lead one to believe that at least the cases originated in Geneva. It is possible that if Maillardet created the mechanisms as is traditionally believed, he may have ordered the cases from Geneva, although certainly not from Frédéric Leschot.
It is a measure of the wonder inspired by these extraordinary and sumptuous pieces that any survive at all given their small size and fragility. In fact only a small number of mice and caterpillars still exist together with a frog, a lizard and a serpent but apparently no spiders. Of the recorded surviving caterpillars, numbering some six or seven, all apart from the present example seem to have been enamelled in scarlet. The present example with its naturalistic colouring and spotting is the closest to a live silkworm and was very probably intended not for show in Europe but to amuse the Imperial Court of China.