Elephant automaton at Waddesdon Manor
A jewel in the collection at Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire is an elaborate musical automaton in the shape of an elephant. When it was first completed and unveiled, it would have been met with gasps of wonder and amazement.
'The Rothschild taste’
The Rothschild family has long been renowned for their magnificent collections and lavishly decorated houses. At the turn of the 19th century, the family’s influential style, focusing on 18th-century paintings and decorative arts, became known as ‘goût Rothschild’ – ‘the Rothschild taste’.
Indeed, one of the best examples is Waddesdon Manor itself, built for Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild in the 1870s and 80s to display his collection and entertain guests.
A mechanical wonder
The elephant automaton was one of Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild's most admired treasures. It is sumptuously decorated with gilt-bronze and imitation jewels, including mother-of-pearl, glass and polychrome paint and paste. It’s the work of Hubert Martinet, a talented London-based French clockmaker and dates to 1768–72.
This spectacular object can be wound up like a clock. A musical box in the base plays four unidentified tunes as the creature begins to move its trunk, roll its eyes, flap its ears and swish its tail. On its back, a turbaned figure carrying a sword and mace rides in a howdah (seat with a canopy) mounted with cannons, while figures dance around the base. When the automaton is wound up, they all revolve.
'Bells that ring by themselves’
At the time, London was a centre of production for automata featuring Western interpretations of non-Western scenes and creatures. These mechanical wonders were made specifically for export to wealthy patrons in India and China. They were sometimes known as ‘sing songs’, an expression deriving from the Chinese ‘ziming zhong’, meaning ‘bells that ring by themselves’. Such technological wonders aroused great curiosity in audiences of the time.
A 'magnificent toy'
The automoton was exactly the kind of object to appeal to Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild, someone with a well-documented admiration for 18th-century decorative arts. It’s known to have arrived at Waddesdon by 1889, when it was recorded as having delighted the Shah of Persia, Naser al-Din Shah Qajar, who visited the manor that year.
Whether Ferdinand had this in mind or not, the elephant made a great impression. The local newspaper, The Bucks Herald, reported that of all 'the costly treasures of the Rothschild collection… this magnificent toy fairly delighted His Majesty… it was wound and re-wound again and again, and was evidently preferred to all the paintings, enamels, armour and palissy ware….Eventually it became necessary to distract his Majesty’s attention from a curiosity of considerable historical interest'.
The musical automaton is on display in the East Gallery. It continues to amaze visitors to Waddesdon Manor to this day.
Many of our houses are reopening from 17 May, but please check the property webpage if you wish to visit and see this treasure. You’ll need to book in advance.