John Joseph Merlin was born on September 4th,1735 in Huys approximately five miles from Maastrict. Little is known of his parents but his half brother Charles Merlin was an inventor in Strasbourg and amongst other things invented a heavy weighing machine. Studying in Paris for six years at the Académie des Sciences he made his mark and came to London as part of the entourage of the Conde de Fuentes (d.1771). Arriving in 1760 Merlin formed part of the Count's household and was introduced to fashionable London and its scientific luminaries. As early as 1763 Merlin was granted a important commission for the French astronomer/clockmaker lalande; a barrel organ for the Princess of Wales (Augusta of Saxe Gotha, widow of Frederick Prince of Wales and mother of George III). By about 1766 Merlin began working for the celebrated clock and autometon maker James Cox. He spent as many as four or five years in the employ of the famous master of automata in Spring Gardens, apparently as 'Principal Mechanic'.
By 1773 Merlin perhaps saw the writing on the wall for Cox's Museum and took self employmant as Mathematical and Instrument Maker. In one publication of the period he was referred to as Mr. Merling, artist to Mr. Cox. Merlin's description of himself as as a mathematical instrument maker may represent an attempt to create an image of broad capablility or it may have been a device to avoid restriction by City Livery Companies to which he did not belong. Amongst his many inventions were a Roaster or Rotisseur, a pianoforte hammer action to be added to a harpsicord and the Sanctorius balance or personal weighing machine. Merlin was quite the fashionable man about town who moved in high circles, not only for reasons of patronage but also because he was much vaunted companion at parties and dinners. He became intimate with the musical Burney Family which improved his reputation greatly. Dr Charles Burney (1726-1814) was one of England's most respected musical luminaries and the author A History of Music. Burney's daughter was the authoress and socialite Fanny Burney, later Madame D'Arblay (1752-1840). Her books included Evalina (1778) and Cecilia (1782) and Diary and Letters in which she writes about Merlin ...the very ingenious Mechanic on many occasions; he is a great favourite in our house....He is very diverting also in conversation. There is a singular simplicity in his manners. He speaks his opinion on all subjects and about all persons with the most undisguised freedon. He does not, though a foreigner, want 'words', but he 'arranges' and pronounces them very comically. He is humbly grateful for all civilities that are shown him; but is warmly and honestly resentful for the least slight. Merlin's musical abilities should not be taken lightly, he was patently a talented instrument maker and excellent player of the piano. His friends included J.C. Bach, Abel and Fischer, the latter's portrait by Gainsborough shows him leaning against a keyboard instrument with the maker's name MERLIN LONDINI FECIT.
The portrait of Merlin by Thomas Gainsborough was painted in 1781 towards the height of Merlin's career. It was painted at about the same time as Bach's and Fischer's portraits were also done. There is much evidence to suggest that Merlin and Gainsborough knew each other well and were friends, certainly its informal presentation and fine interpretation of character displays great sympathy towards the sitter. Merlin is only known to have made one longcase clock and its highly individual and appealing proportions is an interesting reflection of it's creator. He also made two unusual and equally appealing skeleton clocks, one of which is exhibited at Kenwood House, Hertfordshire where Merlin's portrait hangs. The following lot 85 is a fine example of a faithful copy of the Kenwood clock.