JAMES COX'S MUSICAL AND AUTOMATA CLOCKS
Although James Cox (c.1723-1800) retailed and exported a very wide range of clocks from his premises at 103 Shoe Lane, he was not a clockmaker by trade but a goldsmith and jeweller. This may explain why clock-necessaires, in the form of miniature cabinets or bureaux made of agate and gold cage-work, are among his most typical products.1
A number of such pieces in public and other collections can be related to the current clock, including those noted below.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Identical to the bureau-cabinet which forms the upper stage on the current clock, except for a posy of jewelled flowers in place of the armillary sphere (but, interestingly, with a serrated disc below the posy that matches the one below the armillary on this example). It also retains the vases of flowers to its upper corners that have been replaced with gilt balls on the current clock. This clock-necessaire does not have a lower (automaton) plinth (illustrated in Le Corbeiller, fig.1)1.
Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
Of closely related design to the current clock but with a two-train striking movement, variant gold cage-work, additional corner pillars and standing on four rhinos, rather than bulls. It is surmounted by a vase of flowers. The internal fittings of the necessaire (still complete) are identical to those of the current clock. The original key dates it to 1772. This clock-necessaire does not have a lower (automaton) plinth.
British Royal Collection
Very similar to the upper (necessaire) section of the current example, but without the bombé bureau base and without the lower (automaton) plinth (illustrated in Le Corbeiller, fig.9)1.
This list is not exhaustive. Several other agate and gold cage-work necessaire clocks by Cox are known, including some featuring a different style of miniature bureau, of less bombé form and with heavier corner mounts. One of this second type is in the Gilbert Collection and another was sold at Sotheby's, London, 13 December 1954, lot 77a (illustrated Smith, fig.17 1). These may be slightly earlier than those listed above, since two related clocks are dated 1766 on the key. One was sold from the Egyptian Palace Collection at Sotheby's London, 13 March 1954, lot 617 shown by Wartski at the CINOA exhibition 1962, catalogue no.224, pl.138) and another is in the Palace Museum, Beijing.
THE LOWER ROCKWORK PLINTH WITH AUTOMATA MOVEMENT
It is probable that many of the small bureaux-necessaires were sold in the home market and in Europe, as well as being exported further overseas. In addition, similar elements could be incorporated into larger clocks, such as still survive in the Palace Museum, Beijing. It is therefore entirely possible that some of the cabinet clocks that now stand on their own were originally part of such larger pieces.
Cox and his competitors manufactured and assembled many of their export pieces in modular form, making it relatively simple to add additional stages to make a clock look larger or more impressive. One such enhancement, particularly for clocks destined for the Oriental market was to add a base with independent automata or musical movement, usually with no linkage to the upper stage. The current clock is an example of this. Similar rockwork bases can be seen on other export clocks signed by Cox, including several now in Beijing. Another such base can be found on the stag clock attributed to Cox and sold Sotheby's New York, Masterpieces from the Time Museum, 2 December 1999, lot 75. Such bases typically stand on animal feet (frequently turtles, as on the Time Museum example) and Cox's craftsmen often reused the same models. Dragons are less common but the model used on the current clock can be found on a large elephant clock now in Beijing (maker presently unknown but English c.1770s and with several Cox features).
Both cabinet-clocks and rockwork bases are therefore well known in Cox's output but it is extremely rare to find them combined. The modular construction probably accounts for the differences in finish between the upper and lower levels on the current clock (delicate gold work to the top, robustly cast gilded bronze to the base): the parts would have been made by different specialists in separate workshops.
BACKGROUND: COX'S SPRING GARDENS MUSEUM
By 1770-1775 the bombé bureau of the current clock would seem rather old-fashioned. However, the clear dating of the St Petersburg clock key to 1772 confirms that such objects were being made around 1770, when Cox's overseas trade was at its height. Such evidence may appear circumstantial but it is also clear from surviving catalogues for Cox's famous Spring Gardens Museum that a pair of closely related, if not identical, cabinet clocks were exhibited there in the early 1770s.
The Museum opened in 1772, as a paying exhibition of articles which Cox was having trouble selling in the Far East, and lasted until the contents were sold by lottery in 1775. The pair of cabinet clocks are not included in the 1772 or 1773 Descriptive Catalogues of the Museum but seem to be first noted as two separate items (9 and 18) in the schedule to the Act of Parliament (passed 10 May 1773) which granted Cox permission to dispose of his stock by lottery.
In the 1773 and 1774 Descriptive Inventories the exhibits were described at some length, with the cabinet clocks appearing as items 17-18 (A Descriptive Inventory..., National Maritime Museum; a copy of the 1773 edition is in the Guildhall Library [pam.1489]).
Item 17 was described as 'a superb cabinet of the finest and most beautiful onyx...with ornaments of gold.' The necessaire was described in detail, including the doors lined with mirrors and the instruments. There was also 'a most curious timepiece, which, when wound up, gives motion to a sphere of gold, revolving on its axis during the going of the timepiece.' Vases of jewelled flowers, missing on the current clock, are also noted. The lower part of the cabinet was supported by four bulls, which themselves stood on 'a gilt rock, in the front of which is a cascade, and running streams of artifical water, where swans are seen swimming in contrary directions; at the corner of the rocks are dragons with extended wings.' The reference to the extended wings is telling, since on the clock at Beijing with similar dragons the wings and tail are elevated; this was probably the original position for this model, with the extended wings and oddly concealed tails on the present example being an adaptation.
The published description therefore includes just those features in which the present clock varies from other known cabinet clocks by Cox (the armillary sphere, the rockwork base with water-effects and swans, the unusual dragons). This certainly suggests that the current clock is one of those exhibited in Cox's Museum, although the possibility that Cox made a further example incorporating these features cannot be excluded.
If the clock was a Museum exhibit then presumably it was won by a ticket-holder when the lottery was drawn in May-June 1775. Many such clocks were bought from the winners by merchants who exported them to the Far East or other overseas markets. Other pieces are known to have passed in due course to showmen like Thomas Weekes, who continued to exhibit them to the paying public in scaled-down versions of Cox's Museum.
1. For the history of Cox's enterprise see Roger Smith, 'James Cox: A Revised Biography', Burlington Magazine, June 2000, pp.353-361; and the same author's article in the new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. For the small cabinet clocks see also Clare Le Corbeiller, 'James Cox: A Biographical Review', Burlington Magazine, June 1970, pp.350-358.
We are grateful to Mr Roger Smith for his assistance with this catalogue note.