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Phalibois Automaton from a Traveling Exhibition

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Clocks, Watches & Scientific Instruments - 2345
Date / Time :
July 29, 2006 10:00AM


Phalibois Automaton from a Traveling Exhibition, titled "New Woman", probably once coin-operated, depicting a father rocking his two children while his wife sleeps, with papier-mache head, articulated eyes and jaw, the children with closed-mouth bisque heads and glass eyes, in shambolic room setting with original flower papers, chromolithographs in frames, silk-curtained bed half concealing the mother with flowing red hair and articulated breast, a bedside chair with brush and petticoat, a second chair beside the cradle with bassinet on the seat and the father's waistcoat hanging on the back, and abandoned boots, stockings and slippers scattered on the floor, in glazed wood case with gilt frame and rear exterior flywheel turning two pulleys and six brass cams controlling the ten movements; father looks from side to side, blinks, nods and moves his mouth as though singing to sleep the baby that he rocks in his arms, while simultaneously rocking the cradle of the eldest child with his foot; the child awakes, sits up and raises her arms as though crying, but without making enough noise to disturb her mother who is sleeping, her breast rising and falling beneath the covers. ht. of father 16 in., wd. 49 x ht. 41 x dp. 15 1/2 in. R>
Provenance: Purchased in New Zealand in 1967 from Corby's Auctioneers by the vendor's late father, who ran an antique shop in Wellington until his death in 1984. Six automata were offered in the auction: Daniel in the Lions' Den, Headless Clown, Drunken Clown, New Woman, a Ballet and a Courtroom Scene. According to family legend, the six once formed part of a series of twenty in a traveling coin-operated display; the missing fourteen were thrown into the harbour when the display went bankrupt, while the remaining six were retired to the windows of Laidlaw-Leeds department store in New Zealand. The Courtroom Scene and New Woman were displayed in the family business until it closed in 1986, and then loaned to the Te Papa National Museum where they were kept in storage until earlier this year.

Note: It is possible that all six (or even twenty) automata were originally driven by the same large electric, or steam-powered, motor and all activated at one time by a coin deposited in a wall box. Such large-scale coin-operated displays were certainly known. From 1894, the English maker John Dennison had a permanent exhibition on the upper floor of the Blackpool Tower, where every automaton was set in motion by a coin. Dennison, who described himself as "a musical model maker", built a number of early models around existing automata which he bought from well-known French makers such as Phalibois and Vichy, and then converted to run on his own motors, with a coin-release mechanism added.

Dennison's automata featured a range of entertaining themes, from fortune tellers and magicians, a version of Daniel in the Lions' den, an early conversion of a Phalibois Tightrope Walker, to more macabre and mysterious pieces such as the Haunted House and the Dying Child. Although much smaller in size, one of Dennison's early models Poor Father is identical to Phalibois' New Woman, suggesting that the entire series may have been a special commission built by Phalibois for one of Dennison's English customers. Another automaton named in the series, the Headless Clown, strengthens this attribution; a coin-operated example of the Headless Clown which appeared at auction in London in 2000, after having been toured for many years by an English fairground family, was also an early Dennison conversion of a Phalibois figure.

Perhaps more than any other maker, Henry Phalibois, who took over the family firm from his father in 1893, seems to have specialized in these large and elaborate automata made to order. Other well-known coin-operated pieces by Phalibois include the Whistling Boy and the Coochee-Coochee.

Literature: Darren Hesketh, (2005), Penny-in-the-Slot Automata and the Working Model, chapter 5.
Bailly, Automata, the Golden Age, p. 169 for what appears to be an identical figure, in a different setting, to the father in "New Woman".
Estimate $20,000-30,000


Phalibois, New Zealand, bedside chair , second chair , Wellington, Corby's Auctioneers, Laidlaw-Leeds department store, Te Papa National Museum, John Dennison, Blackpool Tower, Vichy, musical model maker, London, Henry Phalibois, Darren Hesketh, Automaton, Robotics