James Cox's peacock clock presented to Catherine II in 1781

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 Potiomkin, 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.

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 clockmaker 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 Potiomkin.

The clock was brought to Russia in pieces. At Potiomkin'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.

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