THE ONLY KNOWN THREE-TUNE SINGING BIRD CAGE WITH AUTOMATON BIRDS, FOUNTAIN AND BUTTERFLY
Swiss, Bautte & Moynier / Jean-David Maillardet / Courvoisier & Cie. / Charles-Frédéric Nardin, 410 x 215 mm, overall size 460 x 320 mm, started circa 1820 and completed circa 1830
A magnificent singing bird cage automaton of museum quality, with two chirping birds jumping between perches, an animated waterfall and a fluttering butterfly, clock and enchanting musical movement playing three different tunes (either on the hour or on demand)
Case: gilt bronze, chased and engraved, glass. Dial: silvered, signed, Roman hours, blued Breguet hands. Movm.: rectangular full plate movement, chain/fusee, verge escapement, three-arm brass balance. Musical movement: heavy brass movement with chain/fusee, pinned barrel and vibrating blades, signed Charles-Frédéric Nardin. Automaton movement: rectangular movement, brass, steel, barrel, chain/fusee, rectangular bellows, piston whistle.
This breathtaking masterpiece is the result of supreme Swiss craftsmanship; the impressive installation combines exquisite design with the most advanced clockmaking skills: A lavishly ornamented cage holds two delicate, chirping birds jumping from one perch to another with flapping wings, a butterfly flutters its wings above an animated fountain while a tune plays and the clock displays the time.
The case consists of three parts: the plinth with levers for setting and activating the automatons and the music, the base with clock and musical movement, and the singing bird cage automaton.
Oval, gilt (330 x 230 mm), groove for the missing glass bell-jar. On the right, four levers set the functions: "Silence" (moving the lever to the right prevents activation of the music, moving it to the left allows automatic activation of the music on the hour) - "Musique" (activates the music on demand) - "Meme/Autre" (repeats the same tune again or switches to the next one) - "Musique d'Oiseaux" (activates the singing bird, butterfly and waterfall automatons). A set of rods connects the levers to the controls for activating the music and the automatons.
The base with clock and musical movement:
The rectangular gilt bronze base rests on four elaborately engraved bun feet. The silvered dial with the Bautte & Moynier signature sits in the middle of the front panel. It features Roman numerals and blued Breguet hands, with a fine engine-turned floral pattern in the centre. The clock face is flanked by applied musical trophies; additional applied vase and star ornaments are shown on the two sides and on the back. A delicate border of leaves and pearls runs around the whole of the base.
The clock movement was probably made by Courvoisier et Cie in La Chaux-de-Fonds (active from 1811 to 1845); it activates the musical movement on the hour.
The musical movement:
The musical movement signed by Charles-Frédéric Nardin is activated on the hour or on demand. It plays three different tunes which can be selected on a pinned barrel. One of the three tunes was identified as "Der Jägerchor" (The Hunters’ Choir) from the opera "Der Freischütz" by Carl Maria Von Weber (1786-1826).
A rectangular, domed gilt bronze cage resides on a rectangular base with chamfered corners and claw feet. Front and back panels of the base are decorated with applied motifs of leaves and rose petals, the sides with applied laurel leaves. The intricately worked grille panels composed of balusters, ovals and circles are framed by four corner columns which support the cage with the openwork dome. The dome is made of curved poles, acanthus and C- volutes and a lyre motif frieze; on the very top sits a matching urn finial.
The automaton consists of two singing birds with a dazzling, colourful plumage of hummingbird feathers and a butterfly with hand-painted, iridescent wings near a fountain. When the mechanism has been wound and the slider activates the automaton, the birds start chirping and moving to and fro with fluttering wings and tails. Their beaks open and close while they apparently jump from one perch to the other. In the centre of the arrangement sits a fountain spouting a jet of water towards the sky, which is simulated by seven twisted, revolving glass rods. On top of the rods rests a gilt bronze bud finial with a butterfly flapping its wings above the running water.
The movement driving the automatons sits in the bottom of the cage. The brass and steel mechanism is fitted with chain/fusee, bellows and sliding piston. The panel to the right of the base holds the winding square. The automatons for the birds are hidden in two of the four columns of the cage. Part of this mechanism is a large cam which activates levers on three different axles; several small cams are mounted on its shaft. The plates hold a large, rectangular bellows with a piston whistle attached at its end, carefully mimicking birdsong – here it is the chirping of a canary and the call of the nightingale. This mechanism can be attributed to Jean-David Maillardet (1748-1834) of La Chaux-de-Fonds.
- Collection Guido Reuge († 1994), Sainte-Croix, Vaud, Switzerland
- Private Collection, Switzerland
Kerman-Bailly, Sharon, & Bailly, Christian, "Oiseaux de Bonheur, Tabatières et Automates", Genève, Antiquorum Editions, 2001, pp. 197-198.
The object itself as well as the different mechanisms were thoroughly cleaned in 2015. The damaged butterfly was put back into position above the fountain.
In respect of the monumental design and the technical sophistication of this masterpiece, it is assumed that it was created to be presented at one of the universal exhibitions.
This singing bird cage automaton was made between 1780 and 1840 and is a typical example of the automatons produced in Geneva. It is the result of a cooperation between the best artisan craftsmen and the most skilled watchmakers of the time: The musical movement was made by Charles-Frederic Nardin, the cage itself was most likely designed by Courvoisier & Cie.; the automaton birds jumping between the perches were created by Jean-David Maillardet. Once this magnificent treasure was completed, it was delivered to Bautte & Moynier, who were at the time the most important retailer of such luxurious goods Geneva.
Late in the 18th century, a large variety of singing bird automatons was available. They ranged from snuff boxes, pocket watches, table clocks, vases as well as simple or hanging cages. The popularity of these objects rose dramatically when the trade relations with the Chinese, Ottoman and Russian markets started blossoming towards the end of the century.
Jaquet-Droz were the first to created cages with singing bird automatons. They used small pipes to imitate the calls of the birds, but that made the birds quite bulky and the whole construction rather large. The invention of the sliding piston, however, reduced the size of the mechanisms considerably and it was possible to fit them into smaller objects such as pocket watches or boxes. Once vibrating blades in the form of steel combs became available, it was possible to produce combinations of birdsong and other music. The most important makers of that period were Piguet & Meylan, who even fitted clock movements into their magnificent engineering marvels.
From 1830 to 1840, the production of automaton animals and clocks was at its peak and had reached a level of incomparable quality and technical sophistication. This led to an increase in the size of the items, also more cost-efficient materials were used. Nevertheless, the production costs of these highly complex and intricately embellished constructions remained very high and they were available to a selected, wealthy clientele only. Today most of these masterpieces reside in museums and it is a very rare occasion when one of these engineering marvels appears on the art market.
Bautte & Moynier
Jean-Francois Bautte (1772-1837) lost his parents very early and began his apprenticeship at the age of 12; he learned the crafts of case making, engine-turning, watchmaking and also that of a jeweller. From 1779 on Bautte worked with the case maker Jacques-Dauphin Moulinié, and the watchmaker Jean-Gabriel Moynier joined the company around 1804; the company called itself "Moulinié, Bautte & Moynier" from then on. Around 1810 this factory had 90 employees and Bautte enjoyed great success, becoming the most important watch dealer in Geneva. Around 1824, following the departure of Moulinié, the manufacture remains on the hands of Bautte ans Moynier under the new name of Bautte & Moynier. As an outstanding businessman, Bautte traded with all European royal courts and thus became one of the most famous watchmakers and most important watch dealers of his time.
In 1777 Jean-David Maillardet (1748-1834) was described as "clockmaker and machinist expert". He worked for some time in Berlin, and then settled in Fontaines in the Val-de-Ruz, where he worked closely with Courvoisier and Jaquet-Droz. Recognizing Jean-David Maillardets immense talent, in 1783 Henri-Louis Jaquet-Droz entrusted him a significant part of the factory, along with a personal residence. Furthermore he provided him with a writer and a drawer, which enabled Maillardet to build his own automata. Reports of the exhibitions (1804 and 1809) mention the bird cages manufactured by Maillardet featuring two canaries, hopping from branch to branch. As far as we know, he was the only one who created this kind of mechanism at the time.
The company of Courvoisier & Cie. was active in La Chaux-de-Fonds between 1811 and 1845. Only a small number of cages by this maker is known. They have all similar characteristics to the present piece, including the cage decoration and the use of chain/fusee to drive the birds' mechanism.
Charles-Frédéric Nardin was manufacturer of metal music combs mechanisms, based in La Chaux-de-Fonds between 1806 and 1823.
Case: very good, restaurations
Dial: very good
Movm.: very good, capable of running, cleaning recommended
Dial: very good
Movm.: very good, capable of running, cleaning recommended