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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

James Cox (ca. 1723–1800): Goldsmith and Entrepreneur

On the trade card bearing the London address At the Sign of the Golden Urn, James Cox proclaimed himself a goldsmith who “Makes Great Variety of Curious Wares in Gold, Silver and other METALS. Also, Amber, Pearl, Tortoiseshell and Curious Stones.” Yet Cox seems to have spent most of his career as an entrepreneur, and in the early 1770s he claimed to employ between 800 and 1,000 workmen. Most of them were part of a unique network of independent suppliers and craftsmen that existed in London in the second half of the eighteenth century. These craftsmen rarely signed their work. Only a few of them have thus far been identified, but their existence made possible the great variety of objects that Cox exported. The name of a maker was required by law to be visible on a watch with an enameled dial made in London for export, a circumstance that explains the presence of Cox’s name on the dials of the watches incorporated in the objects illustrated here.

In the watchmaking trade, Cox would have had to depend upon skilled craftsmen, for there is no evidence that he himself ever made a watch movement. How extensively he contributed to the design of the luxury items that bear his name remains to be established. From the mid-1760s, Cox produced lavishly ornamented articles for trade with the Far East, first with India and then with China, where the reception of his “toys” or “sing-songs,” as the Chinese are believed to have called them, was at first a success.

Some, an automaton in the form of a chariot pushed by a Chinese attendant (1982.60.137), were gifts to the Chinese emperor Qianlong (r. 1736–95), who had a special fondness for clocks, of both Chinese and Western origin. Many of these are still in the collection of the Palace Museum in the Forbidden City in Beijing.

A ban on Cox’s shipment of luxury goods to China, however, brought about the establishment in 1772 of the short-lived Spring Gardens Museum in London and the publication of two editions of A Descriptive Catalogue of the Several Superb and Magnificent Pieces of Mechanism and Jewellery, Exhibited in Mr. Cox’s Museum. A year later, Cox planned to dispose of the museum’s contents by lottery, and in anticipation of the sale two more much-enlarged editions, titled A Descriptive Inventory of the Several Exquisite and Magnificent Pieces of Mechanism and Jewellery, were published by Cox in 1773 and 1774. The Metropolitan Museum’s miniature secretary incorporating a watch (46.184a–c) is perhaps a surviving fragment of a larger work described in the 1773 Descriptive Inventory as “Piece, the Seventeenth: A superb Cabinet.” If so, the Museum’s miniature has lost the revolving sphere on its top described in the inventory, and it has been parted from a stand consisting of a “gilt rock, in front of which is a cascade and running stream of artificial water, where swans are seen swimming in contrary directions; at the corners of the rocks are Dragons with extended wings.” This extravagant assemblage was in turn displayed on a crimson velvet pedestal with a silver-mounted glass cover to keep out the dust. The inventory goes on to describe the eighteenth object as a duplicate of the seventeenth. A comparable miniature cabinet in the collection of the Palace Museum in Beijing still exists, as well as at least one other, more elaborately decorated, example that is now in the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg. It is possible, therefore, to suggest that, like the nearly identical jeweled automaton in a Cox watch (1977.436.4) and nécessaire (57.128a–o), these delightful secretaries may have belonged to a series of items that were sold both separately or inserted into a larger assemblage as desired.

The most spectacular survival of Cox’s enterprise, however, remains the ten-foot-high Peacock Clock, with its clockwork-driven automata, in the Hermitage, which was brought to Saint Petersburg in 1781, probably by Frederick Jury, one of Cox’s suppliers of clockwork. Cox hoped to establish direct trade with Russia and even attempted to sell jewelry to the Russian empress, Catherine the Great (r. 1762–1796), but met with less success there.

The loss of reliable trade with China, the failure in Russia, together with the fact that Cox never achieved royal patronage and suffered from the ill effects of the American Revolution on British foreign trade, precipitated his bankruptcy in 1778, his second. The remaining stock from Canton, China, was sold in London at Christie’s on February 16, 1792, but in the meantime Cox and his sons, one in Canton and the other in London, resumed business and again began sending watches to China, this time mostly made by the Swiss firm of Jaquet-Droz & Leschot.