THE ROBERSONS' GALLERIES SALE
This clock is one of nine musical and automaton clocks which appear in a selling exhibition catalogue dedicated to them and produced by Robersons' Galleries of Knightsbridge at some time in the 1920s, or possibly the early 1930s (see Fig. B for illustration). In a short foreword to the catalogue Robersons' write: 'The collection was gathered by an Irish gentleman during the course of his world travels before the Great War. In Peking, Teheran, St. Petersburg, Lahore and many other Eastern towns this gentleman made his purchases, paying fabulous prices, and he kept them for several years in his home in Danzig. At the outbreak of war he returned with them to Ireland...' The collection was offered as a whole or separately.
The decorators and furnishers Robersons took over the Knightsbridge Halls circa 1921; by the late 1930s the Halls were used for the motor trade.
COMPARATIVE MUSICAL AND AUTOMATON CLOCKS BY HENRY BORRELL
In scale and design this superb clock by Henry Borrell may be compared with a pair of richly decorated (with guilloché enamels) clocks by the same maker. One was sold Christie's London, Important Clocks, 6 July 2001, lot 39 (£223,750) and the other established a world auction record for an English clock when sold Christie's Hong Kong, Magnificent Clocks for the Chinese Imperial Court from the Nezu Museum, 27 May 2008, lot 1511 (HK$36,167,500 £2,355,000 -- see Fig. C). See also D. Roberts, Mystery, Novelty and Fantasy Clocks, Atglen, 1999, p. 187, fig. 15-26.
The pair have two key design features in common with the present clock. They are topped by mirror-backed catherine-wheel automata crestings and at the front shutters rise to reveal a series of automaton ships riding on glass 'waves'. The design of the paste-set bezels and of the frames bordering the automaton shutters is the same on all three clocks (save for the colour of the stones), whilst the openwork decoration to the rear doors is identical. The present clock likewise has the same mechanical functions as the enamel pair; indeed, all three share the same movement design, down to their signed pendulums.
The present clock differs most clearly from the pair in that it is not decorated with panels of guilloché enamels. Instead the case is of engraved ormolu, further embellished with foliate cast mounts, features it shares with a Borrell clock in the Palace Museum, Beijing (see Fig. A and below). Its top has a more pronounced domed form and the corner columns are straight rather than outswept as on the enamel clocks. It shares all of these features with a clock by Borrell offered for sale at Christie's New York, 29 October 1990, lot 22. The latter clock did not have a catherine-wheel cresting, however, and was consequently also a little smaller than the one offered here.
The present clock differs from all other examples in two ways which are of particular interest. The pierced silvered gallery, with its dogs of Fo mounted on pedestals at intervals, seems most likely to be a Chinese replacement, although when this may have been done is unclear as it is not a decorative feature found on recorded Chinese clocks of the same period (certainly it appears on the c.1920s exhibition catalogue produced by Robersons' Galleries). Likewise, the openwork conjoined dolphin feet are highly unusual; one more often sees outswept feet on Borrell clocks.
Henry Borrell was a London clock and watchmaker whose address is recorded at 15 Wilderness Row 1795-1840. He was one of a number of English clockmakers towards the end of the 18th century whose work was strongly connected to the Export market. One of his clocks with a case profile conforming to the aforementioned enamel pair but with engraved ormolu decoration is in the Palace Museum, Beijing. That clock is also musical and has a shutter rising to show automaton ships but lacks the sunburst and catherine-wheel cresting to be found on the present example. The paste gem decorations to the bezel and shutter frame are apparently identical to those on this clock, however. See Lu Yangzhen (senior editor), Timepieces Collected by the Qing Emperors in the Palace Museum, Hong Kong, 1995, p. 100. A smaller and less complex chased ormolu musical and automaton table clock by Henry Borrell was also sold in the Nezu Collection, lot 1515 (HK$6,151,500 £400,450).
EUROPEAN CLOCKS AND THE CHINESE EXPORT MARKET
Clocks, watches and automata were exported from Europe to China from the 17th century, with the Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) famously using clocks to gain access to the Imperial Court in 1601. The trade gained far greater significance during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor (1736-1795), who amassed possibly the greatest collection of clocks and watches ever assembled. Initially clocks made for China were destined for the Imperial Court but as trade grew in the latter years of the 18th Century the market expanded to include those outside the court, including officials and members of the Chinese elite, as well as Europeans who purchased them as gifts to gain favour with the Emperor (see Catherine Pagani, Eastern Magnificence and European Ingenuity, University of Michigan, 2001 pp. 101-102). George Staunton, secretary and minister plenipotentiary to Lord Macartney's embassy to China in 1793 wrote: 'Extraordinary pieces of ingenious and complicated mechanism...were exported annually to a considerable amount. Many of these costly articles, obtained by the Mandarines, under promise of protection from their inferiors, ultimately found their way into the palaces of the Emperor and his Ministers, in the hope of securing the favour of their superiors' (quoted in Pagani, p. 102). By the time of Macartney's visit in 1793 the number of clocks in the Imperial collection was astonishing. A visit to the palace at Jehol revealed that the forty or fifty palace buildings he visited were 'all furnished...with every kind of European toys and sing-songs; with spheres, orreries, clocks and musical automatons...' (Pagani, p. 83). And Jehol was just one of three Imperial residences; more would have been on display in the Forbidden City and at the Summer Palace.
THE VALUE OF CLOCKS IN IMPERIAL CHINA
The value of clocks to the Chinese Emperors and nobility did not lie in their use as timekeepers. Their appeal seems to have been social or political rather than practical and, initially at least, in their embodiment of 'the West'. Pagani cites three young princes coming to admire the European clocks brought by the Macartney embassy and who openly admitted they did not know their purpose (p. 96). Rather, clocks and watches were popular with the Imperial court because of their symbolic value. At first clocks arriving in China were destined for the court or to be bought by those who wished to curry Imperial favour. Even when clockmaking became more established in China itself availability was still restricted, with the best pieces offered as tribute and plainer examples offered to the non-Imperial market. Such a limited (in relative terms) production ensured that many of the available clocks found their way to the Emperor. As Pagani concludes, Qianlong used this 'exclusivity of goods to display his power and signify his control, status and privilege' (p. 98).