Mechanical Landscapes: The Eidophusikon

detail from a sketch of the Eidophusikon by Edward Burney, British Museum

Last weekend I went to see a modern version of something that in 1776  gripped London like a fever.  But rather than a  medical crisis it was an all-embracing visual  experience: a series of stories that involved  landscape… & not static views of the countryside  rather landscape that moved.

The story begins with the staging by the Swiss father and son team Pierre and Henri-Louis Jaquet-Droz,  of their Spectacle mechanique in Covent Garden.  Originally  watchmakers they had branched out into building other mechanical devices and then travelled Europe exhibiting 4 pieces of their work.   It was to inspire a Frenchman living  and working in London  to develop of one of the strangest of many strange 18thc inventions: the Eidophusikon.

Pierre Jaquet-Droz was born in 1721 and studied  physics and mathematics at Basel University  before training as a watchmaker. He set up his own workshop in 1738 which was soon extremely successful and by 1758 he was wealthy enough to branch out on an unusual sideline. Working with his son Henri-Louis who had also studied with a mathematician and an engineer they began to make automata.

The Jaquet-Droz displayed their work around  Europe, to great acclaim, before coming to London and opening a watchmaking workshop in 1775. This was designed to cash in on the growing market with China, and over the space of the next decade hey exported some 600 clocks, snuff boxes, pocket watches and automata to the Imperial Court. Apparently several pieces can still be seen  in the Imperial Palace museum although I can’t find them on the museum’s website.

So what’s all this got to do with gardens or landscape?


In 1776 they laid on an exhibition of 4 automata. Three were humanoid figures of young people,which had  moving eyes and other body parts, that were  programmable although they had to be wound up with a crank.

The three automata now in Neuchâtel Museum


Inside the Draughtsman

There was the Writer who could  write up to 40 letters,  and had over 6000 moving parts, the Musician  who played  a tunes on her harpsichord, and the Draughtsman who could   sketches four different images; a portrait of Louis XV of France, a royal couple, a dog, and most complicated of all Cupid driving a chariot pulled by butterflies.   All three figures survive and can be seen in at the museum at Neuchâtel in Switzerland.

But its the fourth piece that should really grab your attention, and would, had it survived,  have grabbed that of most people.  It was  completely different in conception, and if possible even more complex and extraordinary.  It was advertised as ” a pastoral scene…with a great number of figures.”   Officially called ‘The Grotto’, it was conceived as  a ‘mechanical picture’.

The Grotto, British Museum This is the only known image

A flyer promoted  ‘The Grotto’  as a ‘contrast of art and nature an arrangement of rocks and gardens, of huts and pieces of architecture. … It occupies about 4 and a half feet square and two to three feet in height. The front part of the work represents an elegant garden”. [As you can see a typical formal geometric one with parterres, topiary and classical statues.]  Facing the garden was a low level mansion behind which was ” a Swiss landscape surrounded by rocks behind which the sun rises and then goes down exactly like the sun on our horizon according to the different seasons of the year.”    Amongst the trees can be seen   a peasant’s hut, a mill, a stream and grazing flocks as well as caves and grottos, with several figures and animals.  .

In itself the Grotto was quite an impressive model but of course it concealed a range of mechanisms which worked simultaneously,  with almost every part of the scene moving.   The flyer goes on to describe the action. So does this handbill…

Handbill advertising the show. Digital Bodleian

although annoyingly the last part of the story, on the other side of the handbill  hasn’t been digitized!   At the same time another advertisement for the exhibition added that  the  trees in the formal garden flowered and fruited,  the fountains played, birds flew and they and  assorted animals made appropriate sounds. In the centre of the model there was also a   a girl playing the dulcimer and  two  ladies dancing,  with ‘great regularity and grace’”.  Clearly the whole thing, despite being fragile,   was a mechanical tour de force  showing  a populated landscape  “artistically contrived.”

Sadly we dont know how long the programme lasted nor does anyone know  what happened to the Grotto. The Jaquet-Droz  account book shows it was sold, along with the 3 figures, in Madrid for 41,000 French livres in 1787 but after that it disappears.  Descendents of the family believe it was bought for exhibition in Spain but was thought to be demonic and so was impounded and broken up to see what caused it to function!

A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery, Joseph Wright of Derby. Derby Museum

This miniature mechanical world is parallel with another contemporary way of thinking: that the whole of creation was  a vast moving machine, populated by smaller machines, ie humans and  animals.   This fitted  Newton’s idea that the  laws of nature were  regular, predictable, and mechanical.  It was a widely accepted view  famously seen in Joseph Wright’s  pianting A Philosopher Lecturing on an Orrery where Newton’s model of a clockwork solar system is being demonstrated an attentive audience.  Equally pointed was the French philosopher de la Mettrie ‘s argument  that “the human body is a machine that winds it own springs.”   The mechanical model was also used for discussion about of the way society was organized and operated. If you’re interested in the way that 18thc intellectuals used the machine as a metaphor for discussing social issues then see “Deus et machina in La Lettre de la Maison Francaise d’Oxford 1998]

Philippe de Loutherbourg, self portrait, NPG

One of those who saw the exhibition and probably got to know the Jaquet-Droz themselves,  was the French painter and stage designer Philippe de Loutherbourg who was working with Garrick and Sheridan at Covent Garden.

He soon  began to work on a project which  combined his theatrical knowledge and imagination with  their engineering skills.

Advertisement for the First Season of the Eidophusikon, 1781, British Library

De Loutherbourg lived near Leicester Square and on 26 February 1781 he advertised a novel attraction at his house. It was described  as ‘Moving Pictures representing Phenomena of Nature’ or the ‘Eidophusikon’.

‘Eidophusikon’ derives from eidoion (‘phantom’, ‘image’ or ‘apparition’) combined with phusis (‘nature’ or ‘natural appearance’) and eikon (‘image’ or ‘likeness’). 

At first sight de Loutherbourg’s Eidophusikon resembled a theatre, but a miniature one, with the  audience sitting on benches which gave them  an eye level view of the stage.  His house was apparently large enough to seat 13o spectators.  The scaled-down proscenium arch – about 6-7ft across and about 4 ft high but as much as 8ft deep was used to present a series of illusions representing the landscape and  natural phenomena.   Painted backdrops and side screens were supplemented by 3D  models of  buildings, trees and rocks and  accompanied by impressive lighting and sound effects.

Printed handbill for Loutherbourg’s Eidophusikon                    RA Collection: Archive

These included the use of  copper sheeting  being flexed to create the sound of  thunder,  containers of seeds or gravel being shake to imitate rain or the sound of wind being made by rubbing together a pair of  drum skins.

It would be interesting to know whether Loutherbourg’s  use of such contrivances was pioneering or just drawing on his existing theatrical knowledge. I’m almost surprised that he didn’t think  engaging the sense of smell too by, for example, burning sulphur to create the inferno of hell for the scene above drawn by Edward Burney.

There was music too and because of Loutherberg’s connections he was able to recruit players  as important as Thomas Arne, Christian Bach and  Charles Burney for the harpsichord you can see just in front of  the arch. 

So … we have the top stage and set designer of the day, working with the leading musicians to create a complete novelty in the heart of the west end so, despite the fact it wasn’t cheap [ five shillings admission compared to the one shilling charged for the annual Royal Academy exhibition]. perhaps we should not be surprised at the storm the Eidophusikon created.

The Morning Herald reported that ‘the eagerness of curiosity is so great, that as the scenes follow each other in a quick succession, the spectators too frequently rise from their seats, as to destroy the perspective effects of the picture’. The London Courant wondered if de Loutherbourg had  lived at the time of Galileo, whether he might have been charged with ‘conjuration’ as one who ‘by the black arts, had captivated the sun, moon, and stars, and collected clouds, thunder, and lightning, by the aid of the Devil’. The European Magazine in March 1782 described the Eidophusikon as a ‘new species of painting’, one that transcended ‘common painting’ by introducing the element of time to  ‘copy the gradual workings of nature in her most important scenes’.

So What did they see in this giant box of illusions and how did it relate to their work? Firstly it surely must be at least partly to do with movement and change.  Landscape painting however lively and vibrant is static and largely topographical but the Eidophusikon involved movement, sound, atmosphere and the imagination simultaneously.

There’s an account published by William Pyne which  is too lengthy to include in full but follow  the link for the rest.

“The opening subject of the Eidophusikon represented the view from the summit of One-tree Hill, in Greenwich Park, looking up the Thames to the Metropolis; on one side, conspicuous upon its picturesque eminence, stood Flamstead House; and below, on the right, the grand mass of building, Greenwich Hospital, with its imposing cupolas, cut out of pasteboard, and painted with architectural correctness. The large groups of trees formed another division, behind which were the towns of Greenwich and Deptford, … the intermediate space was occupied by the flat stage, as the pool or port of London, crowded with shipping, each mass of which being cut out in pasteboard, and receding in size by the perspective of their distance. The heathy appearance of the fore-ground was constructed of cork, broken into the rugged and picturesque forms of a sand-pit, covered with minute mosses and lichens, producing a captivating effect, amounting indeed to reality.”

Unsurprisingly contemporary artists were fascinated by  the Eidophusikon. The President of the Royal Academy Sir Joshua Reynolds  ‘honoured the talents of the ingenious contriver, by frequent attendance . . . and recommended the ladies in his extensive circle to take their daughters, who cultivated drawing, as the best school to witness the powerful effects of nature’.

Wooded Landscape with Herdsman Driving Cattle, by Gainsborough, 1781/2 V&A

Thomas Gainsborough also attended shows frequently and was so enthralled ‘that for a time he thought of nothing else – he talked of nothing else – and passed his evenings at that exhibition in long succession’.  

Open Landscape with Shepherd, Sheep, Pool and Distant Hills, Thomas Gainsborough, 1786, V&A

His income  came  largely from portrait painting but he much preferred painting landscapes and in the 1780s he commissioned a specially constructed ‘showbox’ which is a sophisticated version of a long and well-established popular entertainment the peep show.

Gainsborough  then experimented with making and painting glass slides , almost all of which show landscapes. A contemporary wrote ” They are lighted by candles at the back, and are viewed through a magnifying lens, by which means the effect produced is truly captivating, especially the moonlight pieces, which exhibit the most perfect resemblance of nature.”

Wooded Moonlight Landscape with Pool and Figure at the Door of a Cottage, Gainsborough 1871/2, V&A

So what happened next?  After two seasons de Loutherbourg  sold the attraction to his assistant, a man named Chapman, who appears to have taken it on tour, although by then it had to share the billing with other less complicated attractions.  I’ve found ads for it being in Bath, Manchester, Chester, Edinburgh & Dublin.

Cutting c.1800 from Digital Bodleian

However on the night of 21 March 1800, a  fire started nearby , the venue burned out and that was the end of the Eidophusikon.


Except that it wasn’t ….

…because in 2004 Robert Poulter started to revive interest by making a new one.  He has now built 5 different ones for museums and exhibitions around the world.   Unfortunately as  you’ll see if you check his website  an Eidophusikon isn’t exactly easily transportable, and can require 5 people to operate,  so what I saw  in the wonderful surroundings of the the Edwardian lecture room of the London Art Workers Guild at the back of one of the few surviving Georgian houses in Queen Square, was a very very miniaturized one-man band version… but nonetheless a fascinating insight into late Georgian entertainment.

If you’re near London you might like to know there’s going to be  an exhibition about toy theatres called Pasteboard Villains and Spangled Fairies at the Westminster Library in St Martin’s Street this month, with workshops and shows between Friday 12 – Thursday 18 April, during library opening hours.

For more on the Eidophusikon itself see: Ann Bermingham, Technologies of Illusion: De Loutherbourg’s Eidophusikon in Eighteenth-Century London

For more on 18thc automata see : Adelheid Voskuhl, Androids in the Enlightenment, (2013)

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