Of Merlin and rollerskates

KENWOOD HOUSE IS NEAR both Hampstead and Highgate in north London. It offers the visitor the chance to view not only its lovely grounds and fine interiors designed by the architect Robert Adam (1728-1792), but also a fabulous collection of paintings, many by world famous artists including, to mention but a few, Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Van Dyck, Vermeer, Reynolds, and Gainsborough.

Merlin (painted by Gainsborough) and the invalid cahir he invented

One of the paintings by Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) is a portrait of the inventor John Joseph Merlin (1735-1803). The latter was born in Huy (Belgium), and as a young man, he worked in Paris making clocks and mathematical instruments. In 1760, he moved to England to work as a technical advisor to the then new Spanish Ambassador to London. By 1766, he was working with the London jeweller James Cox. Then, he was creating mechanical toys including the Silver Swan, an automaton, still working, that can be seen at the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle (Durham).

In addition to these ‘toys’, Merlin invented some useful items. These included roller skates; various clocks including one that was powered by changes in atmospheric pressure; improvements to keyboard musical instruments; playing cards for blind people; prosthetic devices; and a self-propelled wheelchair known as ‘the Gouty Chair’. There is an example of this ingenious wheelchair on display beneath Merlin’s portrait in Kenwood House. In my book about Hampstead and its environs, I described it as follows:
“Two handles at the ends of its armrests are connected by rods and cogwheels to some wheels on the floor below the chair. The occupant of this chair could rotate the handles, and thereby propel this early form of wheelchair around the room.”

In the same room as the invalid’s chair, there is another of Merlin’s creations: a skeleton clock made by him in 1776. This kind of timepiece is one, whose working parts are not concealed by casing or any other features that usually hide them.

The portrait of Merlin, painted in 1781 by his friend Gainsborough, shows him in a red jacket, holding a small beam balance in his left hand. Apparently, this was one of his creations. This precision instrument is the only clue that the subject of the painting had anything to do with jewellery or instrument making. His right hand is tucked into his jacket:

“… a customary gesture to signify a polite yet firm manner.” (https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/john-joseph-merlin-17351803-191713)

The painting hangs in Kenwood House because it, like many of the others on display there, were part of the collection of the philanthropist and brewer (of the Guinness beverage) Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh (1847-1927), who bought the house in 1927, and bequeathed it and his collection of paintings housed within it to the nation. You can discover more about Kenwood and nearby Highgate village in my book “Beneath a Wide Sky: Hampstead and its Environs” (https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B09R2WRK92 OR https://www.bookdepository.com/BENEATH-WIDE-SKY-HAMPSTEAD-ITS-ENVIRONS-2022-Adam-Yamey/9798407539520 )

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s