Friday, February 6, 2015

Unusual Artifacts: Johnny the Dunce, an Automaton, 1860

French, 1860
The Victoria & Albert Museum
Poor Johnny. He’s a dunce. This somewhat creepy, but entirely intriguing figure of wax is more than just an awkward depiction of a humiliated boy. It’s also an automaton by an unknown French maker.

Here, we see the figure of a young boy sitting on (not at) his desk. He’s trying to learn to read, but his attempts are unsuccessful as his book is upside down. I worked with people like this once. Despite his earnest efforts, he has not been rewarded for his sad studies. He has been made to wear an artificial suede cap marked DUNCE which has been fashioned to resemble two ass’ ears. Still, the cap goes nicely with his red and white sweater, yellow silk shirt and waistcoat with a red silk front and brown silk back. Clearly he comes from a well-off family. His breeches are of striped silk and velvet in dark green, pale green and orange which somewhat clash with his knitted yellow and green striped socks which stick out below his black lace up boots.

Johnny’s head and body are crafted of composition while his lower arms made of bisque. His wax head is adorned with hair of black mohair and eyes of brown glass.
He looks rather pathetic when sitting still. However, when the clockwork mechanism is activated and a slow, mournful tune begins to play, he looks all the more pathetic. The ears on his dunce’s cap move back and forth as his head moves to the left. It’s quite a complicated animation as his right arm also moves up and down and his left leg swings.

Such automata were not made for children. These were the stuff of aristocratic adults and were often trotted out for the amusement of guests. 

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