Nécessaires set with watches are found in the British Royal Collection, the Imperial Palace Museum in Beijing, the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, New York’s Metropolitan Museum, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. They epitomise the wondrous objects that were known in the 18th century as ‘toys’, items that Samuel Johnson described as ‘a thing of more show than use, a petty commodity, a trifle’.
They would have been made either for export to the Chinese market or sold in a toyshop, which were among the most fashionable stores in the second half of the 18th century. Those wealthy enough to afford such items appreciated the workmanship, technical advances, and new and exotic materials that went into their making.
The purveyors of these toyshops — a toy-man or toy-woman — were purely retailers, the equivalent of a French marchand mercier. In London, however, several of these toy-men described themselves as ‘jewellers’, and many who described themselves as ‘goldsmith and jewellers’ also sold toys such as nécessaires and étuis.
The most famous of these toy-men was James Cox (circa 1723-1800), an inventor, designer and entrepreneur who was renowned for his incredibly complicated musical automaton clocks and nécessaires that incorporated watches, the majority of which were exported abroad to adorn the palaces of the Chinese Emperor and Indian maharajas, as well as the Tsar of Russia and the Ottoman kings.
It could be said that automata were staples in every self-respecting cabinet of curiosities, or Wunderkammer, in the free imperial courts of Europe in the 18th century. Frederick the Great of Prussia (1712-1786), in particular, was obsessed with automata and collected them avidly. There were automata of chess players, animals — including a defecating duck — and even whole garden grottoes, containing complete automated towns. Indian maharajahs also succumbed to the craze: Tipu Sultan commissioned ‘Tipu’s Tiger’, an almost life-size depiction of a tiger mauling a European soldier, now in the V&A. In a sense, these automata were the predecessors of the computer.
It was not only European and Russian courts that collected automata: the Chinese also loved these delightful little mechanical toys, and termed them ziming zhong — the clock that plays by itself. When this was anglicised the phrase gave rise to the charmingly appropriate term, ‘sing-song’.
On 6 December, an extraordinary nécessaire — made, unusually, of solid gold — will be offered in the Magnificent Jewels sale at Christie’s in New York. An elaborately chased latticework case, lined in fine grey agates, forms the body of the nécessaire, which is set with flowers of 109 rubies, 374 diamonds and 125 emeralds. The jewelled pagoda contained an array of tiny gold tools, which were stored in its hinged pinnacle. All were of solid gold and consisted of a bodkin, a cotton spool, an ear-spoon, a pen, a burin and a brush. The clock, set to chime every quarter of an hour, was signed by Roger Allam.
The front door of the nécessaire opens to reveal a red velvet interior containing two rock crystal scent bottles and a gold cup with chinoiserie decoration. Two gold sable drawers in the base of the pagoda contained a gold inkwell and a powder box. All these delights were concealed in a rococo gold ‘fantasy’ measuring just over eight inches (20 cm) high.
Why was this particular golden nécessaire intended for the Chinese elite? The Chinese emperor Qianlong was passionate about clocks, and owned more than 3,000 of them. Moreover, England needed to export something desirable to the Chinese to offset its balance-of-payments problem. Step forward James Cox.
Today, Cox’s best-known collaborations are the life-size silver swan that can be seen at the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle in the northeast of England, and the bejewelled preening peacock that is a highlight of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. His workshop, which employed a great number of jewellers and goldsmiths, manufactured many delightful, frivolous beauties such as this nécessaire — just the thing a loyal courtier would have bought to amuse and intrigue his enlightened Emperor.
Over the course of the 18th century, shiploads of sing-songs were transported to China and India, but none, I believe, were as glamorous and exquisite as this nécessaire.
This wonderful little piece disappeared in the upheavals of the early 19th century, later reappearing in the collection of Alfred de Rothschild. On his death in 1918, de Rothschild left this precious pagoda to his daughter, Almina, Countess of Carnarvon, who lived at Highclere Castle in Hampshire. Upon her death in 1925, this exceptional example of the 18th-century goldsmith and jeweller’s art was sold at Christie’s. It returns on 6 December in our Magnificent Jewels sale in New York.