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H5043 Musical automaton with clock, animated birds and swans, wood / metal / feathers, [clock by Japy Frères (Japy Brothers) and automaton by the Bontems family], France, 1870-1900. Click to enlarge.

French musical automaton fitted with clock, 1870-1900

Made
  • c 1890
This automaton features six colourful animated birds, a waterfall, a tree surrounded by rocks and plants, a pond with three miniature waterbirds, and a clock. The mechanism, including bellows and a flute to reproduce bird calls, is hidden in the base and activated by a key.

While the names of its makers are unknown, it was probably crafted in Paris in the late 1800s, with clock by Japy Frères (Japy Brothers) and automaton by the Bontems family. Blaise Bontems (1814-1881) was renowned for making automata with realistic songs, including those of the nightingale, canary, finch and blackbird.

Automata have fascinated and entertained people for centuries. They can be traced back at least as far as Hero of Alexandria, who died in 62 AD. Drawing on earlier works, he wrote about a whistling bird automaton, coin-in-slot automata that delivered wine or holy water, and programmable machines. Whistling bird automata are still made today.

This automaton incorporates a clock, making it useful as well as decorative and entertaining. It would have taken days to make, with each silk leaf and flower, and each real feather, carefully attached by hand. The bird in the centre whistles, two birds peck, two fly from branch to branch, and one flutters its wings, all activated by gears, levers, springs and cams and controlled by a pinned cylinder like those in music boxes. The leather bellows blow air through the tiny flute, and cams vary the length of the flute's air column to produce different notes and thus simulate the song of a particular bird species.

The simulated waterfall is a twisted glass rod that catches the light as it rotates. It might have been included as a reference to the singing birds described by Hero, which were activated by falling water. The swan and ducks on the static pond below the waterfall are much smaller than the songbirds, suggesting that the viewer is supposed to imagine that the pond sits far below the tree.

Debbie Rudder

Summary

Object No.

H5043

Object Statement

Musical automaton with clock, animated birds and swans, wood / metal / feathers, [clock by Japy Frères (Japy Brothers) and automaton by the Bontems family], France, 1870-1900

Physical Description

Musical automaton with clock, animated birds and swans, wood / metal / feathers, [clock by Japy Frères (Japy Brothers) and automaton by the Bontems family], France, 1870-1900

Automaton fitted with musical movement and clock. It features a nature scene, with a large tree overlooking eight colourful birds beneath its branches. A key wind on the the right hand side of the automaton can be turned to activate the birds movement; the bird in the centre whistles, two birds make feeding movements, two fly from branch to branch, one flutters its wings, and two are static. A miniature swan swims on the pond and two ducks turn slightly. Twisted glass rod gives the illusion of flowing water. A small, white enamelled clockface with black Roman numerals is attached to the left hand side of the scene. The automaton is fixed to a heavy gilt base with wreath ornamentation and four spherical feet. It is missing its original dome.

Dimensions

Height

660 mm

Width

665 mm

Depth

310 mm

Production

Made

  • c 1890

Source

Credit Line

Purchased 1949

Acquisition Date

4 October 1949

Cite this Object

Harvard

French musical automaton fitted with clock, 1870-1900 2020, Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, accessed 24 November 2020, <https://ma.as/241685>

Wikipedia

{{cite web |url=https://ma.as/241685 |title=French musical automaton fitted with clock, 1870-1900 |author=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences |access-date=24 November 2020 |publisher=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, Australia}}

Incomplete

This object record is currently incomplete. Other information may exist in a non-digital form. The Museum continues to update and add new research to collection records.