19 May 2017

Birmingham's Silver Fish


At the Bowes Museum at Barnard Castle in County Durham is a magnificent swan automaton made in silver in 1773 by James Cox in conjunction with John Joseph Merlin; both were inventors, the latter keeping Merlin's Mechanical Museum (from 1783), and the former a jeweller, toymaker and producer of large and extravagant 'sing-songs' that were sent to the East.* The Swan was formed of intricately shaped and layered silver to produce the feathers, hiding the mechanics that make the swan preen itself and then curl its neck to the stream below (made with twisted glass rods that turn and catch the light to mimic water) and catch a little silver fish, one of many that wiggle amongst the ripples (see below). The swan then lifts its head and gobbles down the little fish. It is a beautiful piece of mechanical art.


In 1774 it was in display in Cox's museum in London, and was still there in 1791, once Cox's Museum had become Davie's Grand Museum, but after that its movements are hazy till it is next heard of in France in the 1860s. What is interesting is that in the early 1800s the Birmingham silversmiths seem to have, either by accident or design, copied the design of the fishes to make intricate saleable items (below).

A silver fish vinaigrette made by Joseph Taylor in
Birmingham in about 1814.
These are vinaigrettes, which were designed to contain a sponge soaked in a sweet smelling oil that could be surreptitiously sniffed if you were unfortunate enough to be sat next to an unpleasantly fragrant person at dinner, or elsewhere. These were made by Birmingham makers such as Joseph Taylor, William Lea, Joseph Willmore, John Lawrence and others. Like Merlin's fish, they are delicately engraved with the fish's scales with an articulated body, cleverly riveted inside, so that the fish wriggles from side to side.

The Mount Holyoke Museum in Massachusetts have
an eighteenth century fish in a shagreen case,
definitely English, but the exact location of
manufacture is unknown.**

It is impossible to know if the Swan influenced the small silver fish produced later (or if earlier fish vinaigrettes, like the Mount Holyoke fish, influenced the Swan), especially as the automatons movements are hazy in the early 1800s, but it is not too fanciful to postulate that Merlin and Cox's Swan inspired a silversmith, who saw the impressive bird, and had a moment of inspiration. Whatever is the case, the little silver fish are some of the quirkiest productions from the Birmingham silversmiths, and frequently unknown as a Birmingham artefact.



* Possibly made by Merlin and bought by Cox to show in his museum
** They date the fish at circa 1750 to 1760, but as a rough estimate, it is difficult to know whether this fish was made before or after the Swan.

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