The Murtogh D. Guinness Collection at the Morris Museum is an astounding collection of automata (mechanical toys popular in the 18th and 19th century) and mechanical musical instruments that can be visited in--of all surprising places--Morristown, New Jersey. The collection is mind-blowingly vast; it is, in fact, the largest such public collection in the U. S. and one of the largest in the world, with around 700 automata and mechanical musical instruments and over 5,000 programmed media, nearly all of which are were produced in the 19th Century.
The highlight of the Morris Collection--in my opinion, at least!--is its extensive lot of fine 19th Century European automatons. Most of the pieces are in excellent repair and still able to go through their uncanny motions, and the scale, quality, and range of the collection are simply flabbergasting, the kind of thing you might consider yourself lucky to find in France (where many automata producers were based) but certainly not here on the East Coast of the United States.
The Morris Museum has just published a new book devoted to this collection. Entitled Musical Machines and Living Dolls: Mechanical Musical Instruments and Automata from the Murtogh D. Guinness Collection, this book is a lovely little gem all its own; it is hardcover, full color throughout, beautifully printed, and well-researched. It also includes a well-researched overview of the history of automata from ancient times to the present and a biography of Murtogh D. Guinness, the heir to the Guinness beer fortune who amassed this collection and ultimately bequeathed it to the Morris Museum.
The book also--luckily for me!--features extensive text and scores of images (all images above are drawn from the book!) devoted to many of my favorite pieces in the collection, such as a number of 18th Century-style monkey dandies engaging in human activities (images 2, 3 & 4), 3 cats playing cards (image 5), a lute-playing Mephistopholes (image 7), an asp-suiciding Cleopatra (!!!) (image 6), performing tightrope walkers with orchestral accompaniment (image 9), a hookah-smoking Turk, singing birds, strutting peacocks, performing magicians, street vendors peddling their wares, and much, much more.
To give you a taste of the style and level of research to be found in this book, I include here the entire entry for the fascinating piece you see 6 images down, a late 19th century automaton entitled "The Suicide of Cleopatra":
The Suicide of CleopatraMorbid Anatomy is delighted to be assisting The Morris Museum in the distribution of this lovely and informative book, which contains images and information to be found nowhere else. The cost of the book is $40; shipping and handling within the United States is $5 and shipping and handling for international orders is $15. The book is 10 1/2" X 8 1/2" and runs to about 140 pages. As I am unable to get these books listed on Amazon.com, those interested in ordering a copy can contact me directly at morbidanatomy [at] gmail.com.
Phalibois, Paris, France
37" x 45 1/2" w x 12 1/2" d
Surrounded by a massive gilt frame, this animated scene would have dominated most parlors of the time. It depicts a highly sensual version of Queen Cleopatra of Egypt's supposed suicide in 30 B.C. When activated, her breast heaves, her eyelids blink--and an asp strikes.
Although made in the late 1800s, the scene reflects a long-standing Western fascination with Egypt, which had been renewed by Napoleon Bonaparte's occupation of the country at the turn of the nineteenth century. Along with tens of thousands of troops, Bonaparte brought with him scientists and scholars who recorded all that they saw. The Description de l'Egypte, which emerged from their research, became a source for artists, designers, architects, and others, and the ensuing widespread fascination spread from everything from furniture to parlor entertainment.
You can find out more about the Morris Museum--including how to visit the collection in person!--by clicking here. Also, stay tuned for a soon-to-be-announced second field trip to visit the collection. If interested in receiving an alert, subscribe to the Morbid Anatomy mailing list by adding your email address on the upper left-hand side of this blog under the header "Mailing List of Events, Happenings, and The Like."
All images are drawn from the book and picture, from top to bottom:
- Book Cover
- Barrel Reed Organ with Monkey Automata, about 1865
- Monkey Violinist, about 1855
- Monkey Dandy, about 1880
- Cats Playing Cards, about 1900
- Suicide of Cleopatra, about 1880-1890
- Mephistopholes (Model No. 1), about 1886-1900
- Barrel Organ with Animated Figures, about 1820-1840 (detail)
- Tightrope Dancer and Musicians, about 1875-1885 (detail)