Thursday 5th July 2018


Canard Digérateur de Vaucanson (Vaucanson’s Digesting Duck)

All that was left of the most famous of all automatons were a pair of heat-warped wings found among the smoking ruins of a museum in Krakow, Poland in 1889.

Built in 1739 by Grenoble artist Jacques de Vaucanson, the Digesting Duck quickly became his most famous creation for its lifelike motions, beautiful craftsmanship, and it’s ability to poop out food it had eaten. This simulacrum of life was the ultimate goal for Enlightenment automata builders, both for entertainment and for scientific/philosophical reasons. He built his master works – the duck and two life-sized humanoid musicians – in Paris, after several earlier attempts at mechanical devices and automata.

The duck sat on an enormous base housing the mechanics, and was life-sized, constructed of hundreds of parts covered in perforated gold-plated copper to allow a view of the inside workings. When activated, it moved like a duck, wiggling its beak in the water, quacking, and re-adjusting its position. Most famously though, it could eat pellets offered to it, and then, after “digestion”, poop them out the other end.

Voltaire was suitably impressed, and wrote, “Without Vaucanson’s Duck, you have nothing to remind you of the glory of France.” Just how sarcastic or not he may have been is left to the imagination.


It quickly became a super-star attraction, but Vaucanson tired of them only a few years later, packing them off for a grand tour with caretakers. He turned his attention to a new assignment of designing automated looms for France’s silk industry, leading to a colorful chapter in his life wherein, upon introducing an automated loom needing only the expertise of a donkey for man-power, the silk workers revolted causing Vaucanson to flee the area disguised as a monk.

In the meantime, the automatons changed hands. In 1805, Johann Goethe saw the duck in the private collection of German eccentric Gottfried Christoph Beireis, along with the disabled remains of his two other famous automatons, and remarked in his diary,”The Vaucansonian automatons were utterly paralyzed… A duck without feathers stood like a skeleton, still devoured the oats briskly enough, but had lost its powers of digestion.”


Repaired for the occasion, the duck made its last formal appearance at the Exposition Universelle at the Palais Royal in Paris in 1844. The illusionist and automata maker Robert-Houdin was employed after the exposition to repair damages to a wing. During his repairs, he took the opportunity to turn a critical eye to the famous digestive tract of the duck, and announced triumphantly, “I found that the illustrious master had not been above resorting to a piece of artifice I would happily have incorporated in a conjuring trick.” The duck poop was in fact stored in a separate hidden compartment, a mechanical slight of hand, not the result of artificial duck digestion.

In the years after this, the duck disappeared into obscurity until spotted among the collection of a Krakow museum. Unfortunately, a fire destroyed the building, the two partially destroyed wings taken as evidence of its demise. Since the it has grown in reputation, showing up as motifs in film, art, and literature, notably in Thomas Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon, Vaucanson’s duck comes alive and terrorizes a French chef with its Bec de la Mort (“Beak of Death”).


Standing sentry at the door to this enthralling exhibition is a lively figure known as The Connoisseur. He wears a linen suit and an expression of expert discrimination. Press a button and he leans forward to examine some unseen object, then gradually backwards to give serious weight to his judgment. He might be one of us, a fellow visitor who is also our surrogate.


Tim Hunkin’s sculpture – made out of papier-mache art reviews, some from this very newspaper – is comical, mechanical, exquisitely expressive. It is both a work of art and an automaton. So it was with the earliest automata: the mythical clay figures animated by Prometheus; the female statue that Pygmalion brought to life and loved; and so it remains. This is one crucial difference between an automaton, a robot and a puppet.

They have the spark of life – or half-life; beautiful yet eerie, like us but soulless and abjectly dependent
At Compton Verney this summer you can see automata created by artists across four centuries, including Ting-Tong Chang’s modern speaking goose (2017), so lifelike it seems about to take flight in the middle of a hilarious lecture on avian digestion. Exotic birds flutter and sing in their 18th-century cages. A Victorian girl walks on her own two elegant feet, crinoline swishing, and mice skitter across a table top while the women in Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon emerge into three dimensions, courtesy of Paul Spooner, untwisting from their cubist contortions.

They have the spark of life – or half-life; beautiful yet eerie, like us but soulless and abjectly dependent. Or frightened and frightening, like the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published two centuries ago and which this show partly commemorates. We make these creatures in our own likeness, however approximate, and sometimes they get away from us – which is, after all, the intention.

.Prints by the contemporary artist Stuart Patience visualise with considerable graphic force the plot of ETA Hoffmann’s celebrated short story The Sandman, which inspired Sigmund Freud. The young man Nathanael falls in love with a lifesize automaton, the perfect Olimpia; woos her, talks to her, dances with her at a ball and then watches her moving about through distant windows. Eventually he is shattered to discover what everyone else can see: the mechanical limbs at work beneath her dress.


Clockwork is the beating heart of these marvellous machines, especially in earlier centuries. It makes the birds sing, the lovers kiss, the Fabergé elephant swing its trunk while ambling along. In a mesmerisingly strange rococo vignette, straight out of Watteau, it keeps the dancers twirling and the melancholy violinist bowing away until the power runs out: a chronicle love’s death foretold.

A Swiss clockmaker named Henri Maillardet built the most famous of 19th-century automata: a little boy, seated at a desk with a pen in his hand who could draw four different pictures when wound up and presented with paper. Maillardet used a camshaft invented by Islamic scientists centuries earlier to motivate the figure, which disappeared for many years but is now in an American museum. Compton Verney has one of the boy’s drawings, of a garden with fountains and palms that looks fabulously exotic and slightly oriental. (China was for a long time the main automaton market.) The mechanism, for all the infinitely subtle hand movements required to produce this drawing, is so complex as to be justifiably compared with a modern computer.


The curators of this compelling show started out with an object in Compton Verney’s own collection: a pair of wooden workers from 1900, one turning a clay pot, the other labouring to sustain the motion of the wheel, wiping the sweat from his brow. Automata may represent the human condition, reflecting our lives back to us. This is the subject of a brilliant 2016 film called The Machinery by Caroline Radcliffe and Sarah Angliss, in which the former performs a heel-and-toe clog dance that was once tapped out daily by female workers in Victorian cotton mills. Industry turned them into automata, almost. The dancer resembles a latterday Coppélia.


One section of this show is devoted to slot-machine automata: Blake’s Tyger whirling about in the forest; painters grafting away at easels; a bather diving straight from his beach hut into cold blue waters. There is much English whimsy and seaside humour, but the real star here has a far more eccentric imagination: Rowland Emett, Punch cartoonist, kinetic sculptor and designer of the elaborate contraptions of Caractacus Potts in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Here for almost the first time in its working entirety is A Quiet Afternoon in the Cloud Cuckoo Valley, in which Emett’s elaborate train carriages trundle their way around lifesize tracks, bearing the old gentleman playing his gramophone, the old lady leaning out to catch songbirds, all to the sound of music-box lullabies. The names of the trains invoke those dreamy pre-Beeching days – Bluebell, Cuckoo, Watercress Line. This is the kind of creation Heath Robinson might have drawn in all its improbable intricacy, but Emett actually invented and made.

With its theatrical installation and jewel-coloured lighting, this show is a performance in its own right. It seems to tell an alternative version of European history, in which man and machine have an otherworldly relationship that goes far beyond master and creation.


In the final gallery, sculptures that resemble vast grey brains lie dormant in glass cases – dormant until mechanical fingers prod at them. The organisms shiver, quiver, recoil, retrench, as if in fight or flight. The work, by the young sculptor , probes at the very quick of one’s own imaginings. And beside it and turns on a plinth, articulate, emphatic, jabbing, as if preaching to some unseen congregation of fellow automata. Like the sculptures of Prometheus, or the little drawing boy at his desk, it is recognisably human yet entirely alien.

Laura Cumming The Guardian



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