Wednesday, 24 January 2007

Machines that make birdsong run like clockwork

<bird in cage
by Christopher Proudlove©

Few collectors of my generation will forget the debonair Arthur Negus and the BBC antiques television programme "Going for a Song". The opening and closing sequences of that hugely influential and educating programme featured a singing bird automaton music box, not unlike the one illustrated here. Now, the chirping bird turning its head from side to side and fluttering its tail in such a jaunty, cheerful manner is an image that has become almost synonymous with collecting.

As someone not permitted by senior management to have a canary in the house, I've always hankered after owning a mechanical one, which struck me as possibly the next best thing. And then I learned how much they cost. Needless to say, I'm still saving.

The value of the late 19th century clockwork singing birds has taken flight. You won't be left with much change out of about £2,000 for a reasonable example in good working order. For the money you get a tiny feathered mechanical bird or birds, hopefully not too moth-eaten, which open and close their beaks in a semblance of syncopation with the sound of bird song or the tinkling of a music box, the movement of which is located in the base of the cage.

Automata that mimic birds have been around for a long time. Archytas of Tarentum (420-411 B.C.) is said to have built a mechanical bird that was propelled by a jet of steam and in Hans Christian Andersen's fairytale, the Chinese emperor had a mechanical nightingale made of gold and diamonds that could both fly and sing.

True mechanical and musical automatons, in which movement and sound are produced by clockwork, first appeared in the 15th century. Not surprisingly, German clockmakers were the finest exponents of the art, many of whom utilised the tiny moving figures to strike bells or chimes in clock movements.

The idea of transferring the figures from clock face to mantelpiece or sideboard was a natural progression. What helped was the arrival of the barrel organ in the early 16th century, followed by the Carillon (which used bells) and the invention, in 1796, of the musical box.

Each mechanical music machine was adopted in some ingenious way to give movement to automaton figures, favourite among which were monkey magicians. These evil looking creatures performed convincing little conjuring tricks with cups and disappearing dice on stages formed by the top of the box containing the clockwork movement.

However, it was the development of the music box in particular that produced some of the most technically brilliant automatons. Probably the most remarkable were those made at the end of the 18th century by a Swiss-born watchmaker Pierre Jaquet-Droz (1721-1790) and his son, Henri-Louis (1752-1791).

Father's masterpiece was The Writer. When activated, this seated figure of a young boy dips his quill pen in ink, shakes it twice, and writes a phrase of 40 characters by means of a preset mechanism. Even the figure's eyes move, watching the pen as it moves down the page.

The contribution made by Droz jnr., was The Draughtsman, similar in all respects as before, except that by means of a series of different cams, the figure draws four different diagrammatical: draw four different images: a portait of Louis XV, a royal couple (believed to be Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI), a dog with "Mon toutou" ("My doggy") written beside it, and Cupid driving a chariot pulled by a butterfly. The crowned heads of Europe and the emperors of China, India and Japan were among their customers.

The Jaquet-Droz mechanical singing bird, which appeared in about 1780, was subsequently miniaturised and incorporated into the movements of the company's most expensive clocks. Another clockmaker, Jean-Frederic Leschot (1746-1824) joined the Jaquet-Droz company and he perfected the miniaturisation process, later including it in jewel-encrusted gold boxes, notably those for snuff.

Unlike mechanical musical boxes, in which sounds were produced from the teeth of a steel comb being plucked by pins in a revolving brass cylinder, the singing birds are given their song by an equally intricate method. It relies on tiny bellows.

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When a button is pushed, the clockwork mechanism causes a series of rods to move the bird's head to move from side to side, while at the same time opening and closing its beak and opening, closing and flapping its wings.

Independently to this, the rods also cause a pair of bellows to be squeezed open and closed, forcing air to pass through minute pipes similar to the ones found in a church organ which provides the birdsong. The result - particularly on the better examples - is truly delightful, almost like having a real-life bird in the room.

Singing birds in gilded cages come in varying sizes and population. Small examples are found under four inches in height, but the majority are between 11 and 22 inches, the larger versions with two or occasionally three birds sitting on perches of varying heights. The rarest of all examples are particularly large and ornate and can contain up to 20 birds, giving full rein to the taxidermist's skill.

Equally charming and similarly rare are singing bird displays in which the creatures sit in naturalistic surroundings such as the branches of a tree but trapped beneath a tall and fragile glass dome. These remain somewhat less popular than their caged compatriots, probably because they looked rather too realistic for today's politically correct market.

If money is no object, the singing birds to seek out are the rich man's toys of the late 18th century which decorate gold snuff and other boxes which were nothing more than a display of wealth. Usually a rectangular metal box, made from gold, tortoiseshell, silver gilt or semi-pressures gemstones, the boxes were used to contain snuff, cashous or jewellery and go by the name of tabatière, a French word meaning snuff box.

Decorating the lid, or in rarer examples beneath the lid, is a small, pierced cover which flips open at the push of a button to reveal the bird who snaps to attention to perform his solo as the cover is released. These truly are miracles of miniaturisation and can be exceedingly expensive, as they were once the preserve of only royalty and the very rich.

Most were produced by the French and the Swiss, but several German companies also manufactured singing bird tabatières, with the result the late 19th century and 20th century examples are far more affordable, starting at around £2,000 at auction. However, a fully restored an example from a dealer can be several times the price.

The movements of good singing bird tabatière s are often signed and names to watch out for, in addition to Jaquet-Droz, include Frisard, Bruguier, Rochat, Griesbaum and Bontems. Two makers continue to make singing bird automaton today: the German companies Reuge, who purchased both Bontems in the 1900s and Eschle in 1977, and Griesbaum.

Advice to a would-be buyer: by the best you can afford and preferably one in full working order. A singing bird automaton needing restoration is a job for a trained professional - in fact several trained professionals, since so many disciplines are involved in their manufacture. Repairs are time-consuming and therefore costly.

Pictures show, top: Bird in a gilded cage: actually three birds sing for their supper in this 20th century automaton music box. It’s worth £175-250 at auction

Above, left: A good late 19th century Swiss gilt brass and enamel rectangular singing bird music box, the lid decorated with young lovers, shepherdess and romantic landscape, the sides decorated with oval and circular vignettes depicting Tyrolean landscapes. It sold in a recent auction for £2,000

Right: A good early 20th century German silver gilt cased rectangular singing bird box, sold for £1,700

Below, left: A very fine silver and polychrome enamel singing bird box of outstanding quality by Griesbaum of Germany. The lustrous decoration includes pastoral scenes with courting couples and enamel stringing and panels on all four sides. It’s currently for sale with an asking price of £11,750 at Douglas Fine Antiques, 75 Portobello Road, London, (Tel:07860 680521,

A continental singing bird box in a Bruguier-style cushion shaped case with fine gilt bronze decoration to the sides and top decorated in hand-painted enamel flowers on a pink ground. The lid is beautifully painted with a landscape in enamel. It’s currently for sale with an asking price of £6,750 at Douglas Fine Antiques, 75 Portobello Road, London, (Tel:07860 680521,

singing bird 1singing bird 2

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