Clocks made in London during the 18th century for the Imperial Chinese market. The Chinese amazement at these elaborate and technically brilliant clocks led to the Emperor Qianlong amassing the largest collection of English clocks in the world.
James Cox, born in London in 1723, described himself as a goldsmith. He had been apprenticed to one, and upon the completion of his apprenticeship he registered his name at Goldsmiths’ Hall. This is misleading. The name of James Cox is now firmly associated, as it was in his own day, with the production and export of large, elaborate and often musical clocks, mostly intended for the South East Asian market, which came to be known in Britain as ‘Sing Songs’. While the skill of a goldsmith might well be employed in the production of such artefacts, this would have been only one skill among many. In particular the clockwork involved in some of these machines could be incredibly sophisticated. Although Cox may have developed an exceptional eye for gemstones, he was, above all, an entrepreneur. He assembled an unprecedented network of independent craftsmen to supply the East with an unrivalled number of innovative and opulent timepieces.
Clocks had become surprisingly important to British trade in the latter half of the eighteenth century. The growing cargo brought back by the East India Company, comprised of spices, silk, porcelain and, of course, tea, was paid for mostly with silver. To its surprise, Europe had found it had little else to offer. Britain’s fine woollen cloth had a very limited appeal in the land that gave the world silk. The mechanical clocks developed in Europe over the previous four hundred years, the most sophisticated machines then in existence, were one of the few items that commanded any significant demand. The East India Company allocated a certain amount of cargo space to its officers for private trade. During the trade season of 1770/71, clocks represented 35% of all private trade of China-bound ships (though considering much of the remainder would have been unloaded at India and replaced with Indian goods, it is likely that that year clocks made up over half of British goods traded in China).
In 1757, the Qianlong emperor restricted foreign trade to Guangzhou between the months of October and January, and granted a monopoly to the group of merchants known as the Cohong. However, before any British ships could come into contact with members of the Cohong, they would arrive at Huangpu Island (now Pazhou) twelve miles downstream from Guangzhou, where all large foreign vessels would be moored. There the Qing dynasty’s customs official, known to the British as the Hoppo, would board the ship to personally inspect its cargo of Sing Songs. The best pieces he would select either for presentation to his own superiors or as tribute for the emperor himself, and order to Cohong merchant to whom the ship had been assigned to purchase and reserve these items on his behalf. Clocks became a major part of Imperial China’s intricate system of tribute, circulating through the merchants, the Hoppo, eight different levels of mandarin, the royal court and, as previously mentioned, finally up to the Emperor, and even when the Cohong began to delegate the handling of other trade goods, they retained for themselves the responsibility for these most luxurious of imports.
But what precisely were these Sing Songs? Although often described as clocks or watches, this is not necessarily immediately obvious from looking at them, and indeed it would be misleading to suggest the function that they fulfilled as being one of time-keeping. They could come in the form of a scent bottle, no taller than six inches, and in the other direction, could be, say, a mirror clock, standing four feet high. Diverse as they were, these objects could be said to share a number of features, being typically highly ornamental and powered by clockwork, usually significantly more complicated than was necessary to simply power a clock. Most of them were musical; this the Chinese designation for them: [self-ringing bells], from which the British term Sing Song derived.
Of course, the mechanically powered music that these clocks would play hourly was European music, though there was frequently an attempt to appeal to an ‘Eastern’ taste, so that the music selected might be inspired by Turkish melodies (often in fact Greek pieces which had been misattributed) or, for example, selections from Artaxerxes, Thomas Arne’s then popular opera, because it was set in Persia. Given the wholly distinct and ancient musical tradition of China, it seems unlikely they would have heard much of ‘music’ in the Sing Songs’ chiming, let alone anything ‘Eastern’ about it. Without the necessary maintenance, it would take only a little time for the responsible mechanism to get out of order, though one has to wonder how often this would have been perceived by the Chinese listeners, to whose ears the music was but a gleeful example of a barbarian culture.
Initially SS = ornate versions of standard musical clocks for E market, often similar to those intended for Ottoman E. as trade grew from 1760s major prod began devise more speciliased designs – some consciously or not recalled elab automoatn clocks of E Ren, but also new designs intended to appeal to ‘Eastern tastes’ – lacking clear idea clung to few commonly held ideas
It was not only music that was powered by the machines [cogs and gears], but movement, too. Many of the clocks that were exported to China featured automata. Initially, the automata were typically two-dimensional, simple additions to the type of musical clocks that were well established in the west, in plain, traditional cases. (p632, Smith). Quickly, though, the automation became more and more ambitious: jewelled stars spun, creatures would move their eyes, twitch their ears or tails, revolving glass rods gave the impression of water flowing. There were numerous cases where the face of the clock was completely subjugated to the automation aspect, as in the case of the carriages drawn by horse or elephant that would circle a central temple, and featured a number of subsidiary automata containing their own movements which could easily be detached and work on their own. A number of these exist in the Palace Museum today, though not in their original assembly. (p632)
One of those pieces still in the museum is a carriage attended by a number of figures wearing the classical armour (p654) of the west. We also see these figures standing within temples approximating a more eastern style. In this juxtaposition we have one of the most recognisable problems/features of the design of the Sing Songs: what to make them look like? Why this combination? It is thought to be the work of Upjohn, a contemporary of Cox, and in this particular case we have some insight into the conception of this design, as it was recorded that Upjohn thought of these figures as Alexander the Great and his attendants. It was understood that Alexander the Great, or Sekunder, lingered in the memory of Central Asia and even India, into which he had penetrated c. 330 BC. However, the idea that because this subject was known in India that it would be equally suitable for a Chinese market no doubt points to the continued mystery surrounding China in Europe – regarding the Middle Kingdom, it remained little less ignorant than after the return of Marco Polo. Of course, the ignorance of both parties was no impediment to the Emperor’s purchasing of these miniature, mechanised warriors from the west.
Even if the European traders were so inclined, there was little that could be done to correct this ignorance. The thirteen factories of the foreign merchants, the ‘Barbarian Houses’ as they were known as to the Chinese, were situated outside of the city walls of Canton and all foreigners were banned by imperial decree from learning Chinese. Although the Sing Songs were doubtless important with regards the system of tribute, the Cohong were primarily concerned with the bulk sale of tea. On top of all these restrictions, the most simple feedback, the knowledge of how successful a particular consignment had been, would always arrive too late to influence the next, the nature and quantities of which would have been decided well in advance of the news making it back to England. For the time being, however, the producers of Sing Songs seemed relatively happy to continue labouring under the assumption that there was some kind of generic ‘Eastern’ taste, which Cox himself summarised as one for “brilliancy” – thus the prominence for gilding, ‘jewellery’ (usually coloured pasts), [seed/split?] pearls and brightly coloured enamels in his products.
This is not to suggest that there was no development over time. As has already been pointed out, there was a relatively fast increase in elaboration and extravagance, and some attempt to get closer to the nevertheless still mysterious aesthetics of the east. For example, in the case of China, a preference for decorative objects in pairs was noted, and in accordance with this, even the grandest of pieces, such as Cox’s peacocks [descript. One of which now crows the hour in St Petersburg Hermitage museum] were produced in pairs. Various other design elements also entered the European consciousness via imported textiles, porcelain and other Chinese products engendering an aesthetic known as chinoiserie, which was then being incorporated into the rococo designs still prevalent in Europe, as evidenced in clock cases that combined elements of chinoiserie with the asymmetrical scrolls and rockwork typical of rococo design.
One such element that reappeared in many Sing Songs was that of the pagoda, often automated so as to rise and fall with the chiming of the bells. Some of these clocks bear the influence of genuine Chinese buildings, such as may have been transmitted by miniature temples in ivory or enamel imported as curiosities or by publications such as those by Sir William Chambers who had produced an entire book based on his sketches of buildings executed whilst in Canton and was responsible for the Great Pagoda erected in Kew Gardens in 1762. ( https://www.bl.uk/picturing-places/articles/the-gardens-at-kew ) However, others of this clocks were a strange combination of the more fanciful inventions of chinoiserie and a Georgian pastiche of the gothic (650) (which may reflect the confused understanding of the historical link between gothic and the ‘eastern’ architecture of the moors).
This comingling of ‘Eastern’ aesthetics with those of the Europe occurs again and again. For example (652)it is detectable in the jewelled flowers, inspired by the Chinese taste for pots of artificial flowers, sitting in a vase of which reflects then recent European enthusiasm, especially in the case of vases, for the neo-classical. Less immediate are the undoubtedly European figures of shepherdesses and gardener’s boys, examples of which are still in Beijing. Such Arcadian figures quite possibly derive from the contemporary interest in Chinese gardens. However, though this interest was wide-spread and established (William Chambers published his Dissertation on Oriental Gardening in 1772), the choice of such subjects for Sing Sings was based on the fundamental mistake of misunderstanding the then fashionable landscape and wilderness gardens of Europe as having been inspired by the gardens of China. Indeed, Cox held these gardens to be paradigmatic of an ‘Eastern’ taste for “irregularity” and he made a specific connection between the fanciful designs of his Sing Songs and the “just disdain of enslavement to fetters of Art’ which he attributed to Chinese gardens.
Imagined or not, this irregularity must have presented yet another problem for those responsible for the design of Sing Songs: not only was there considerable confusion and ignorance regarding a Chinese aesthetic, in addition, the form could hardly said to now be determined by function. The most basic tenet of clock design is that it facilitate time telling, but whilst the clockwork was significant, the clock face could often look as if it were added as a mere afterthought.
It has been argued that this very feature of Sing Songs is one of their most distinctive (655), what Roger Smith has called their ‘the whimsical piling up, in a towering composition, of many distinct elements irrespective of scale or congruity’.
Technically this was assisted by the fact that the various mechanical modules were often powered separately with no linkage between the timekeeping musical and or automata movements thus making it relatively easy to add further components to produce a grander object.
Take for example this piece by Cox. (similar to a pair in Beijing). The surreal combination of elements is more extreme than what is found in rococo design for the European market, with the principal difference being the insignificance of the clock face. Here it is surmounted by vases of jewelled flowers and supported by boys, being carried by a tiny elephant which stands on the back of an architecturally inspired bureau-cabinet, borne on the back of a goat
So there were many different strands running through the design of Sing Songs. To look at one last prominent element, there is the elephant, the most popular of the exotic beasts employed in Sing Song design. Whilst being a traditional theme in Chinese art, it is also true that the elephant was seen as generically ‘Eastern’, so that an elephant with a howdah on its back, mounted by a turbaned ‘Moor’, might be sent to China just as a ‘Chinese temple’ might be sent to an Indian ruler, and yet it is also the case that the elephant, in the west, was associated with classical times (so that an elephant drawn carriage was drawing upon the same sources as the carriage of Alexander the Great). On top of that, Sing Songs most certainly traced their lineage back to the animal automata of the late Renaissance, especially those produced in Augsburg, such as:
It is almost impossible for us now to pick out all the different design strands, to declare their motives and give an accurate account of the ways in which they were blended. What is clear is that, in much the same way that China excited the European imagination with its mystery, much of their appeal of Sing Songs lay in the fact that they were clearly products of an exotic western culture
What was it that made the clock face itself so reducible? As a device with a practical application, the clock was not generally thought of highly in China, as is evident in an oft quoted passage from the official index to Emperor’s grand library 1782 which included the following assessment of the technology of the west: [In regard to the learning of the West, the art of surveying the land is most important, followed by the art of making strange machines. Among these strange machines, those pertaining to irrigation are the most useful to the common people. All the other machines are simply intricate oddities, designed for the pleasure of the senses. They fulfil no basic need.] Clocks were seen as objects of considerable entertainment and prestige, yes, but little more.
For generations the vast majority of the world has grown so accustomed to the manner in which we tell the time that it is taken for granted. The truth is, of course, there is nothing natural about how we portion up the days. Indeed, until the introduction of the Chongzhen calendar, developed in conjunction with Jesuit scholars and introduced in the first half of the seventeenth century, time in China was reckoned differently, so that a day consisted of one hundred kè or twelve shi. These shi were not strictly serial, but rather had individual names.
The majority of the population lived on the land, their work regulated as country dwellers everywhere, by the diurnal round of natural events and chores. For those who farmed collectively, a drum might summon them to labour in fields, but this does not imply existence of temporal obligations or points of reference. Such signals were presumably irregular, dictated by nature, weather, and the varying requirements of agriculture. Otherwise their sense of time might be governed by the clepsydra, present even in many villages, which illustrated the passage of time rather than mark the actual time, or by the habitual collection of alms performed by Buddhist monks. At night, in more populous areas, a night watchman would periodically proclaim the time as he passed through the streets.
One of the great horological feats of the past had occurred in China, Su Song’s clock tower. Completed in 1094 for the Emperor Zhezong, it was an incredible feat of engineering standing possibly 40 feet tall. Although it did sound the hours and featured mechanically-timed and rotating mannequins dressed in miniature Chinese clothes that exited miniature opening doors to announce the time of day by presenting designated reading plaques, ringing bells and gongs, or beating drums, it was nevertheless principally an astronomical clock, of specialist use, concerned with the heavens, the exclusive domain of the emperor. its timekeeping functions were accessory; one would have to approach it closely to make out the time, which was given only as accurately as of the last quarter. As an astrarium, its true purpose was for study and display of movements of heavenly bodies. There was a time to sow and a time to reap, to fight and stop, have sex with empress and with concubines and these times were written in the conjunctions of stars and planets and the motions of the sun and moon. It was the task of the Emperor’s astronomers to study and predict the movement of heavenly bodies and compile ephemerides that might serve as a guide to action. In China the calendar was a perquisite of sovereignty, like the right to mint coins. Knowledge of the right time and season was power, for it was this knowledge that governed both the acts of everyday life and decisions of state. Each emperor inaugurated his reign with the promulgation of this calendar, often different from the one that had preceded it. His court astronomers were the only persons who were permitted in principle to use timekeeping and astronomical instruments or to engage in astronomical study. His time was China’s time.
We only know of the clock through Su Song’s treatise, as it was dismantled in 1127 by the invading Jurchen Jin and, due perhaps in part to its complexity and in part to Su Song’s withholding of certain necessary details, was never successfully reassembled.
Thus in China the mechanical clock remained lost to history until the arrival of the Jesuit missionaries, the first European missionaries to devote themselves to studying Mandarin and the cultures of China. In 1582, Matteo Ricci, the most devoted of the Jesuits sent to China, arrived in Macao. His progress into the mainland was facilitated by the gifting of clocks. Horological development was speeding up in Europe. [The verge escapement had been refined over the previous centuries], the fusee had been invented (first drawn out by Da Vinci 100 years before). Quite aside from the marvellous novelty of such devices, considering the exclusive relationship between the Emperor and clocks (albeit astronomical) it is not had to imagine the prestige that would naturally attach itself to such devices. The year after Ricci’s arrival, he made a gift of a clock [such had never been seen before in China???] to the Zongdu of Liangguang (Viceroy of Guangdong and Guangxi), and in return was invited to settle in (a temple?) at Zhaoqing then the location of the Zongdu’s residence. Here, the Jesuits set up a great clock with a hand that was visible from the street and struck the hours. In his memoirs Ricci says that this was something unheard of before in China. The fame of the Jesuits and the 'self-ringing bells' spread through the countryside and Ricci was introduced into the circles of the scholars and mandarins in the Chinese Empire. Eventually the Jesuits petitioned to pay a visit to the imperial court to present the Wanli Emperor (whose imperial title clearly attests to the contemporaneous importance of the calendar) with two clocks and other gifts. Their progress northward was slowed by jealous and suspicious officials, and at one point they even found themselves imprisoned in a fortress, but fame of Ricci’s wondrous mechanisms preceded him so that in the end it was an impatient emperor who called for Ricci’s presence. Where are the self-ringing bells? The Emperor was reminded that he had not issued a licence for the foreigners to come to the court, whereupon the foreigners were summoned immediately and Matteo Ricci arrived in Peking on January 24th, 1601.
Wanli charged four eunuchs with learning everything they could regarding the strange gifts brought by the Europeans. It is recorded that Wanli took the small table clock with him wherever he went, and the eunuchs had to wind and regulate the clock in the Emperor's apartments which pleased them as it gave them added authority. And when the dowager empress showed an interest in her son’s favourite clock, the emperor had the bell disconnected so that she should be disappointed. He could not have refused to give it to her, has she asked for it, but neither would he give it up and so found this devious way to reconcile filial piety.
As for the Jesuits, they were granted permission to establish a mission in Beijing. The catholic missions were quick to understand the opportunity and to assign to China clerics with training and experience as clockmakers and mechanics
A century later, the Kangxi Emperor would become the sovereign most associated with [self-ringing bells]. He maintained a number of scholastic interests, studying mathematics, science and horology, establishing an imperial watch and clock factory within the Palace precincts about the year 1680 and, he himself studied mathematics, science and, fitting for Chinese’s longest ruling emperor, horology. His appreciation for the latter is well demonstrated in an oft-quoted poem he composed about 1705:
The skill originated in the West,
But, by learning, we can achieve the artifice:
Wheels move and time turns round,
Hands show the minutes as they change.
Red-capped watchmen, there's no need to announce dawn's coming.
My golden clock has warned me of the time.
By first light I am hard at work,
And keep on asking, "Why are the memorials late?"
It was an interest he promoted, and made gifts of clocks, for example to his children to whom he wrote’ [You are all still so young, yet each of you has, by my generosity and favour, ten or twenty of these chiming clocks to play with. Shouldn’t you think yourselves fortunate…’].
The Jesuits gradually fell out of favour, but even when he expelled all missionaries from China [?], the Kangxi Emperor made an exception for those were scientists and technicians. His grandson, the Qianlong Emperor, shared many of his traits, possessing a great interest in history, literature and the arts, and developed outstanding collections of paintings, calligraphy, porcelain and, again, in clocks. the collection he amassed was said to be worth £2m and despite many losses still core of imperial collection today. In fact there were so many clocks in the Imperial Palace in Peking, that Father Valentin Chalier, who made clocks for the Emperor, wrote a letter in about 1735 in which he said " . . . as for clocks, the Imperial Palace is stuffed with them. Watches, carillons, repeaters, automatic organs, mechanised globes of every conceivable system — there must be more than four thousand from the best masters of Paris and London, very many of which I have had through my hands for repairs or cleaning". Or in the more recent words of Simon Harcourt-Smith, who surveyed the clocks in the Imperial Palaces in the early 20th century:"The passage of the hours was marked by a fluttering of enamelled wings, a gushing of glass fountains and a spinning of paste stars, while from a thousand concealed and whirring orchestras, the gavottes and minuets of London rose strangely into the Chinese air."
As the market for Chinese goods grew and grew in Europe, so did the disparity between Chinese imports and European exports. It is no surprise then that the continuing imperial interest in clocks bred and encouraged an industry dedicated to supplying Beijing with ever more elaborate and intricate pieces. This specialist industry was most focused in London, which had been one of the global horological centres since 1XXX.
James Cox was only one of a number of those involved in the Sing Song trade, but his ambition and entrepreneurial spirit have led to him being most closely associated with it. Due to the disparate number of parts involved in the making of such a clock their production was complex. Completing orders to tight deadline meant assembling a wide range of specialist craftsmen for both movements and elaborate cases. The entire operation would have to be financed and bronze casters, chasers, jewellers, etc. employed. Work on the movements was coordinated by a skilled clockmaker, often an independent craftsman working under subcontract. Having acquired some knowledge in various fields, Cox himself might supervise the final fitting and finishing. He even claimed to be responsible for some of the designs himself (which is somewhat ironic as from the records that survive, it is only of Cox that we can say with certainty he had employed specialist designers).
Despite these often being the endeavours of individuals, a great number of people would be involved in this production. At the height of the Sing Song trade, Cox had an amount of people contracted to rival those then employed in the country’s nascent factories. He himself was keen to point this out. Though the immediate purpose of these objects was trivial, the trade was not unimportant. This fallacy was already common in 18thcentury, and Cox spent much time and ink trying to counter it, stressing not only the employment which the trade provided at home, but its value as a way ‘to retrieve to this country some part, at least, of those immense sums which the products and manufactures of Asia are incessantly draining from Europe.’
Strong as the Qianlong Emperor’s taste was for Sing Songs, there is no such thing as infinite demand, and as production increased, a surplus eventually built up, one which Cox himself bore more than his fair share of responsibility for, until the Cohong took the unprecedented action of requesting the East India Company ban the exportation of any further clocks.
It was largely in response to this, and the resultant stock without a market now on his hands, that Cox established his temporary Museum in Spring Gardens in 1772. Here, in London, Cox displayed those of his automata clocks originally intended for the East that were most elaborate and fantastic, and it was now that he became a household name, referenced in novels and play. In much the same way that the triviality of Sing Songs reflected something naïve and barbaric about the Europeans to the Chinese, their ostentation and lack of function suggested something similar regarding the Chinese character to the crowds that flocked to the museum in London. In the publicity material Cox wrote, somewhat defensively: “He must be little acquainted with the nature of things, that would judge of these pieces, which were calculated for the Indian and Chinese markets, by the austere rules of our European Arts”. Indeed, domestic taste was already shifting away from chionserie and other rococo designs, and coming to be replaced by the more severe lines of neo-classicism coming in, the ‘elegant’ style which Cox used, in contrast to the objects on display, to decorate his exhibition rooms.
All of which is not to say that the people of London did not marvel at these works with the same awe as did the people of China who had been fortunate enough to see them, not only because they had an atmosphere of the exotic, being intended for the elite of China and therefore, Cox’s audience would have assumed, reflective of their tastes, but also because these items really did reflect the most cutting edge technology of the day.
In her celebrated novel Evelina the exhibition is described as ‘mere show, though a wonderful one’, one which prompts a debate concerning ingenuity and utility: for all their technological virtuosity, it is very difficult to say what any of it is for.
While it is of course true that the technology was put to no use other than entertainment, there is still an argument to be made that, if you take into consideration the wider implications of these machines, the Sing Song trade could be said to have a utility beyond those outlined above which related directly to employment and economics. The demand for ever new and more sophisticated automata pushed those who produced them to considerations and experiments that a more immediate, utilitarian function would not have. For example, the writing automata of Timothy Williamson, presented to the Qianlong Emperor and still a part of the Palace collection.
The clock bears many of the motifs typical of Sing Songs outlined above: the tiered structure, a somewhat incongruous piling up of elements, a clock dwarf by the automaton, and a strange hybrid of western and eastern elements, most striking in the figure dressed in a Georgian frock coat and holding an upright brush, with which he neatly writes eight Chinese characters in two vertical lines: 八方向化九土來王(‘From all directions they come and pledge allegiance, the lords of all the lands present themselves before the emperor’). The android’s writing mechanism, which is independent from the timekeeping mechanism, is comprised of three brass discs, or cams, in a box beneath the right arm. As the cams are turned by the clockwork motor, steel fingers follow their irregular edges. Through a complex system of levers and rods, the movements of the cams are translated into movements of the android’s hand—side to side (horizontal or heng stroke), front and back (vertical or shu stroke), and up and down (ti’an)—to produce marks on the paper.
Only four years after this piece, Jacquet Droz (a clockmaker who would later enter a partnership with Cox, supplying watches to China) produced his own writing automata. Again, it would be hard to say it served a proper function; Droz made it primarily as a display of his clockwork prowess. It features more than 6000 individual parts, but it’s most important difference from Williamson’s in that, via an access at the back of the automata, the cams could be altered, producing a different combination of letters, which is to say this particular automata is programmable making it the direct ancestor of the modern computer.
By freeing clockmakers from the demands and constraints of the basic function of clocks, the eastern market in general, and the Chinese in particular, facilitated such mechanical feats. What was being exported to China was not the commonplace in Europe, not an inferior product produced en mass for export to a populace that knew no better, but rather represented an unprecedented meeting of technological and aesthetic design and what was then the most sophisticated machinery in the world.is