Mechanical Elephant

Nominated by: Richard Scott
Image courtesy of Waddesdon Manor

This extraordinary creature is an 18th-century toy; part clockwork, part musical box. Objects like this were highly-skilled pieces of craftsmanship, often made for export to the Far East.  This marvellous elephant was made by a French clockmaker, Henri Martinet (who signed his name on the trunk), in London.

The elephant stands at an imposing 1.3m high on a purpose-built carved oak base.  When wound up with its two keys it plays four tunes, then complex mechanisms bring the elephant to life.  A princely turbaned figure triumphantly rides the elephant, while four musicians on the base serenade him.  Together they rotate slowly, while paste flowers, made to look as if they are encrusted with diamonds, also circle, open and close. The elephant’s ears flap, his eyes roll, and his tail and trunk both wave, in a mesmerising dance.

It was one of Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild’s most admired treasures, and is still a favourite with visitors now.  The Bucks Herald newspaper mentioned it in an 1889 issue, describing the visit of the Shah of Persia to Waddesdon on a state visit, who asked to see it perform again and again.

As Chairman of Buckinghamshire Council I have the pleasure of welcoming notable visitors to Buckinghamshire, and so this story of the Shah of Persia coming to Buckinghamshire absolutely fascinates me. I can just imagine the excitement, the preparations, and the buzz in Aylesbury town centre as the carriage transporting the future king, and his exotic royal guest, came through the crowds.

The story of the Shah’s enthrallment with the elephant automaton gives a real sense of the personality of a man long gone – a sense of humour maybe, and a love of modern technology, but also an imperious streak. If he wanted to see the elephant move over and over again, it would be done.

All these evocations live on, in the ‘Marvellous Elephant’ (as he is known on Twitter!) and when you watch it wound up to perform, you are briefly transported back to the Buckinghamshire of 131 years ago, when a curious royal visit must have sparked so much excitement.

More detail about the elephant:

The automaton was made in London and has been dated to 1768-1772.  It was rumoured to have been made as a gift for an Indian official given by the French or English East India Company to cement a political or commercial alliance.  However, this seems unlikely, although entrepreneurs – such as the famous jeweller and clockmaker James Cox – were known to make these complex automata, known as ‘sing-songs’, for rulers in India and China.

In actual fact, it seems that Martinet did not quickly find a ready buyer for the elephant.  It was exhibited several times in London, the Netherlands and Paris, before it was bought by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild, sometime before the Shah’s visit to the magnificent new residence at Waddesdon in 1889.  The style and quality of the craftsmanship suggests Martinet may have employed French craftsmen, or their designs, to construct this elaborate wonder. The elephant automaton is on display in the East Gallery in the Manor, and is wound up for some bookable tours, and even has its own Twitter account… @WMElephant

The Mechanical Elephant was nominated by Councillor Richard Scott, Chairman of Buckinghamshire Council.

Words about the elephant were written by Phillipa Plock, Curator at Waddesdon Manor.