1786-1787 (marked) ca.1785 (made)

Blerzy, Joseph-Etienne

Length: 8 cm, Width: 6.1 cm, Height: 4.2 cm


Automaton snuffbox. Gold, glass, automaton mechanism and carillon. Box: Joseph-Etienne Blerzy, Paris, 1786-87. Movement: Geneva, about 1785

An oval, varicoloured gold musical automaton snuffbox, the cover chased in four colour gold with two amorous couples in a landscape between a castle and a cliff.

Musical boxes and boxes with automata became popular in France in the late eighteenth century. In London, the fashion was described by Horace Walpole writing to Mary Berry in 1791: "I should tell you that I have been at Sir Joseph Banks's literary saturnalia, where was a Parisian watchmaker who produced the smallest automaton that I suppose was ever created. It was a rich snuffbox, not too large for a woman. On opening the lid, an enamelled bird started up, sat on the rim, turned round, fluttered its wings and piped in a delightful tone the notes of different birds, particularly the jug, jug of the nightingale. It is the prettiest plaything you ever saw- the price tempting- only five hundred pounds'. When the key is wound on the front of this box, a ship in full sail moves across the open sea. A button hidden on the front activates a four bell musical carillon. The gold box is marked for Joseph-Etienne Blerzy but the movement, produced one year earlier, was imported from Geneva. Swiss workmen specialised in making sophisticated automata and musical movements. Sir Arthur Gilbert and his wife Rosalinde formed one of the world’s great decorative art collections, including silver, mosaics, enamelled portrait miniatures and gold boxes. Arthur Gilbert donated his extraordinary collection to Britain in 1996.

Provenance: Henry and Sidney Berry Hill, New York. Sydney J. Lamon, sale, Christie's New York, lot 174A, June 14, 1982. A la Vieille Russie, New York.

The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Location: In Storage

View this object on the V&A website