The Peacock clock ranks among the most unusual Hermitage Museum exhibits. Very few wonders of science and technology of the past preserve through centuries – as a rule we get fragments of mechanisms and décor. The 18th century amusement – Peacock Clock is one of those wonders that managed to stay unchanged, the way it was created. Besides, it’s the biggest of all surviving musical clocks and it’s in the best condition compared to the others.
The Hermitage is so huge, that even those who live in St. Petersburg and frequently visit it can’t say they’ve seen it all. One always has to choose favourite things. Being a regular to this museum, I’m no exception. When I come here without tourists, I head to my favourite things, they are like old friends of mine. Today I’m with kids and we are on a special visit. We deliberately came on Wednesday night: the Hermitage works long hours – till 9 p.m. At 8 p.m. the renowned Peacock Clock will be winded to chime.
The fancy mechanical toy – the musical clock “Peacock” was created by the English clock master James Cox. The multi-tier composition where the clock itself doesn’t play the main role is characteristic for Cox. Through 1760s and 1770s such mechanic curiosities were highly fashionable in Europe. The combination of spectacular looks, complicated mechanism and fine music created the illusion of a miracle. So, this gigantic toy, musical miracle, was bought by Potyomkin on the orders of Catherine the Great. In 1851 a special case was created on the commission of Nicholas 1. Since that time the fancy golden peacock has been exhibited in it.
Winding the 18th Century Clock to Chime
The Peacock Clock is an 18th century mechanism and it is necessary to wind it on a regular basis – not only to entertain the visitors, but to make sure everything’s in order. It’s like in medicine: preventive measures are more important than therapy. The clock mechanism keeps counting hours, but the chiming mechanism sets all the composition in motion only once a week – on Wednesdays. The automatic hourly chiming is switched off for better preservation of it.
We enter the Hermitage an hour before the performance. In the evening the museum halls are blissfully empty, to tell you the truth, I love this time for conducting the tours. But the Peacock has already gathered quite a crowd around it and it looks like people have been waiting for the clock to chime for at least half an hour or so. The kids are allowed to go in front, I mean the very front – even behind the bars, and my daughter immediately makes friends and the almost glue to the showcase glass and discuss what’s the peacock going do.
The famous Hermitage clock master personally looks after the Peacock. One of the masters of his excellent team winds the clock to chime every Wednesday.
So, it’s almost 8 p.m. and the clock master, enters the glass showcase. He greets the kids in front and starts winding the mechanism. All the figurines that make the performance (the owl in the cage, the peacock itself and the rooster) are hand-winded separately. My little son becomes impatient, I am holding him and he keeps turning and asking, when the peacock is going to turn and bow. And finally the performance begins. It looks like a slow 18th century ball dance, and the fine tine is very becoming to the occasion. The performance itself lasts about 8 minutes and finishes to the applause.
The young visitors of the Hermitage enjoy this performance. Today, in the age of cyber wonders, kids consider this clock real and genuine. “Real” – that was exactly the word my daughter used today.
After the Performance
After the performance – short though it was – my little ones feel quite agitated and start running around. From the point of view of the Hermitage museum keepers, that is the most terrible crime after touching exhibits. So, I try to explain to them that running is not an option, but they are definitely allowed to crawl. Guess what – they happily crawl all the way from the Pavilion Hall where the peacock is perched all the way to the Jordan Staircase. We are leaving the Hermitage with great impressions and I know I will get quite a number of peacock drawings and paintings.