A curious 19th century clockwork bird musical box to sell 25/03/17

Posted in: News on March 21, 2017.


The later Victorian period is known as ‘the golden age of the automaton’. A period that witnessed the Industrial boom, the birth of the Great Exhibition and Britain’s triumphant reign over the Empire, no wonder this early form of robotics was so fascinating to the Victorians and their ego-centric position in the world.

Although piquing the late 19th century European imagination, automata (translated from the Greek as ‘acting of ones own will’) both real and fictional, hark back to antiquity. Harnessing the power of water and steam, ingenious designers have been indulging a desire to play Creator for thousands of years. Many examples of automata lie in mythology. In ancient Greece, both Hephaestus (Greek god of craftsmen and artisans) and Daedalus (father of Icarus) created these mechanisms in their workshops. In fact in a variation of the Prometheus myth, the eagle sent by Zeus to torture the god was a mechanical creature designed by Hephaestus. According to Jewish legend, Solomon designed a throne with mechanical animals that hailed him as King when he ascended it. This included an eagle that, upon his sitting, would place a crown upon his head, and a dove bringing him the Torah. The mechanism set in motion when the King mounted the throne enabled a golden ox and golden lion each stretch out one foot to support him and help him rise to the next step.

This ancient love of trickery resurged in the Renaissance. In 1950 a complex design for a robot was discovered in a Da Vinci sketchbook. The robot had been designed to move its arms, twist its head and sit up. Further, the High Renaissance saw the gardens of the wealthy filled with giochi d’acqua, hidden fountains to surprise and soak unassuming guests.

The great phrase ‘in life as in art’, coined by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the popular Victorian novelist, poet, playright and politician is accentuated in our automaton. Automata see the line between the two run thin. They allow man to reanimate the dead, to create life where before there was only cogs and pistons. This 19th century link between life and art sits well with the 17th century philosophy of Rene Descartes and his hypothesis that the bodies of animals were nothing more than complex machines, their innards replaceable with cogs, pistons and cams. Life and mechanics inextricably tied. Our little caged bird, taxidermied into reanimation, also plays into this period’s fascination with the macabre. It is a small feathered version of Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Technology in every period has the power to change people’s lives beyond recognition. In our fast paced screen focused world, take a step back and rediscover a time where cogs, spokes and wheels were the cutting edge. Listen to a small bird singing inside its gilded cage, repeating its uplifting song for over a hundred years, from a velvet-lined 19th century European drawing room, to your home.

This 19th century French singing bird automata by Chevob & Co., Geneva is coming up in our next sale on Saturday the 25th of March with an estimate of £300-500. Come and see it in action from Thursday the 23rd.

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