The wealthy Chinese market had slowly turned into the main target audience for the 18th century European horologists and craftsmen. This led to the tradesmen collaborating to produce fabulous clocks and watches with entertaining complications throughout London. Already the leader in the trade of silks, fine porcelains, and tea, the Chinese showed great enthusiasm for the highly decorative English watches and clocks – a natural evolution for the British since their success as reputed horologists.
However, the restrained characteristics of traditional English clock making did not satisfy Chinese tastes and it was necessary for English merchants to use the best Europe-wide resources available to them in order to appeal. As trade in these novelties was established, the demand for ever-more complicated and decorative clocks grew and the Qing Emperors became some of the most important collectors.
Meanwhile, embedded deep within the valleys of Switzerland, were two refined automaton makers, Jaquet Droz and Henri Maillardet. One can assume that the mechanism of this bell-playing clock may have belonged to either of the two makers. It is speculation whether the automaton was commissioned from Switzerland or constructed solely in London in the Swiss manner iconic to both of them.
The bell-playing or drummer automaton is a rare and fine example of the highly complex mechanism which is required to control the arms of the figure both up and down and side to side in order to strike the bells to play the tune. At the same time, the figure moves his head as though looking where he is playing. The key component of this mechanism is the programmed cam wheel and, in this example, is typical of the work of the Jaquet-Droz and Maillardet’s. The fine ormolu case is a combination of styles incorporating neo-classical elements as well as alluding to the Orient.
Click on the video to watch the automaton in action.