State Hermitage Museum

The video (in Russian) explores the history, construction and maintenance of Catherine the Great's elaborate clock in the Winter Palace

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For more than two centuries now the Hermitage has been adorned by a unique exhibit that never fails to evoke the enchanted admiration of visitors - the famous Peacock Clock. The figures of a peacock, cockerel and owl that form part of this elaborate timepiece-automaton are fitted with mechanisms that set them in motion.

The creation of mechanical birds had long been of interest to inventors: back in the Ancient World figures of "singing" birds had been used to embellish clepsydras - water clocks. In the 18th century the makers of automata tried to create a system that would enable their birds not only to sing, but also to behave as if alive, and they made them life-size. In the middle of the century, for example, the whole of Europe admired the mechanical duck made by the French craftsman Jacques de Vaucanson, which was able to eat, drink, move and behave in the most life-like manner.

The most celebrated creator of mechanisms of this sort in the second half of the 18th century was the London jeweller and goldsmith James Cox. His fertile imagination generated ideas that were then turned into reality by the craftsmen and mechanics of his company. Cox's firm produced a large number of elaborate automata, sumptuously decorated in a great variety of ways, for European and Eastern clients. Cox became truly famous, however, when in 1772 he opened his own museum - the Spring Gardens, in which he exhibited a large number of mechanical figures of exotic animals, birds and human beings. To fund the making of expensive automata Cox organized lotteries: in London in 1773 and in Dublin the next year. A surviving catalogue of the Dublin lottery lists two peacocks as numbers 6 and 8. From the description of the items it is clear that this pair of automata differed from the Hermitage composition: the peacock was perched on an oak stump, around which two snakes twined. There is no mention of the figures of a cockerel and owl, or of the mushroom that acts as the clock dial.

The history of the Hermitage's Peacock Clock begins in 1777, when the Duchess of Kingston visited St Petersburg. Balls were given in the Russian capital in honour of this wealthy and distinguished guest. Grigory Potemkin, who met the Duchess in society, learned of James Cox's magnificent mechanisms. Pandering to Catherine II's passion for collecting, the Prince commissioned the celebrated craftsman to make a monumental automaton with a clock for the Empress's Hermitage. In order to meet this expensive order as quickly as possible, Cox, whose financial affairs were currently not in the best of health, decided to use an existing mechanical peacock that featured in the Dublin lottery. He expanded the composition with a cockerel, owl and a clock mechanism with a dial incorporated into the head of a mushroom, and removed the snakes. To create his new automaton, Cox recruited the assistance of Friedrich Jury, a German craftsman who had settled in London.

Views of the Halls of the Small Hermitage. The Peacock Clock in the Eastern Gallery.
Artist: Konstantin Ukhtomsky, 1860

The Peacock Clock arrived in St Petersburg in 1781. The records of the Winter Palace chancellery listing the valuables that Catherine II acquired in that year include mention of two payments - on 30 September and 14 December - to the clock maker Jury for a clock delivered from England. The payments amounted to 11,000 roubles (around 1,800 pounds sterling) and were made from the Empress's personal funds on the basis of a letter from Prince Potemkin.

The clock was brought to Russia in pieces. At Potemkin's request the Russian mechanic Ivan Kulibin set it in working order. From 1797 to the present day the Peacock Clock has been one of the Hermitage's most famous exhibits. It is, moreover, the only large 18th-century automaton in the world to have come down to us unaltered and in a functioning condition.

Four separate mechanisms are combined in the Peacock Clock: three of them set the figures of birds in motion, while the fourth is the actual clock movement. These mechanisms are linked by a system of levers that ensures their operation in the correct sequence.

At the end of each hour the owl begins working. Its cage rotates, little bells ring, the owl turns its head to right and left, blinking its eyes and tapping its right foot. The cage makes twelve rotations and stops.

Roughly ninety seconds after the owl starts moving its mechanism starts up the peacock. It spreads its tail, stretches its neck, turns and throws back its head, opening its beak. When its tail is fully spread, the bird freezes for a second. Then it smoothly turns its tail to the viewers, again freezes for a moment, returns to its starting position, folds its tail and lowers its head.

At the end of its cycle the peacock mechanism starts the cockerel. After shaking its head several times, it crows. The clock mechanism incorporates three trains (each with a driving spring, fusees and chains): an eight-day movement with spindle escapement; the quarter-chiming train (for eight little bells) and the striking train. Distinctive features of this particular clock mechanism are the dial in the form of a mushroom with a slot to show the hour and minute disks as they rotate relative to a fixed pointer and the second hand in the form of a dragonfly.

The music produced by the Peacock Clock is mysterious. It assumes the role of a magic force, breathing life into the mechanical figures. Standing facing their audience, like actors before the start of a performance, the owl, peacock and cockerel come to life by turns under the influence of the first bars of music. Each of the personages performs the role allotted to it in this little show to its own music and freezes again as it finishes. The chimes serve as a prelude to the action. To the sound of four melodies played by little bells, the owl begins to move. Small hammers in the form of flowers produce soft tones. A similar sound could be produced by the famous glass harmonica invented by Benjamin Franklin, a very popular instrument in the second half of the 18th century. The performance ends with the cockcrow that breaks into a falsetto (the cockerel's voice is imitated by a reed organ-pipe with shifting pitch, coupled with a mechanism that interrupts the flow of air). The central character is the peacock (it bows grandly and spreads its glorious tail) and it probably once had its own musical accompaniment too. All the fairy-tale sight is accompanied by the uninterrupted dance of the dragonfly.

Surviving descriptions attest to the original, unusual music of Cox's creations. The artificial sounds of the musical automaton were perceived by its creator as something opposite to live music, composed by a human being and addressed to the human being. To demonstrate the mechanical nature of the Peacock Clock's music (i.e. to shift it from one system of creativity to another, different one) its author uses exotic modes and sharp syncopated rhythms. The bold musical experiments of an English composer who lived in the 18th century evoke admiration today and a desire to learn the name of a talented musician who has sadly remained anonymous.

Eighteenth-century philosophers were of the opinion that a clock was a mechanical model of the universe and its task was to "count" time, following the movements of the heavenly bodies. Each of those bodies and each time of day or night were associated with particular birds that more than others reminded people of the "onward march of time". The symbolic significance of the birds depicted would have been clear to contemporaries.

The peacock is the most rich in astral symbolism: it represents the cosmos, the sun and the lunar disk. The most impressive moment - the solemn opening of the tail and its rapid folding is a symbol of the unity between the appearance and disappearance of all that exists. The owl is a sign of night, quiet and wisdom, but at the same time it is a companion of Atropos, the last of the three Fates or Moirai that cuts off the thread of life, hence a symbol of darkness, sorrow and the end of life. The cockerel, whose crowing announces the sunrise, is a symbol of the birth of light, life and resurrection (it is one of the emblems of Christ).

The movement of the birds in the Hermitage clock begins with the disturbing syncopated melody of the little bells on the cage of the owl (night), then the peacock opens out its "sun-tail" and turns around, showing the viewer for an instant the silvery back side of its tail. Then the bird turns around again; the silver of night disappears; the golden disk of the sun returns to the centre. Its rise is announced by the crowing of the cockerel. Thus the Peacock Clock is a symbol of the continuity of life, in contrast to the usual perception of any timepiece as a memento mori, a reminder of mortality.

Source & Copyright: State Hermitage Museum
24 January, 2014