Lot 21
  • 21

A George III paste-set ormolu musical automaton clock circa 1780, signed by Peter Torckler

1,000,000 - 2,000,000 GBP
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  • Ormolu and glass (gilt bronze and painted metal)
  • 102 cm. high, 50cm. wide, 29.5cm. deep; 3ft. 4in., 1ft. 7¾in., 11¾in.
of impressive scale in the form of an Asian elephant supporting a canopied howdah enclosing a figure of Atlas supporting an armillary sphere, the pagoda surmounted by a foliate and painted finial supporting a bejewelled counter-rotating 'Catherine wheel' topped with a pineapple, the elephant, finely chased, in two sections, enclosing one movement, its back draped with a blanket hung with jewelled pearl fringes, the elephant stands upon a finely worked rockwork base, mounted with flowers and rosette form covers enclose the winding apertures, inset to the front with an enamel clock dial with roman numerals and a red and clear jewelled bezel, the reverse set with another dial for selecting one of the six tunes (Gavot, Song, Jigg, Gavot, Minuet and Dance) the mechanism for which is enclosed in the lower section which is painted on metal with landscapes and mounted with ormolu rockwork, bridges, pavilions, pagodas and windmills with turning elements and enclosing glass 'waterfall' rods to all sides, with trophy panels to the canted angles and a burnished and leaf-cast plinth with pierced Chinese fret and anthemia aprons, supported to the corners by seated Chinese figures.

The elephant demonstrates four mechanical movements every three hours which run simultaneously in addition to the spinning of the jewelled sections on the finial, the twisting of the glass 'waterfall' rods and the movement of the wheels and windmills on the base. The elephants movements consist of the movement up and down and rotation of the trunk, flapping of the ears a swishing of the tail and a rolling of the blue and grey painted eyes from side to side. These movements can also be actioned by pulling of the cord at the rear left foot of the elephant or in conjunction with any of the six musical tunes operated by pushing a button in the underside of the base. The pineapple finial and painted copper panels to the finial, the jewelled whirly-gig and bezels, winding covers, pearl fringes and pierced aprons to the two long sides and one short side replacements post the 2002 sale, with three plugged holes to the elephants head possibly suggesting that there was originally a figure seated at this point.

The clock movement with three chain fusees, the verge escapement with reinstated knife-edge pendulum, striking the hours on a bell and playing one of six tunes on a carillon of ten bells with twelve hammers at each hour or at will. An attached fusee movement operating the glass rod simulated waterfalls and base automata in conjunction with the music. A large fusee movement within the body of the elephant operating the upper automaton features.  


Most probably acquired by Naser al-Din Shah (1831-1896) in London in the 1890s.

Thence by descent in the Qajar Dynasty until possibly sold at auction in 1925 on behalf of the incoming Pahlavi Dynasty where purchased by an unknown dealer.

Purchased from aforementioned dealer by one of his employees in the 1960s and thence by descent until sold Bonhams London, 28 May 2002, lot 199, where purchased by the current owner.


Roger Smith, 'The Sing-Song Trade Exporting Clocks to China in the Eighteenth Century', Antiquarian Horology, March 2008, pp. 629-658, fig. 21.


Overall this wonderfully impressive clock in in a superb restored condition having been fully restored in 2002/3 by Motionwork Ltd of London following the sale at Bonhams. The restoration was undertaken in a very sensitive manner to replace what was there originally. The movement has, recently been cleaned again by Motionwork at which point two of the waterfall motion gears were replaced so that the clock is currently in a ready to use condition. During the first period of restoration the following work was carried out by Motionworks; The pineapple finial was made, the silver paste-set rotating whirly-gigs were replaced as were the copper-panels to the housing of the whirly-gig. One ormolu dragon to Howdah was remade. The paste-set bezels for each dial were remade as were some of the foliage around the dials and the foliate key covers. The enamel dial was restored. Three of the waterfall automata units and associated motionwork were remade to the design of an original unit which was present and likewise 2 waterwheels and 2 windmills copied from the originals which were extant at the time of the 2002 sale. A new verge pendulum with the correct knife-edge was made to replace an earlier incorrect silk suspension. The front and back apron mounts and one side apron mount were made to the design of one side apron mount which was existing. In 2012, in addition to the cleaning the pearl and stone brocades were added based on historic drawings from the 18th century. There are three plugged holes to the top of the elephant's head possibly indicating where there had originally been a seated figure. The ormolu is generally in excellent condition with some very minor tarnishing in places. The clock is of an extraordinary scale and really has to be seen in person to fully understand the scale and grandeur of this remarkable piece.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

This magnificent automaton clock typifies the intriguing and inventive objects produced in London for the Eastern markets in the second half of the eighteenth century owing to the dominance of the British in the trade between Western Europe and the Far East from the 1760s. Elephant form clocks had become popular in Europe from the mid-eighteenth century, most notably in France where numerous models were made, inspired no doubt by renaissance models many of which emanated from Augsburg in the sixteenth century.

Clocks and novelty items had been popular in the Far East from a very early period so the influx of such items was not a newly acquired taste. Simon Harcourt-Smith who surveyed the clocks in the Imperial Palaces in the early 20th century produced an extraordinary account of these pieces that was published as, A catalogue of Various Clocks, Watches, Automata, and other Miscellaneous Objects of European Workmanship dating from the XVIII and Early XIX Centuries, in the Palace Museum and the Wu Ying Tien, Peiping, Peiping, The Palace Museum,1933. In the introduction to this now scarce source he writes in the introduction; 'Taste for clocks and other curiosities of the West seems to have invaded the court of China at an early date; already at the beginning of the fourteenth century a French ironsmith, Guillaume Boucher, probably a prisoner brought back from some Mongol raid in Hungary, had constructed for the first Yuan Emperor of China an elaborate clock with fountains; and when in 1599, the great missionary Matteo Ricci arrived in Peking he secured Imperial favour and an entry to the Court largely by a gift of clocks. However, only at the end of the seventeenth century, in the reign of K'ang Hsi, that clocks in large numbers began to invade the Palace. This enlightened monarch, who was filled with an admiration, rare in this dynasty, for the arts and science of Europe, welcomed learned Jesuit mathematicians and philosophers to his Court, and formed a collection of scientific instruments and timepieces of all descriptions. So great in fact was his passion for horology, that the Society of Jesus, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, found it necessary to despatch to Peking an accomplished clockmaker, Father Stadlin, under whose direction a small factory for the manufacture of clocks and watches was set up within the Palace walls. From this time until the dissolution of the Order in 1773-4, there was always a Jesuit in charge if the Emperor's clocks.'

The current clock is of a scale rarely found and would almost certainly have been made with the intention of it being exported to China. Ornately embellished figures of elephants whether made in cloisonné, bronze, hardstones or jade were frequently found in the halls and throne rooms throughout the Chinese Imperial Palaces. As such it is not surprising to find the elephant form being made for the Eastern market and a number of automata in the Imperial collections emanate from London that included models of elephants. The iconography of an elephant supporting a vase on its back forms the auspicious rebus, Daping Jingxian or Daping Youxian, representative of the message of Peace and Harmony. A Chinese Imperial clock mounted with a soapstone elephant and made in the Guangzhou workshops of the late 18th century and undeniably inspired by the pieces emanating from London was sold as part of the Magnificent Clocks for the Chinese Imperial Court from the Nezu Museum, Christie's Hong Kong, 27 May 2008, lot 1503.


Fuelled by the massive demand in the West for exotic Asian wares such as textiles, porcelains, lacquer and of course tea, the West increasingly focused their attention from the mid-eighteenth century on objects that could be exported to help balance an increasing trade gap between East and West. As such there developed a trade in novelty items, simply referred to as sing-songs derived from the Chinese words that mean 'bells that ring by themselves'. As Roger Smith notes in his aforementioned article, these novelty clocks, watches and 'toys' were being exported, largely through the British East India Company into the trade port of Canton, modern day Guangzhou, mainly through the Hong merchants although much trade was undertaken privately. In addition to being promoted by the East India Company, these items played a prominent role in lessening the trade deficit and such pieces have long acted as articles of tribute in Chinese society where gifts flowed through the official hierarchy. As such from the early eighteenth century large numbers of these wares were purchased from the European ships docking in Canton and passed through the system to the superiors and eventually to the Emperor. Indeed the Emperor Qianlong, whose collection of such pieces was and indeed still remains especially impressive, was said to have amassed a collection by the end of his reign that was worth in excess of £2,000,000. A large quantity of these pieces remain today in the Palace Museum, Beijing, three examples of which, all by English makers and incorporating the elephant form, are reproduced here (figs. 1, 2 & 3) and see Singsong; Treasures from The Forbidden City, Museum Speelklok, Utrecht, 2010, nos. 8 & 11.

Simon Harcourt-Smith op.cit remarks that during the reign of Emperor Qianlong 'clocks and mechanical toys of beauty and ingenuity never before seen flowed into China from the West at the rate of thousands a year. In the Imperial Palaces at Peking, Yuan Ming Yuan and Jehol the passages of the hours was marked by a fluttering of enameled wings, a gushing of glass fountains and a spinning of paste stars, while from a thousand concealed and whirring orchestras, the gavottes and minuets of London rose strangely into the Chinese air'.

Indeed the Emperor's Palaces were to have been full of all kinds of riches. In 1793, King George III dispatched his envoy, Lord (George) Macartney to Peking to try to persuade the Emperor to allow Britain to open northern trading ports. Macartney arrived with some of the most precious items England could produce, 600 packages of magnificent presents that required 90 wagons, 40 barrows, 200 horses, and 3,000 porters to carry them to the Palace. This extravagant gesture included clocks by Vulliamy mounted in Derby porcelain vases which must have appeared rather ordinary in comparison to the riches already acquired by the Emperor. Following a tour of the Palace and its many pavilions Lord Macartney later wrote that each was "furnished in the richest manner . . . that our presents must shrink from the comparison and hide their diminished heads,"  (Frederick Wakeman, Jr., The Fall of Imperial China (Free Press, 1977), 101). The mission was a failure.

Most renowned amongst the London 'sing-song' makers was James Cox (c.1723-1800) goldsmith and jeweller who produced an extraordinary number of pieces between 1766 and 1772, during which time he exported nearly £750,000 worth of goods though he continued manufacture beyond these dates for his renowned Spring Gardens Museum (1772-75). Cox was not solely responsible for creating these objects and claimed in 1773 'for about Seven Years past...[he had]...employed from Eight hundred to One thousand workman' (see Roger Smith, 'James Cox: A Revised Biography', Burlington Magazine, June 2000, p. 355). Indeed Cox was particularly keen on Elephant automata such as the current lot, designed to 'perform the various motions of life, as if in actual existence'. The naturalistic movements of the trunk, eyes, ears and tail as seen in the Torckler elephant were represented in a clock exhibited in his museum and modelled from an Indian elephant presented to Queen Charlotte. A clock in the Beijing Palace Museum by James Cox in the form of an elephant with a very similar articulated trunk and naturalistically chased body is reproduced here, fig. 2.

Cox, whilst most renowned, was not the only entrepreneurial craftsman taking advantage of the market for sing-songs. He had numerous competitors and successors who have supplied similar automata and whose work can be seen in the Beijing Palace, Waddesdon, Pavlovsk and other collections around the world.


Peter Torckler is a little documented figure of eighteenth century London. He appears to most probably have been an émigré craftsman who established a business in London, most presumably to take advantage of the London based export trade to the East which was unrivalled in other parts of Europe. He would have undoubtedly employed the skilled talent available in London of specialists in the production of the myriad of components required to produce such elaborate automata and who would also have supplied the other producers of such items. Torckler is listed in the London trade directories for 1780-83 as working from 9, Red Lion Street, Clerkenwell, right in the centre of the clock and watch-making district and just three doors from the renowned maker James Upjohn who supplied the elephant chariot clock in the Beijing Palace Museum and reproduced here in fig.1. Another of Torckler's automaton clocks, though not of animalistic in form, but incorporating twisted glass rods to simulate waterfall is retained in The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg indicating that the current clock was not a sole foray into this market (see. R. Smith, 'The Sing-Song Trade', op.cit., figs 12a-b).

It is thought that the maker of this clock is the same Peter Adolph Torckler who was born in Riga and who arrived with an Edward Torckler (presumably his brother) in Calcutta in 1795. Of particular interest given the nature of this clock and the probable original intention of it being exported from London to the East is that Torckler is recorded as having established himself as a partner in the mercantile firm of Howell and Torckler in Calcutta dealing in goods imported from China perhaps indicating that he had already established some trading links in the Far East. Torckler died in Calcutta in 1824 aged seventy-six and as such could well have been working in London in the 1780s.

That Torckler was working in London during the latter years of the eighteenth century can be further supported by a faint inscription to the reverse of the enamelled dial which reads 'Weston'. This mark is almost certainly for William Weston whose workshop was based in Greenhill's Rents, West Smithfield from 1764.



Whether this clock ever made it to the East for sale we cannot be sure, as previously mentioned many pieces sent for sale returned especially with the gradual waning of the market in the latter part of the eighteenth and early 19th century though records indicate that there was still a considerable trade of between one and two hundred thousand pounds per year until 1815. Unfortunately many of the remarkable clocks and 'sing-songs' in the Imperial collections have been lost through neglect or in particular the periods of unrest, most notably the looting of the Summer Palace, Yuan Ming Yuan, in 1860 and the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 which resulted in a number of these objects being removed and returned to the West whilst some were also traded in the early 20th century. It is therefore feasible that this clock was in  China and may have returned to London in the second half of the Nineteenth century.

That the clock was in London in the 19th century is confirmed by the evidence of a replacement wheel to the fusee movement contained within the body of the elephant which is signed by Thomas Harris & Son, a firm of instrument makers founded in London in 1780 whose business continued to the very end of the 19th century. The clock was therefore definitely in London at some point post 1806 when the company changed its name from Thomas Harris to Thomas Harris & Son. 

From a piece of cardboard that was inscribed and fitted into the inside of the clock in the 2002 sale and now included with this lot, we can be specific of its whereabouts in the early 20th century. The piece of cardboard is inscribed;

"In January 1901, I repaired the clock and the elephant and again did so in 1905.  This was repeated on 28th Mordad (June) 1919, and once again in January 1923. Aside from these above-mentioned instances, the clock and its elephant statue were several times repaired by me. Khwāja Mustafā, clockmaker" [Khwāja possibly implies someone who was originally a slave at one of the Qajar courts and whose function it was to repair clocks].

The second 'column' reads: "(Khwāja Mustafā, clockmaker) repairs of the clock were executed by me at the imperial court. Khwāja Mustafā, clockmaker at the Imperial Court [signature]."

These lines appear to have been 'transcribed' from an older text which is seen as a faded background on the present copy. They do not appear to be the original, which is written in a cruder hand.

It seems most probable that the clock was acquired by Naser al-Din Shah (1831-1896) who reigned from 1848 and who embraced Western art and society more so than his predecessors. Most interestingly on a visit to England in 1889 he was entertained by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild at his recently completed Waddesdon Manor, the remarkable French styled chateau in Buckinghamshire. The Bucks Herald duly reported the Shah's visit on 13th July that year;

"What struck the Shah's fancy most among the costly treasures of the Rothschild collection was a mechanical clock studded with imitation jewels, which is a veritable curiosity, and looks as if it were of Eastern manufacture adjusted to clockwork mechanism by some ingenious European artist...this magnificent toy fairly delighted His Majesty the Shah. It was wound and re-wound again and again, and it was evidently preferred to all the paintings, enamels, armour and palissy ware in the whole of the Rothschild family. Eventually it became necessary to distract his Majesty's attention from a curiosity of considerable historical interest." (Taken from Geoffrey de Bellaigue, The James A. de Rothschild Collection at Waddesdon Manor, 1974, vol. I, p. 145).

The Shah indeed had an intense fascination with such novelty items. On a State Visit to Britain in 1873 he purchased at the Crystal palace a 'mechanical singing bird' which is known as it led to a legal dispute subsequently reported in The Times newspaper on 2nd September 1873.

It would seem most likely that following his Majesty's visit and his obvious fascination with the Waddesdon clock (reproduced here as fig.4) that the Shah commissioned an agent to source a similar clock for his own collection and amusement and that the current clock was subsequently acquired.