Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Unusual Artifacts: A Musical Automaton Snuffbox, 1786

The Victoria & Albert Museum

With the popularity of lavish snuffboxes as collectibles for the elite of the Eighteenth Century, it was only natural that luxurious novelty examples of these jeweled and gold creations would crop up.  Musical boxes and boxes with automata became popular in France and England in the late Eighteenth Century. In London, this phenomenon was described by Horace Walpole writing to Mary Berry in 1791:

"I should tell you that I have been at Sir Joseph Banks's literary saturnalia, where was a Parisian watchmaker who produced the smallest automaton that I suppose was ever created. It was a rich snuffbox, not too large for a woman. On opening the lid, an enamelled bird started up, sat on the rim, turned round, fluttered its wings and piped in a delightful tone the notes of different birds, particularly the jug, jug of the nightingale. It is the prettiest plaything you ever saw- the price tempting- only five hundred pounds'.

Let’s take a look at one—an example of colored gold showing, on the top, a scene of amorous couples in a landscape between a castle and a cliff.  Here, when the key is wound on the front of this box, a ship in full sail moves across the open sea. A button hidden on the front of the box activates a four-bell musical carillon. The movement was imported from Geneva, and the French case is marked for the maker Joseph-Etienne Blerzy, 1786.  

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