I WENT TO AN EXHIBITION the other day in the fairly recently opened Théâtre des Sablons in Neuilly sur Seine. The exhibition, Histoires d’Automates, consisted of a collection of automata (automates in French), self-operating mechanical devices in the form of musical dolls, clockwork singing birds and tableaux méchaniques or mechanically animated scenes.
Théâtre des Sablons
All the exhibits came from the collection of automata accumulated over the years by the antiquarian and collector, Jacques Damiot. In 1978, five years before Damiot’s death, his collection was acquired by the Musée de Neuilly and from 2002 to 2005 all the pieces in the collection have been carefully restored.
The creation of automata goes back to antiquity. It is said that in the 15th century BC , Amenhotep son of Hapu made a statue of Memnon, King of Ethiopia, which uttered a melodious sound when struck by the sun’s rays in the morning and during sunset. In 520 BC Daedalus was reputed to have made statues that were worked by quicksilver and had the ability to walk.
But it was with the coming of the industrial revolution in the 19th century that automata really became popular. In France, the second half of the nineteenth century was the Golden Age during which the grands automatiers like Alexandre Théroude, Gustave Vichy, Jean Roullet, Ernest Decamps, Blaise Bontems, Jean-Marie Phalibois and Léopold Lambert were at their peak of creativity. They produced automata as collectible items or to decorate rooms or as amusement for adults and children alike.
The fifty items in this exhibition illustrate the various types of automata ranging from the purely decorative such as musical clocks and musical boxes, to the mechanical representations of nature, of human nature and of the circus and the music hall.
Of all the pieces, I think my favourite was the representation of the diminutive music hall comedian and dancer, Harry Relph, who became famous in both London and Paris at the end of the 19th century under the stage name of Little Titch. He was best known for his acrobatic and comedic Big-Boot dance for which he wore boots with soles 28 inches (71 cm) long.
I couldn’t possibly go to an exhibition like this without recording the sounds around me, sounds as varied as mechanical birdsong, the clatter of Little Tich’s big boots, the sounds of excited children looking at the exhibits and the eclectic sounds of a 20th century display complete with 20th century music.
The sounds of Histoire d’Automates:
Here are some more of the exhibits:
Automata are still made today of course but usually as toys or for publicity material or for decorating shop windows rather than as ornamental and collectable pieces, which somehow seems rather a shame. I find them and their sounds endlessly fascinating.