Acting Of Themselves—A Musical Automaton Clock with Tightrope-Walker and Musicians in the ‘Turquerie’ Taste

April 11 2014, 1:25pm

Carlton Hobbs LLC The present automaton clock, made in France in the second quarter of the 19th century, contains as its main spectacle a remarkable mechanical group comprised of a Turkish acrobat and musicians, designed to imitate human movements, in this case on a miniature scale. It is all the more remarkable for the fact that the substantial base is beautifully inlaid with references to the Turkish and Islamic world, and we know of no other examples of automata that incorporate this conceit. France had a strong tradition for items made in the Turkish taste; Turquerie was very much in vogue during the ancien regime, the style informing both the fashion and art of the day. It underwent a further revival during the 1840s, the culmination of which can be viewed in a clock called Pendule ‘Turque à Musique’ designed by Léon Feuchère for Sèvres in 1843. The clock was completely adorned with Islamic architectural motifs, arabesques, crescent moons, and Arabic writing, and was intended as a gift from King Louis-Philippe to the viceroy of Egypt. The five figures of the present automaton each move independently of one another, and all have their own unique set of gestures:

The musical movement plays four tunes in turn, simultaneously with the actions of the figures. They can be set to play when the clock has struck, just after the hour, or activated at will. The French-made clock movement is an eight-day striking movement, which strikes the hours and half-hours on a gong mounted on the base, while the musical movement is certainly of Swiss manufacture due to its very high quality, although there are no markings.

The word automaton derives from the Greek automatos, meaning “acting of itself.” The production of automata reaches far back to Antiquity when simple principles of physics, such as air pressure and the movement of fluids, were applied to manipulate and propel objects. Ctesibus, an inventor and mathematician in 2nd century B.C. Alexandria devised the first hydraulic organ and water-powered automata. “Water entering a sealed compartment beneath a carved figure of a bird, for example, forced air in the compartment up through a tube inside the figure and across a sound hole to produce in the bird’s mouth something like a whistle.”1 Detail, Carlton Hobbs LLC. As automata evolved, they became increasingly complex, and more closely resembled the animals and humans they emulated. In many cases the clock-making component was altogether abandoned. “When automaton-builders began to make mechanical imitations of skilled human beings, they were simultaneously demonstrating their own supreme technical skills as mechanicians and parodying the technical skill of those professionals whom their machines imitated.”3 One of the first and most talented of these mechanicians was the French inventor Jacques de Vaucanson (1709-1782).  In 1738 he exhibited three life-size automata in Paris to the amazement of its citizens (figure 1): Le Flûteur (the flute player), Le Canard (the duck), and Le Tambourinaire (the drummer). Based on an Antoine Coysevox marble sculpture of a faun in the Tuileries Garden, the Flûteur was carved in wood with a complicated interior system of “axles, cords, pulleys, lever, chains, bellows, pipes and valves.”4 When operated, the faun’s fingers would move up and down over the holes of his flute, the tongue would move, and the lips would open and close allowing air to emit from its mouth at varying intensities. Vaucanson had “perfectly harmonized” all of these movements so that the faun could play entire pieces of music. The Canard was equally impressive and, when activated, could turn its neck and head, flap its wings, and quack. It had the added feature of drinking water and eating seed, which, through a series of rubber tubes inside its body, was then “digested” and realistically expelled. Figure 1 Another famous automaton builder was Pierre Jaquet-Droz, who, by 1773, had conceived three androids, or life-size automaton in the form of human beings that performed human functions. They were the Designateur (Draughtsman), the Musicienne (Musician) and, most famously, the Écrivain (Writer). Comprised of over 6,000 parts, the Écrivain could be programmed to write any message up to forty characters in length. He dipped his pen in an inkwell, shook off the excess, and precisely completed his message while his eyes either followed the pen or looked around him. In the late 18th and early 19th century a number of mechanicians rose to fame including Wolfgang von Kempelen (1734-1804), whose masterpiece, “The Turk,” was a life-size chess player (although this was later found to be partially operated by a human), and Johann Nepomuk Maelzel (1772-1838) who created the Panharmonicon, an ensemble comprised of forty-odd musicians playing a variety of instruments. In 1818 Maelzel added an automaton slackline acrobat to his repertoire. According to a contemporary authority in a treatise on organ building “the most surprising thing about this little masterpiece of mechanics is the impossibility of figuring out how all of its various movements can be produced, because the automaton suspends itself now by one hand, now by the other, now by its knees, now by its toes, then it straddles the rope and twirls its body around it, thus abandoning one by one all of its points of contact with the rope, through which it must necessarily pass whatever communicates movement to it.”5 In the 19th century Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin (1805-1871) made a name for himself as a clockmaker, inventor, and illusionist.   Detail, Carlton Hobbs LLC. In France, the construction of automata reached its apogee in the mid-1800s “during the lush days of the second empire under Napoleon II and Eugénie, before the Franco-Prussian War, and into the Bell Époque.”8 Unlike the examples of the previous century, which were made for public and private exhibition, this new era of automata were also made for personal enjoyment in the homes of the aristocracy and wealthy merchants. Automaton clocks were retailed by Parisian marchand-merciers specializing in luxury objects. In the case of the present piece, the firm most likely responsible was La Maison Alphonse Giroux, also known as “Giroux & Cie.,” founded in 1799 by François-Simon-Alphonse Giroux and established on the rue du Coq Saint Honoré in Paris. The shop dealt in objets de curiosité, fine art, and dolls, as well as “ornate objets d’art and technically sophisticated furniture,”9 and their clientele included several members of the French Royal Family including Louis XVIII, Charles X, and Napoleon III. In 1838 François-Simon’s eldest son, Alphose Gustave succeeded as head of the firm. He was “fascinated with mechanics and new technology”10 and in “[pursuing] his dream of showing ‘everything that Parisian fashion and industry had to offer’,”11 presented to the public a writing and drawing android by Houdin in 1843. An album produced by the firm enitled ‘Meubles et Fantasies’ included watercolor drawings of other automata, including a cage of birds and a magician very similar to extant examples by Houdin on inlaid wood bases sold by the firm. Figure 2 A musical automaton closely related to the present piece featuring a Near Eastern tightrope walker and musicians, and bearing Giroux’s engraved copper plaque, is in the collection of M. Charliat and illustrated in Alfred Chapuis and Edmond Droz’s Automata: A Historical and Technical Study (figure 2).12 A further example, circa 1837, attributed to Houdin and possibly retailed by Giroux, was sold by Sotheby’s New York, 20 October 2009 (figure 3).  Each of these possess a similar layout of a central figure on a tightrope with one or two musicians to each side, positioned in front of a draped curtain before a large tree. In addition, both the Charliat and Sotheby’s examples have the additional shared feature with the present automaton of a foliate marquetry inlaid base. Figure 3