Saturday 2 April 2022

Mysteries at the McLean Museum - the Magician's Clock

Another trip to the McLean Museum, part of the Watt Institution, Kelly Street, Greenock, and another mystery!  I saw the coat of arms of Port Glasgow and immediately thought - good, something interesting about Port Glasgow in that display case.  Well, that wasn't the case (get it!).  Inside was a jumble of artefacts most of which related to Greenock.  Only one had any sort of notice describing what it was, although there was a notice stating that new displays on the history of Inverclyde were coming soon.  Can't wait to see those!  However, something in the case caught my eye - a beautiful clock.

The clock is described in the Museum's online catalogue (try finding that on the Inverclyde Council website!) as a "Nineteenth century pendule mysterieuse clock made by Jean-Eugene Robert Houdon ..."  I was intrigued - here was a genuine mystery!  I wanted to find out about M. Houdon and why the clock was described as "mysterieuse".  Unfortunately there was no card near the clock to explain anything to the public.  Pendule Mysterieuse or mystery clock - the workings are hidden so that the hands appear to move on their own.  These mystery clocks created quite a sensation when they were first exhibited to the public.

Jean-Eugene Robert Houdon

Once described as one of the greatest and richest magicians in the world, Jean-Eugene Robert (1805-1871) was born in Blois in France to a family of clockmakers.  After his marriage to Josephe Cecile Houdon, the daughter of a clockmaker, he added Houdon to his own name.  He later moved to Paris and set up business as a clockmaker.  He also had a fascination with magic and befriended many magicians who graced the theatres of Paris.  He became popular throughout Europe and also in Britian.  He was also an excellent mathematician and engineer and also became famous for his "electric clock" made for the Hotel de Ville, Blois.

Spurred on by his combined interests, Robert-Houdin (as his name was commonly spelt) made a mechanical figure which was bought by P T Barnum for a large amount of money.  Houdin was also making mechanical articles for his own magical theatre which opened in Paris in 1843.  Appearing in evening dress on stage, he also had an act "Second Sight" which involved his son in a blindfold identifying objects handed to Houdin by the audience.

During the Revolution of 1847 which closed much of Paris, Houdin took his show on tour and performed in London for Queen Victoria.  He also toured Europe for a number of years.  In 1856 he was sent on a diplomatic mission to French Algeria to help suppress a rebellion.  He later retired to his home near Blois.

Robert-Houdin died in 1871 and his home became a museum open to the public - La Maison de la Magie Robert-Houdin.  He is known as "the father of modern magic".  

Interestingly, the famous escape artist and illusionist, Harry Houdini, born Ehrich Weisz, named himself after two famous magicians - Harry after Harry Keller and Houdini after Robert-Houdin.

Who would think that a random, unlabelled exhibit in a relatively small museum in Scotland could conjure up (see what I did there!) such an interesting history!  However, a mystery still remains.  How was this mystery clock acquired by the McLean Museum - was it donated or bought for the collection?

Read about other Mysteries at the McLean - Children of Greenock and the Wooden Spoon.

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