This exhibition traces the origins of automata. It acknowledges the pre-history, Classical and early-modern fascination with moving objects and the blurring of the line between the human and the mechanical (the myth of Pygmalion, for example), but really gets started with the public shows that were so popular in the eighteenth century. These are traced through to contemporary times and modern works in the genre, some of which have been specially created for the exhibition in response to the rich history. There are 57 works on display, the earliest dating from 1625 (The Griffin Mechanical Clock). They include images and ephemera, some historic automata from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (sadly too fragile to be in working order and the most famous, such as Jaquet-Droz’ ‘The Draughtsman’, built in the 1770s, represented only by images), and working models by modern artists. Many of these can be operated ‘hands-on’ by the visitor. This is, of course, fun, but more seriously also helps us to understand the mechanics behind the life-like movements.
The scholarly underpinning to the exhibition is excellent – unsurprising as the adviser was Simon Schaffer, Professor of the History of Science at the University of Cambridge (many of you probably recall his BBC 4 TV documentary Mechanical Marvels: Clockwork Dreams). I decided to walk around the galleries with eighteenth-century society and culture running through my head and was able to tick it all off. There is the artisanal skill of clock-makers and the miniaturisation of their products most evident in the ubiquity of the desirable consumer product, the pocket-watch (as stolen as a mobile phone?) Next there is the development of the sociable public spectacle, of which Vauxhall Gardens and its entertainment is perhaps the best-known instance. Here we take in the shows at James Cox’s rather élite Museum at Spring Gardens, London, an automaton exhibition at Gothic Hall, Haymarket in 1837 with its patrons of all ages and both sexes, and the many travelling shows that brought these wonders to a larger, and probably more mixed audience. The connection to the first stirrings and later consequences of the Industrial Revolution is here too. For automata were the ‘fun side’ of the Enlightenment interest in experiment and the development of engineering prowess on a larger scale. This automation was to have a more sinister side: the social dislocation as traditional jobs disappeared and human workers had to behave in some ways like automata. This is fascinatingly rendered in a video of The Machinery, a clog dance where the clicking of the clogs matches the rhythm of factory machinery. Finally, I called to mind the psychology of the uncanny. The word is of course anachronistic to the eighteenth century, but serves well to describe the frisson of sometimes ghastly pleasure in the gothic, present in the work of the artist Fuseli and above all in literature. Is what we are seeing nature or man-made? The uncanny and the Industrial Revolution are brought together by the exhibition’s through consideration, in its bicentennial year, of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It is the spirit of the uncanny that is best captured by modern automata: Tim Lewis’s Crimson Prince (illustrated), Ting- Tong Chang’s talking, moving taxidermy birds and the eerie Defence Cascade by Harrison Pearce.
If there is one area where the modern automata and the history do not quite gel in this exhibition it is in the extent to which workings are concealed and mysterious or overt and understood. We do not wonder at some once-celebrated eighteenth-century moving models because we know they were based on trickery. The chess-playing Turk was operated by a human being crouched in its base. The digesting duck did not really eat and excrete through one system – its droppings were held in a separate compartment. We cannot really wonder at the modern responses to the tradition because we see how it is done, even if we couldn’t replicate it ourselves. The modern automata are generally fun, but more in the spirit of an end-of -the-pier show (indeed, one of the exhibitors, Tim Hunkin, is the maker behind the automata on the pier at Southwold, Suffolk). I visited Compton Verney on a wet Sunday afternoon and, sadly, there were far fewer children there than at the Gothic Hall in 1837. Perhaps their modern ‘knowingness’ lies behind their lack of the enthusiasm for enchantment?
Still, I enjoyed myself and found the whole experience rather wondrous, overall a re-creation of the eighteenth century’s hurly-burly, swirling mixing of people and ideas. I leave the final summary to Wordsworth, with lines from The Prelude used on one of the exhibition panels:
All moveables of wonder, from all parts,
Are here–Albinos, painted Indians, Dwarfs,
The Horse of knowledge, and the learned Pig,
The Stone-eater, the man that swallows fire,
Giants, Ventriloquists, the Invisible Girl,
The Bust that speaks and moves its goggling eyes,
The Wax-work, Clock-work, all the marvellous craft
Of modern Merlins, Wild Beasts, Puppet-shows,
All out-o’-the-way, far-fetched, perverted things,
All freaks of nature, all Promethean thoughts
Of man, his dulness, madness, and their feats
All jumbled up together, to compose
A Parliament of Monsters. Tents and Booths
Meanwhile, as if the whole were one vast mill,
Are vomiting, receiving on all sides,
Men, Women, three-years’ Children, Babes in arms.
William Wordsworth, The Prelude, Book 7, ‘Residence in London’ (London: Macmillan and Co., 1888), ll. 706-21.
The Marvellous Mechanical Museum is at Compton Verney Art Gallery until 30th September 2018.