A rare John Dennison 'musical fairy' fotune teller
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A rare John Dennison 'musical fairy' fotune teller

A rare John Dennison 'musical fairy' fotune teller
coin-operated automaton, with bisque head, closed mouth, threaded blue eyes, ears pierced into the head, brown wig, rigid-limb composition body with moulded shoes, original satin costume and hat trimmed with lace and metal-thread, standing in floral bower formed as garden with mirrored back, painted sides and two coloured cut-paper 'trees' acting as shutters, in glazed mahogany case with brass dial engraved from 1 - 9, coin-slot, drop-front coin compartment and replica hinged topflash, the massive going-barrel spring driving six-air cartel cylinder movement and three brass cams with runners causing the figure to rotate ninety degrees while one of the trees slides away revealing a changing prediction - 28in. (71cm.) high x 21½in. (54cm.) wide x 14½in. (37cm.) deep, the cylinder 11in. (28cm.), the inside of the case stamped J. Dennison, Leeds, circa 1885.
The Costa collection.
Paul Braithwaite, (1997), Arcades and Slot Machines, p. 65.

Chapuis & Droz, (1958), Automata, a Historical and Technological Survey, Chapter 12.

Illustrated in: Richard M. Bueschel, (1998), Collectors Guide to Vintage Coin Machines, and Nic Costa, (1988), Automatic Pleasures, The History of the Coin Machine, p.110.

Also pictured in Darren A. Hesketh's forthcoming book, Penny-in-the-Slot Automata and the Working Model.
Special notice

This lot is subject to Collection and Storage Charges.
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
Sale room notice
An incomplete printed label on the underside lists Dennison's models with a description of each, with a quote from the Leeds Times May 29th 1875.

"J.D is the Original maker of the Self-Acting Fairy Fortune Teller, Temperance Bar Maid, Organ Man &C.

French ...; Ting...; Fairy Fortune Teller; Mother Shipton; Singing...; Punch and Judy; Ticket Fairy; Paddle steam Ship; Conjuring; Drunkard's Dream; Bell Ringers (Female); Turning (?) Old folks into Young (Teetotal Mill); Haunted House; French Fair; Trumpeteers; Church Tower; Lady at Sewing Machine; Lady at her Toilet; Hansome Musical Box.
John Dennison, Mechanical Model Maker, 26 Salop St., Bank. Leeds. Clocks, Watches, Musical Boxes, &C. repaired on the shortest notice.

Reuben Booth, Printer, 123 East St., Bank, Leeds."

Lot Essay


Movement is provided by a spring-barrel driving the six-air cylinder movement from its own mainspring, which in turn drives the cams-shaft via an intermediate gear. The governor on the cylinder movement regulates the speed for the whole assembly. A 16-inch diameter card disc printed with different categories of answer (and two portrait prints) bears the paper label From John Dennison, Maker of the A I Mechanical & Musical Marvels, 26, Salop Stree, Bank, and is attached to the brass dial on the front of the case. The category of question is selected by rotating the dial, so that the answer lines up with one of the two shutters which open alternately, one during each sequence. The figure would originally moved her right arm to indicate the fotune selected.


John Dennison is recognised as one of the earliest British makers of coin-operated amusement machines and automata. However, there is comparatively little known about this influential maker. He was certainly exhibiting his creations as early as 1875 from an address in Salop Street (Leeds), and there is some suggestion that his earliest models may date from the mid 1850s. By 1888, he had moved to 102 Ascot Terrace in Leeds, describing himself as "a musical model maker". By 1903 he had relocated once again to 19 Roundhay View, and was listed as an "automatic machine maker".

Dennison specialised in small mechanical scenes. Although he produced some pieces which were purely automata such as 'The Miser' (the inspiration of numerous Haunted House working models produced over the next sixty years) and 'Poor Father', the majority of his surviving models fall into the category of animated fotune teller, in which a form of prediction was accompanied by a simple action.

The 'Musical Fairy' was one of his popular subjects, combining music, movement and magic in the form of a prediction. It is similar in style and function to two other Dennison models: 'Mother Shipton' and the 'Ticket Sorceror'. However, unlike the 'Ticket Sorceror' which delivers a printed prediction to the sound of a small snuff-box type tabatière, the mechanism of the 'Musical Fairy' has a much more impressive musical accompaniment in the form of full-size cartel movement. In addition to his main business, it is possible that Dennison may also have either repaired or retailed musical boxes, as his label has been found on a musical box case.

For many years Dennison's machines were exhibited at Blackpool Tower. After his death in 1924, the machines were maintained by his daughters, who updated many of the models, adding electricity and modernising the original figures to appeal to a new audience. It is believed that all the machines were kept together until the daughters sold the entire collection to the Blackpool Tower Collection in 1944. A number of Dennison pieces were eventually acquired by the Costa Collection.

All of Dennisons models were hand-built and essentially 'one off'. It around thirty John Dennison working models are thought to have survived, and of these fewer with their original clockwork motors.


There has always been a connection between magic and fortune telling, not least in the field of mechanical figues. A small number of late 18th and early 19th Century magician automata incorporated a fortune telling element. One such magician is Jean David Mailardet's famous Great Magician Clock that could respond to a series of questions engraved miniature enamelled tablets, to which the answers would appear in a shutter placed above the figure's head. Less elaborate versions on a similar theme were replicated in magician clocks during the 19th Century, and Dennison's fortune teller also makes use of a simplified shutter mechanism.

As Chapuis writes: "Some eighteenth-century books on mechanical amusements show a method of building little temples for soothsayers (or magicians), where the answer to a selected question would appear indicated by a number on a dial placed in the upper part of the structure. These answers were so vague that they would apply to everybody. As to the questions...they were 'absurd eternal questions which the public always asks about future joys and hopes.'"


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