Joseph Merlin (1735-1803) and Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) were almost exact contemporaries, and both spent significant periods of their lives in London. Although they never met, the composer's endlessly fertile musical imagination could be said to have its practical mechanical counterpart in Merlin, the inventor.
Born in Belgium and trained, probably as a clock-maker in Paris, Merlin was first brought to London in 1760 as part of the retinue of the Spanish ambassador, Conde de Fuentes. A man of mechanical interests himself, the nobleman seems to have introduced Merlin straightaway into the right scientific circles. By 1763, he was involved in producing a large barrel-organ for the Princess of Wales, a very prestigious commission, and had become principal mechanic for the goldsmith, James Cox. Cox's large-scale automata, and his Museum at which they were exhibited in 1772, certainly influenced not only Merlin's later creations but also his manner of engaging the public.
Merlin had higher social aspirations. Describing himself as a 'mathematical instrument maker' in his 1773 patent for a Dutch Oven, he had left the employ of Cox and was gradually achieving a degree of financial independence. By 1775 he had become a great favourite in the household of the celebrated musician and music historian, Charles Burney, who arguably became his greatest patron. He was introduced to literary figures including Horace Walpole and Dr Johnson, not to mention contemporary musicians and artists such as Gainsborough, for whom he sat.
Merlin comfortably straddled the musical and mechanical spheres bringing practical knowledge of machinery and physical principles to bear on pertinent issues of musical aesthetics. This is amply demonstrated by his musical instrument patent of 1774 which combined within one case a harpsichord and a piano that could be played from a single keyboard. This invention encapsulates the reluctance of that era to let go of the traditional harpsichord, a plucked action keyboard, in favour of the newer struck action piano which allowed gradual changes in dynamics controlled by the force of the player's touch. The piano portion of Merlin's patent action could also be fitted to existing harpsichords, sparing his clients the expense of acquiring a whole new keyboard instrument while allowing their music rooms to remain fashionably up-to-date.
In 1786, when this piano was made, Merlin dispensed with the harpsichord part of the contrivance, perhaps judging, correctly as it transpired, that the dynamic flexibility of the piano would eventually prevail. Retaining the essential downstriking hammer action of his earlier patent, this rare surviving example of his Grand Patent Four Unison Piano-Forte shows a pre-occupation with enhancing volume, expressiveness and tonal quality. While most contemporary pianos had only two or three strings per note, this instrument, anticipating the work of makers 40 years later, added a fourth increasing its power. It also provided a pedal allowing one, two, three or four strings to be struck, producing, in Merlin's words, 'the most minute shades of Diminuendo or Crescendo.' In addition, the instrument possesses extremely long string after-lengths (non-sounding portion of the strings), particularly well-defined in the bass, which could have produced a most effective sympathetic resonance or halo of sound around the actual struck notes. The purpose of some features of the piano remains enigmatic, for example, the bridge-like structure mounted on the soundboard beneath the after-length of the bass strings. Similarly intriguing is the relative lack of case distortion in an instrument supporting about thirty per cent more tension than the usual English grand of that date, suggesting internal structural innovations that have yet to be documented.
Merlin's automata, complex mechanisms with ostensibly little auxiliary practical application, attracted what might be regarded now as disproportionate attention. One of the most elaborate of these, the Silver Swan, survives in working order and is still demonstrated once a day at the Bowes Museum, County Durham. Among the late 18th century aristocracy, such enchanting, unique and expensive 'toys' experienced a great vogue. Merlin, with his showman's temperament and shrewd business sense, pandered to this fascination, perhaps because, in addition to an income, it gave the freest rein to his inventiveness, skills and imagination. He opened in circa 1783, as Cox had done a decade earlier, a self-styled Museum, in reality an up-market shop and showroom, in London's newly fashionable Hanover Square. Merlin's Mechanical Museum became an obligatory destination for the local gentry and visiting dignitaries and aristocrats. Significantly, it was also visited as a child by Charles Babbage, who later invented the calculating engine, recognized now as the first computer. During his later years, Merlin concentrated on these automata which he considered to be his masterpieces.
Merlin's life spanned a remarkable period of both musical transition, from the Baroque to the Classical, and social transition which allowed a new degree of class mobility. Through his talents and sheer hard work, Merlin participated in the one and benefited from the other. Following his death in 1803, RS Kirby published an engraved account, dedicated to the ingenious mechanic. The title alone indicates the esteem in which Merlin had been held: 'The Life of Mr John Joseph Merlin, Supposed to be the greatest Mechanical Genius that ever appeared in this Country'.
Mimi S Waitzman
We are grateful to Mimi S. Waitzman, Deputy Keeper of Musical Instruments, The Horniman Museum and Gardens, London, for her assistance with the cataloguing of this lot.