John Joseph Merlin, the Celebrated Mechanic


This engraving appears as a full-page plate accompanying R. S. Kirby’s description of Merlin’s biography and famous inventions and automata. It depicts an oval bust portrait of John Joseph Merlin after Thomas Gainsborough on the left. Merlin, his right hand tucked into his jacket, gazes upward and to the right. The right-hand side of the engraving depicts one of Merlin’s inventions, a mechanical chariot. R. S. Kirby describes its mechanism and use in the accompanying text:
In what he [Merlin] calls his unrivalled mechanical chariot, he was to be seen, for many years past, very frequently riding about Hyde Park and various parts of the town, particularly on Sundays. In the front of this carriage, something resembling a dial was placed. By a mechanical communication from the left wheel to this dial, which he called way wise, he was informed by the hand and figures thereupon, how far he had travelled . . . In this carriage he never had the trouble to open the doors or windows, and even the horse was whipped, if necessary, by his pulling a string to which a whip was attached by a spring. From this curious carriage and his portrait we have presented our readers with an exact engraving. (275-76)
In the engraving, the carriage is shown without horses, and is ornately decorated on its visible side and front with the “various emblematical figures of Merlin, the ancient British Magician,” which Kirby reports “cost Mr Merlin last summer the sum of eighty-guineas” (276). The vase-shaped mechanical dial is shown near the front of the carriage, and a thin line connects the whip to the carriage. The style of the chariot itself is modeled after the French post-chaise, with some alterations in proportion (Greater London Council 111). The image is labeled below “John Joseph Merlin,” and is signed in the right-hand-corner by “G.P.H. del.’ et sculp,” identified by multiple sources as George Perfect Harding (Greater London Council 111).

Primary Works: 

R.S. Kirby's Kirby’s Wonderful and Eccentric Museum, or, Magazine of Remarkable Characters (London, 1820)

Kirby's text, in which this engraving appears, is one of the major sources of biographical information about Merlin. True to its title and the context of the book’s focus, Kirby is especially attentive to Merlin’s eccentricities, of which his remarkable automata constitute one aspect.

Accession Number: 

Thordarson T 3457

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Width (in centimeters): 

The image is accompanied by the caption, “John Joseph Merlin,” and is signed in the right-hand-corner by “G.P.H. del.’ et sculp.”
John Joseph Merlin, the Celebrated Mechanic was commissioned as an illustration to an entry on Merlin in R. S. Kirby’s Kirby’s Wonderful and Eccentric Museum, or Magazine of Remarkable Characters (Vol. 1) (p. 274-279).
This print was completed two months after Merlin’s death on May 4, 1803 by George Perfect Harding (1779/80-1853), a miniature painter and engraver. Harding was at this time in the early stages of his career, and had exhibited his first miniature painting at the Royal Academy in 1802 (O'Donoghue).
Merlin's Mechanical Museum

The opening date of Merlin’s Mechanical Museum is disputed—partly because Merlin may have exhibited informally for a number of years—but by 1788 it had become one of London’s most popular “shows,” especially famous for its remarkable automata and musical instruments (French, “John Joseph Merlin” 14). The museum opened for two sessions, in the morning and the evening, for two-hour shows at a cost of one shilling (Altick 73). Like many eighteenth-century museums, Merlin’s was also a commercial gallery. It continued for a few years after his death, closing in 1808.
Thomas Gainsborough’s portrait of John Joseph Merlin was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1782, but only re-identified as Merlin in 1977 on the basis of Harding’s engraving (Greater London Council 1). Gainsborough was most likely acquainted with Merlin through the Burneys and other musical social circles (French, “Merlin, his friends” 29). In the portrait, a longer bust format than the engraving, Merlin holds one of his inventions in his left hand, a miniature money scale (Greater London Council 34). A Merlin harpsichord-pianoforte also appears in Gainsborough’s portrait of Johann Christian Fischer (French, “Merlin, his friends” 30).
This engraving depicts an oval bust portrait of John Joseph Merlin—famous inventor, creator, and exhibitor of automata—with one of his inventions, a mechanical chariot.
The significance of this print lies primarily in its subject, but the print itself does interact in interesting ways with the accompanying text. For example, it seems to echo Kirby’s description of Merlin’s own automaton “self-portrait”: “he is possessed of the model of himself, with his carriage, in clock-work, which are made of brass, to go and perform every natural motion resembling life peculiar to the man or the horse, being made to run round about an artificial garden” (275). However, unlike Merlin’s automatic version, here the subject appears not in the carriage but outside it, floating slightly above where we would expect the horse to be. The print and the Gainsborough portrait contrast with the text’s focus on Kirby’s eccentric personality by depicting Merlin in a refined and reflective manner. Merlin’s lofty expression and the detailed execution of the mechanical chariot, which is much larger than the portrait, highlight Merlin’s mechanical genius and the wonder of mechanical invention more generally.

John Joseph Merlin was a key figure in the world of late eighteenth-century London spectacle, museums, music, and automata. As an immigrant to London, he also connects the popularity of mid-eighteenth-century French automata (such as those by Jacques de Vaucanson and Pierre Jacquet-Droz) to its London manifestations and associations with spectacle and to a burgeoning museum culture. Though Fanny Burney depicts the clockwork wonders of Cox’s Museum as a storehouse of frivolous French luxuries, Merlin’s mechanical ingenuity seems to have been as invested in “practical” inventions as elaborate clockwork dolls (Burney, Evelina 176). As a prolific inventor and creator of medical furniture and prized musical instruments, Merlin exemplifies the hybrid showman-artist-craftsman-engineer of the period. Merlin, like James Cox and George Adams, contributed to a blurring of the distinctions between private luxury and public display, French influence and imperial commerce, and art and science, as well as excelling in clever invention, industrial engineering, and philosophy. Even his social connections—with the Burneys' musical circle, the painter and Eidophusikon-inventor De Loutherbourg, and the astronomer Lalande—reflect this versatility.

We should not, however, ignore the elaborate clockwork dolls. The automata at Merlin’s Museum clearly occupy Kirby’s curiosity, while the popularity of Merlin’s Museum and the plan for “Merlin’s Cave” attest to the public and Merlin’s fascination with automata. Kirby describes some of the more remarkable late androids:
[W]hat surpasses every thing that can be imagined, is two particular figures, yet unfinished, representing women about 15 inches high, one in the attitude of dancing, and the other walking. They are made in brass, and clock-work, so as to perform almost every motion and inclination of the human body; viz. of the head, the breasts, the neck, the arms, the fingers, the legs, &c. even to the motion of the eyelids, and the lifting up of the hands and fingers to the face. The dancing figure is still more astonishing than the walking figure. (275)
Additionally, if the poem that accompanies Kirby’s text can be taken as in some way representative of Merlin’s works, Merlin may also have reproduced and/or modified popular automata from other sources, including several that appear in this gallery:
At Merlin’s you meet with delight,
His Clock of magnetical pow’r,
Keeps motion by day and by night,
By one hand tells the minute & hour.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

The Swan proudly swims on the waves;
The Flying Fish wafts in the air;
The Frigate the elements braves,
Her masts and her sails always fair.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

There’s the Turk, who eats all he can get,
Of stones when put into his mouth,
He’s a figure you’ll rarely forget,
Tho’ remov’d from the north to the south.
(Kirby 277)
Beginning with the image of a perpetual clock—which, like Cox's clock shown in this gallery, is both a wonder in itself and for the technology that powers all of Merlin’s other wonders—the poem, perhaps taken from an advertisement, lists simulative wonders, from the swimming swan to “the Turk,” a strange combination of Kempelen’s chess player and Vaucauson’s duck.
Altick, Richard. “Exhibitions of Mechanical Ingenuity.” The Shows of London. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard UP Belknap P, 1978. 64-74. Print.

Burney, Frances. Cecilia, or, Memoirs of a Heiress. Ed. Peter Sabor and Margaret Anne Doody. Oxford; New York: Oxford UP, 1988.

---. The Early Diary of Frances Burney 1768-1778. Ed. Annie Raine Ellis. Vol. 2. London: Bell and Sons, 1907. Print.

---. Evelina, or, A Young Lady’s Entrance Into the World: In a Series of Letters. Ed. Susan Kubica Howard. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press, 2000. Print.

French, Anne. “John Joseph Merlin: a biographical summary.” Greater London Council 11-16.

---. “Merlin, his friends, his patrons and his portrait.” Greater London Council 17-32.

Greater London Council Public Relations Branch. John Joseph Merlin: The Ingenious Mechanick. London: Greater London Council, 1985. Print.

Kirby, R.S. Kirby’s Wonderful and Eccentric Museum, or, Magazine of Remarkable Characters. Vol. 1. London, 1820. Print.

O'Donoghue, F. M. “Harding, George Perfect (1779/80–1853).” Rev. Mervyn Cutten. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Rev. ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004. Web. 23 March 2009.

Wright, Michael. “The Ingenious Mechanick.” Greater London Council 47-59.
John Joseph Merlin.

Kirby, R.S. Kirby's wonderful and eccentric museum, or, Magazine of remarkable characters : including all the curiosities of nature and art, from the remotest period to the present time, drawn from every authentic source : illustrated with one hundred and twenty-four engravings, chiefly taken from rare and curious prints or original drawings. Vol. 1. (London: R. S. Kirby..., 1820). p. 274.

Image Date: 

3 July 1803


R. S. Kirby

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