Mr. Cox's Perpetual Motion, A Prize in the Museum Library
This line engraving depicts Cox’s Perpetual Clock, item number 47 in the Cox’s Lottery catalogue and one of Cox’s “star exhibit[s]” (Greater London Council 62). Much of the description of Cox’s Perpetual Clock in John Joseph Merlin: The Ingenious Mechanick applies to the engraving as well, which remains mostly faithful to its source (61-2). The clock is depicted on a circular platform, and its base is formed as a
rectangular plinth with projecting corners on which are raised free-standing Corinthian columns . . . Between these the case is formed with arch-headed glass plates revealing the mercury barometer . . . that gives motion to the clock. From the capitals of the columns rises a further arched stage . . . with corners in the form of fluted pilasters. (61)The engraving does not include “the lion’s head paterae which are applied to the case today"; however it does show a smiling, lion-headed mask at the head of the arch instead of the female masks on the Victoria and Albert Museum clock (Greater London Council 62). The dial includes both Roman and modern, or Arabic, numerals for every fifth minute, as well as a smaller second-hand dial within the larger dial. The time reads 9:32:55. An ornamental vase is raised on a pedestal above the arched hood. The title of the print is written in script at the top of the image, the text split around the vase. The overall style of the clock is a “fusion of the rococo and the neoclassical,” and is much less ornate than other Cox clocks (Greater London Council 62).
Courtesy of The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University. Copyright, 2009.
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The lower left-hand corner of the print is signed by “J. Lodge sculp.”
Mr. Cox's Perpetual Motion, A Prize in the Museum Library was, most likely, orginally bound in one of Cox’s lottery catalogues (Greater London Council 62).
This print was published for Cox’s lottery in 1774-1775 as an advertisement for one of Cox’s masterpieces, the perpetual motion clock. Despite the success of Cox’s Museum, Cox petitioned Parliament in 1773 to hold a public lottery sale of all of his exhibitions. Cox’s high-risk ventures in the East Asian luxury trade and his mounting debts certainly motivated the lottery and the closure of the museum. However, as both Wright and Pointon emphasize, Cox’s lottery was also a “grand finale” that capitalized on the museum’s success, intended from the beginning to create a market for the sale of Cox’s items (Wright 52; Pointon 425). The value of the lottery was set at £197,500, and 120,000 tickets were sold at the price of one guinea over a two-year period (Smith 358-59). The catalogues for the lottery list fifty-six items, but there were to be 404 prizes drawn in total, with the top prize, a pair of diamond earrings, valued at £5,000 (Wright 52-53). After intense and prolonged publicity, the lottery finally took place in May and June of 1775; however, it does not appear to have been the success for which Cox had hoped and did little to restore his solvency. Winners were apparently slow or uninterested in claiming their items, and so many were left over in 1776 that Cox “tried unsuccessfully to persuade joint winners of the major exhibits to take over its [the museum’s] running” (Smith 359). He also attempted to buy back some of the most expensive items, including the diamond earrings, ostensibly in hopes of making a more lucrative sale abroad (Pointon 428). Many of the items ended up as exhibitions in Thomas Weeks’s Museum in Tichborne Street (c. 1795), including the perpetual motion clock and the famous silver swan automaton (Smith 358, n. 48).
James Cox (c. 1723-1800)
James Cox was a London-based jeweler and mechanic. He was known for his short-lived but popular Cox’s Museum, which exhibited elaborate automata, clocks, jewelry, and other luxury items. The son of a tailor, Henry Cox, James Cox was apprenticed to a Fleet Street haberdasher, goldsmith, and toymaker. Cox later described himself as both a goldsmith and a jeweler, though he was never a member of the goldsmith’s guild. He set up shop with John Grace in 1756, and also became involved in the luxury export trade, but the business collapsed due to bankruptcy in 1760. He continued to exhibit his works informally and to pursue commercial exports to India and the Far East; in 1772 he established Cox’s Museum as a way to generate publicity for his work. Despite the success of the museum and the subsequent publicity surrounding the lottery, Cox was never able to pull himself out of debt and again declared bankruptcy in 1778. Beginning in 1783, Cox and his son put all their energies into export trade with China, selling clocks and automata by Pierre Jacquet-Droz and others. He finally abandoned overseas trade around 1791. He died in obscurity and debt in 1800 (Smith).
John Joseph Merlin (1735-1803)
John Joseph Merlin was a famous and prolific inventor of automata and other clockwork mechanisms, musical instruments, furniture, and mathematical instruments. The primary biographical sources for Merlin are R. S. Kirby’s text, Kirby's Wonderful and Eccentric Museum, or, Magazine of Remarkable characters (1820); Fanny Burney’s work, The Early Diary of Frances Burney 1768-1778; and an obituary in Gentleman’s Magazine, none of which constitute fully reliable sources. All of these sources, however, as well as subsequent biographers, portray Merlin as an eccentric foreigner capable of remarkable ingenuity and social mobility.
According to Kirby, Merlin was born in Huys, Belgium and began his career in Paris. He came to London in 1760 with the Conde de Fuentes, a Spanish nobleman, and he quickly became acquainted with both scientific and musical circles (French, "John Joseph Merlin" 11). His success in the latter society was facilitated by prominent commissions for musical instruments from the Princess of Wales and the musicologist Dr. Charles Burney (French, “Merlin, his friends” 17). After selling a combined pianoforte-harpsichord to Dr. Burney and his daughter, the writer Fanny Burney, Merlin became “a key part of their social circle from 1775 to 1782” (French, “John Joseph Merlin” 13). Fanny Burney refers to Merlin several times in her diary, often calling attention to his eccentric behavior and accent (see, for example, The Early Diary 58). The only direct reference to Merlin in Burney’s novels occurs in Cecilia, in which one of his pianofortes appears; it has, however, been suggested that in Evelina, Captain Mirvan or even Madame Duval may be partially modeled on Merlin (French, “Merlin, his friends” 20-1).
Evelina also includes a scene at Cox’s Museum, where Merlin worked as a principal mechanic soon after his arrival in London until 1772 or 1773. During this time, he may also have designed or partially constructed the clock depicted in Mr. Cox’s Perpetual Motion, a Prize in the Museum Library, the first image in this exhibit (Greater London Council 61). After leaving Cox’s, Merlin began exhibiting his own mechanical wonders at his residence in Hanover Square, eventually under the name “Merlin’s Mechanical Museum.” He concentrated primarily on automata, musical instruments, furniture (especially invalid chairs), and transportation, such as the mechanical chariot shown in this engraving. As a sort of tribute to his namesake, Merlin also planned an elaborate spectacle and space called “Merlin’s Cave,” in which an automaton of the magician Merlin would appear to call to life magical beings and objects; he never executed the project (Altick 75).
In addition to his museum and inventions, Merlin was also known for his public eccentric behavior; though likely exaggerated by Kirby and Fanny Burney, Merlin may have purposefully cultivated a theatrical persona for social purposes and as a means of advertisement (French, “Merlin, his friends” 19-20). According to Kirby, Merlin assumed elaborate personae and costumes at masquerades, including Lady Fortune, Cupid, Vulcan, and a bar-maid, often incorporating his mechanical inventions into the performances (276). Merlin died in 1803 at the age of sixty-eight.
Cox's Museum officially opened in February 1772 and closed in December of the same year, though Cox exhibited his work informally prior to its opening and continued to display his lottery exhibitions in its space until the 1775 drawing (Pointon 425). Despite its brief life, normal for London “shows” of the period, the museum was hugely successful and the subject of much contemporary commentary as well as subsequent historical studies. The museum’s emphasis was almost entirely jeweled automata and clockwork. Pointon describes the setting of the museum:
The Museum was illuminated by candles in candelabra and girandoles suspended from dragons’ mouths . . . Admission was half a guinea, which, according to a letter (probably written by Cox himself) in the Public Ledger . . . was the same as entry to the Pantheon, to Fischer’s benefit concerts, and to "hear Signiora [sic] Sirmen sing." (Pointon 431-32, Pointon’s brackets)Clearly, Cox marketed his museum as an artistic experience on par with other major “shows” and cultural venues, an extension of “the gradual encreased [sic] of taste and elegance, within these last twenty years, in this metropolis” (qtd. in Pointon 433). However, he also offered a reduced admission fee during certain hours, thereby enlarging his potential audience and customers.
Whether or not visitors registered their experience at the Museum as on par with that of the Pantheon (and Fanny Burney’s character Evelina clearly does not), the spectacle was very successful. In June of 1772, for example, the Museum was estimated to have had roughly a thousand visitors each week (Smith 358). Some of the more fantastic automata included:
variant compositions of an elephant and howdah; a temple with palm trees and crocodiles; a flute-playing Chinese boy; an aviary with fountains and bells; and a pair of gardeners' boys with musical pineapples. The basic compositions were further enriched by jeweled flowers, animals, clocks and chimes. (Le Corbeiller 352)These descriptions also make apparent the Orientalist element of Cox’s Museum. Cox publicized his museum along with his intention to sell these items in East Asia (whether true or not), though very few of them were marketed abroad. (Pointon gives an especially rich reading of the Orientalist economics of Cox’s automata.) Cox stopped exhibiting, though not dealing in, automata after the lottery; however, the Cox Museum spawned several subsequent shows, including Merlin’s Mechanical Museum and Weeks’s Museum.
Frances Burney's Evelina (1778)
Fanny Burney’s novel Evelina includes a scene at Cox's Museum that Evelina recounts in Letter XIX. Evelina visits the museum with Captain Mirval and Madame Duval, who both offer extremely opposing views on the spectacle. While Madame Duval proclaims that “'it’s the grandest, prettiest, finest sight that ever I see, in England,'” the Captain declares that he’s “'no Frenchman, and should relish something more substantial'” (176). Evelina takes a more moderate, but ultimately critical view, noting, “[t]his Museum is very astonishing, and very superb; yet, it afforded me little pleasure, for it is a mere show, though a wonderful one;” and, “[i]t is very fine, and very ingenious ... but I seem to miss something” (176).
This print depicts one of the luxury clocks exhibited at Cox's Museum along with numerous automata. It is probable that it was sold during Cox's lottery in 1774-1775, for which this print was most likely produced. Cox’s Perpetual Clock was exhibited at Cox’s Museum from 1773-1775 and was item 47 in Cox’s lottery catalogue (Greater London Council 61). It was also exhibited at Week’s Mechanical Museum (c. 1806), and is now owned by the Victoria and Albert Museum. This was one of Cox’s more famous and advertised clocks, and descriptions of it appear in advertisements for Cox’s Museum, press reviews, and mechanical and technical magazines. The clock’s “significant horological achievement” (62) is its ability to re-wind its own mechanism “by obtaining energy from the barometer in the lower part of the case, which is quite sufficient to keep the clock going continuously” (61).
The significance of this engraving lies mainly in its association with Cox’s Lottery and Cox’s Museum, as well as with the importance of luxury clocks to Romantic culture and aesthetics, mercantilism, and imperial commerce. Luxury clocks were closely linked with the production of automata during the latter half of the eighteenth century due to both new advancements in horological technology and a growing luxury trade market. As Pointon notes, luxury trade with China had been established in the late sixteenth century through diplomatic rituals of gift-giving, especially of clocks, and was greatly expanded in the eighteenth century through the commercial exploits of the East India Company (443-45). Automata in this period were thus associated with and often visually coded as “oriental”—observable in the prevalence of Turkish and Chinese figures, elephants and other exotic animals, “sing-songs,” and references to Orientalist religions—but were also made in London (and Paris, and elsewhere) for export to China, where they were received as representative of European aesthetics (Pointon 443). Cox, whose objects seem constantly to be on their way to or from the East, thus becomes an important figure for understanding the complexity of imperial commerce and Orientalism in this period.
Mr. Cox's Perpetual Motion, A Prize in the Museum Library also makes clear the strong relationship between luxury clocks and automata in the late eighteenth century. It is significant, for example, that the perpetual motion clock was singled out for illustration in the lottery catalogue as one of Cox’s masterpieces, on par with elaborate automata such as the silver swan, which preened itself, glided along its glass “water,” and picked up and swallowed wriggling “fish” made of glass rods (Greater London Council 125). This relationship would, as this gallery argues, change in the early nineteenth century, as automata came to be associated less with luxury commodities and more with the public display of mechanical advancement and industry. Cox’s Museum, however, as one of the first public spectacles of automata and as a failed luxury commercial outlet, marks a transition between those two modes of the cultural consumption of automata.
Advertisement for Cox’s lottery
Altick, Richard. The Shows of London. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP Belknap P, 1978. Print.
Burney, Frances. Evelina, or, A Young Lady’s Entrance Into the World: In a Series of Letters. Ed. Susan Kubica Howard. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press, 2000. Print.
Le Corbeiller, Clare. “James Cox: A Biographical Review.” The Burlington Magazine 112.807 (June 1970): 351-8.
---. “James Cox and His Curious Toys.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 18.10 (1960): 318-24. Print.
Greater London Council Public Relations Branch. John Joseph Merlin: The Ingenious Mechanick. London: Greater London Council, 1985. Print.
“Lodge, John.” Bryan’s Dictionary of Painters and Engravers. New Edition Revised and Enlarged under the supervision of George C. Williamson. 1927. Print.
Pagani, Catherine. “The Clocks of James Cox: Chinoiserie and the Clock Trade with China in the Late Eighteenth Century.” Apollo 141.395 (1995): 15-22. Print.
Park, Julie. “Pains and Pleasures of the Automaton: Frances Burney’s Mechanics of Coming Out.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 40.1 (2006): 23-49. Print.
Pointon, Marcia. “Dealer in Magic: James Cox’s Jewelry Museum and the Economics of Luxurious Spectacle in Late-Eighteenth-Century London.” Economic Engagements with Art. Ed. Craufurd D. Goodwin. Durham: Duke UP, 1999. 423-51. Print. History of Political Economy Annual Supplement.
Smith, Roger. “James Cox (c. 1723-1800): A Revised Biography.” The Burlington Magazine 142.1167 (2000): 353-61. Print.
Wright, Michael. “The Ingenious Mechanick.” Greater London Council 47-59.
Mr. Cox's Perpetual Motion, A Prize in the Museum Library