A pair of gold and purple enamel singing bird boxes, made for the Chinese market, the movements Jaquet-Droz & Leschot, the cases Guidon, Rémond, Gide & Co., Geneva, 1800-1801
- gold, enamel, pearls, humming bird feathers, ivory beak, gilt-metal
- width 8.5cm, 3 3/8 in
This is apparently the only surviving pair of Jaquet-Droz & Leschot singing bird boxes still together. Furthermore their early history is recorded. On 4 February 1801, Jean-Frédéric Leschot (1746-1824) finally despatched from Geneva to London two pairs of singing bird boxes which had been ordered by the London retail jewellers David Duval & Co. the previous April. One of the two pairs, the only such, was described in his Livre de compte as: 'No. 157. 1 Pair gold Tabatières of oval form enamelled in violet on bordered engine-turning, painted medallion, with small and large pearl rings, and bird mechanism, singing at will, warbling a natural song and musical air, turning in every sense with movements of beak and tail; with gold key, at £1800 each.' 1 They were among the last singing bird boxes ordered by Duval; his family firm, like that of James Cox, specialised in sending elaborate mechanical novelties to China and had been doing business directly with Leschot since the death of Henri-Louis Jaquet-Droz in 1791.2 The following day Leschot wrote to Duval to explain that the bird boxes, in two packages wrapped in waxed cloth and clearly stamped DD on the exterior, were on their way. 'I do hope that you will be pleased with these pieces which are very highly-finished and work well. The special price I am giving you is only a very little more than for the previous ones, the difference being that the cases are a little stronger and the gold is more expensive'.3 Leschot apologises that the boxes are not accompanied by the pair of newly-designed automaton 'temples' ordered at the same time but he has been having problems with his bijoutiers who are six weeks behind in their work, 'claiming that the liquidation of their former company has given them a great deal of trouble.' Any delay could be commercially disastrous as it meant that objects which often took over a year to make then missed the short shipping season to the Far East and the brief window when they were allowed to sell to the Chinese. The firm in question, Guidon, Rémond, Gide & Co., had worked under that name from 1794 until January 1801 then reforming as Rémond, Lami & Co.4 Although Leschot appears to have had a somewhat fractious relationship with them, his account books confirm that he used Rémond's various firms exclusively between 1792 and 1802. At this time, the various mechanical parts were either outsourced to Jacob Frisard in Bienne or Louis Golay in Le Chenit, or made in Leschot's own workshop. The most delicate finishing he preferred to do himself but used Henri Maillardet in London to sort out any problems resulting from shipping damage. Often the birds or the bellows would be sent in separate parcels to keep them safe and then would be put together by Maillardet.
Jean-Frédéric Leschot had been born in the horologically-famous town of La Chaux-de-Fonds, the son of Frédéric Leschot and Esabeau Dubois-dit-Bon Claude. From an early age he worked for their near neighbour Pierre Jaquet-Droz (1721-1790) and his son Henry-Louis (1752-1791). The exploits of the Jaquet-Droz in creating innovative automata of all sizes are well-known.5 They travelled widely in Europe, showing and selling their automata at royal courts, setting up business in London and, through their agent and associate Henri Maillardet and the entrepreneur James Cox, exporting to the Far East. In 1769 Leschot became a partner in the firm, based in Geneva from 1784. From 1790 until his retirement in 1810, Leschot was dogged by business difficulties and tragic events outside his control. He lost his two partners in 1790 and 1791, and the firm of Cox & Beale in Canton failed in 1792 leaving him with vast debts. The outbreak of the French revolutionary wars made what business remained very difficult obliging him to find slow and tortuous routes for sending goods, such as these singing bird boxes which had to travel to London via Hamburg. Leschot's correspondence, partly conserved in the University Library in Geneva, gives a vivid picture of the struggles of a perfectionist who was evidently inspired technically but not as proficient at business as his mentor.
It might seem surprising that the boxes still bore the name of Jaquet Droz & Leschot à Londres, a firm which had not been in existence for over 10 years and whose goods were made in Geneva, but as Leschot explained to another client, 'we always engrave the name as coming from England because of the general opinion that objects of this type [mechanical birds for boxes or scent flasks] made in that country are better crafted, more recherché, and sturdier, but in fact they are made in my workshops'.6 The Jaquet-Droz had opened their London branch in 1783 in order to facilitate trade with the Far East and although it had long been traditional to send objects to China in pairs, they are credited with creating the first pairs of watches and singing bird boxes decorated with mirror-images.7 According to Alfred Chapuis, 'the Chinese love symmetry; all gifts to a superior, and above all to the Emperor, were given in pairs.' They also loved novelty; the Jaquet-Droz had been sending singing bird boxes to China since the mid-1780s and by the end of the century demand was slackening. Between 1792 and 1802 Leschot produced only 17 pairs of cut-cornered rectangular, round or oval singing bird boxes and 2 single examples, the majority enamelled in blue, a few in turquoise and five in violet, comprising this oval pair, and a circular pair and single box. Curiously Leschot does not mention the delicately-painted enamel medallions other than occasionally to distinguish between those 'à sujet' and those for the Ottoman market, painted with flowers, thus making it impossible to identify individual examples.
It has been said that the reason so many pairs of 'Chinese market' watches and boxes were split up is that they were looted by the British and French during the raid on the Summer Palace in Peking in 1860, when 'every soldier must have his singsong'. We are particularly lucky that this pair of Jaquet-Droz & Leschot singing bird boxes, perhaps still together because they never reached China, are of the rare violet colour that made it possible to trace their inception and early history.
1 MS suppl. 958, f. 219, Bibliothèque de Genève
2 See Roger Smith, 'The Swiss Connection', Journal of Design History, vol. 17, no. 2, 2004, for a brief history of the Duval family
3 Letter to David Duval dated 5 February 1801, MS suppl. 964, ff. 165/6, Bibliothèque de Genève
4 Ed. Haydn Williams, Enamels of the World - The Khalili Collections, London, 2009, p. 296
5 Sharon & Christian Bailly, Oiseaux de Bonheur, Geneva, 2001
6 Arnaud Tellier, Le Miroir de la Séduction, Musée Patek Philippe, Geneva, 2010, p. 15
7 Letter to Louis George in Berlin, dated 13 February 1793, MS suppl. 960, f. 77, Bibliothèque de Genève
See a video of the singing birds on www.sothebys.com