A magnificent George III ormolu, enamel and paste gem-set musical automaton and quarter-striking tower clock, made for the Chinese market
No VAT will be charged on the hammer price, but VA… Read more
A magnificent George III ormolu, enamel and paste gem-set musical automaton and quarter-striking tower clock, made for the Chinese market


A magnificent George III ormolu, enamel and paste gem-set musical automaton and quarter-striking tower clock, made for the Chinese market
Thompson, London
The case modelled in five tiers conjoined by a pair of columns to each canted angle, each tier of octagonal form and with pierced balustrade, the galleries with floral swags suspended between them, the base supported on eight finely chased ball and claw feet elaborately modelled with leafy fronds, the lower columns cast with palmette clasps, with panels of royal blue enamel to each side embellished with intricate geometric lattice and flowerhead designs in gold and polychrome enamel, the front with a glazed circular recessed panel for a spinning catherine wheel, set in three dimensions with paste gems, with winding arbor below for the musical automaton movement concealed by an ormolu leaf cast cover, paste-set tune selection knob above, the chased ormolu rear panel with pierced and chased ormolu movement door, the next tier centred by a fountain issuing jets of water simulated by twisted glass automaton rods projecting from sea serpents and dolphin masks, the centre tier with white enamel Roman time dial to the front with gold hour and minute hands and blued steel sweep centre seconds hand, with paste gem-set knob below to trip release the musical and automaton movement at will, with pendulum regulation arbor above, the sides with conforming blue enamel panels and the rear with a silk-backed floral trellis-work rear door, the next tier also panelled in blue enamel and entirely revolving, with each side centred by automaton multicoloured guilloché enamelled whirly-gigs, the top tier with revolving columns spirally set with paste gems around a central column also set with paste gems and revolving, this periodically opening to transform into panels of polychrome guilloché enamel adorned with foliate designs, the automaton finial formed as an enamelled and paste set thirteen-pointed star-burst.
The musical and automaton movement housed within the lower tier, with tandem-wound triple chain fusees and barrels, providing music on eight bells via a pinned barrel and giving indirect drive to the automaton features above, the clock movement housed within the middle section with twin chain fusees, with silk suspended pendulum and chiming the hours and quarters on two nested bells, the back plate signed Thompson London
46in. (117cm.) high

Derek Roberts, Mystery, Novelty and Fantasy Clocks, Schiffer, Pennsylvania, 1999, pp.165-190.
Richard C.R. Barder, The Georgian Bracket Clock 1714-1830, The Antique Collectors' Club, Woodbridge, 1993, pp.154-176.
Allen H. Weaving, 'Clocks for the Emperor', Antiquarian Horology, Vol XIX, No.4, Summer 1991, pp.367-389.
Donald Day, 'The Amazing Automaton Clocks in Beijing's Palace Museum', NAWCC Bulletin, Vol.43/1, No.330, pp.11-19.
Timepieces Collected by Qing Emperors in the Palace Museum, Hong Kong, 1995.
Alfred Chapuis, La Montre Chinoise, Attinger Frères, Neuchatel, 1919.
Special notice
No VAT will be charged on the hammer price, but VAT at 17.5% will be added to the buyer's premium which is invoiced on a VAT inclusive basis

Lot Essay

For European merchants of the 17th and 18th centuries China offered the tantalising prospect of great wealth. China had tea, spices, silk and porcelain, commodities which were highly prized in their home markets. Unfortunately for the European traders, the Chinese had little interest in the goods they were being offered in return. The West was considered to have nothing to offer China and the Emperors of the Quing Dynasty had no wish to open their country to harmful foreign influences.
Against this background may be seen the development of a Chinese Export market for clocks and the creation of clocks with cases and functions suited to the tastes of the Chinese market. English (specifically London) clockmakers had already shown themselves adept at designing clocks for export markets and indeed had been selling clocks to the 'Turkish' market for many years. The Chinese market, however, was to call for decidedly more extravagant works of art.
As with the present example, English clocks for the Chinese Export market - known locally as 'sing-songs' - frequently had certain features in common. Dials are unsigned, in accordance with Quing law, and usually of plain white enamel. The use of a sweep seconds hand, rare on clocks for the home market, was almost mandatory; it is thought this custom derives from the Chinese wish to see that the clock was working. Automata, music work and quarter chimes were also customary - the primary intent of these clocks being to impress and entertain - and the more extravagant the better. As with the Thompson clock the finest were of ormolu embellished with enamels, whilst the Chinese particularly appreciated mock gems.
There is little evidence in ships' manifests of the period to suggest the wholesale export of clocks from London to China, the exception being James Cox, who the East India company allowed to set up a factory in the British compound in Canton. Those clocks which were sent were used as a form of currency or bargaining chips. Trade with China was extremely difficult; the East India Company, which had established a 'factory' at Canton in 1715, could only deal with Chinese merchants (Co-hong) and the customs superintendent (Hoppo). The Company paid tax on the size of each ship, percentages to various officials and duty on goods both imported and exported. This situation led to merchants being ruthlessly exploited by officials; in order to facilitate trade they were expected to provide annual tribute, give presents and offer gifts on festive occasions.

The manufacture of clocks such as this was a complicated project involving a number of artisans. Thomson would have overseen the design and production of his clock but some of the necessary skills would not generally have been found in an English clockmaker's workshop of the period. The superb enamel panels on the present clock, for example, are clearly Swiss and late 18th century London was home to many Swiss craftsmen involved in the clock and watch trade. The panels may be compared to those on several other fine quality clocks produced for the Chinese market, such as the example by Henry Borrell sold in these rooms on 6 July 2001 (lot 39). Those panels which open outwards on the upper tier of the clock also bear close comparison with the decoration on Swiss ornamental pocket knives of the period.

More from Boulle to Jansen: An Important Private European Collection

View All
View All