Huntsman automaton

WB.134     1617–20 • Silver-gilt • automaton figure

The huntsman walks into the forest with his dog to hunt wild boar. He is a rare survival of German drinking customs around 1600. Made for a drinking game, this huntsman was propelled by a clockwork mechanism in the base. The diner that the huntsman stopped in front of had to remove the head and drink all the wine from the hollow figure.

Curator's Description

Table ornament or cup; silver parcel-gilt; huntsman, dressed in late 16thC costume; holds boar spear and leads small dog by curb chain; hat with feather and one side turned up; gauntlets, half-boots and ruff; removable head; oval stand covered in fern-like branches and lizards in full relief; iron clock-work movement within stand which works three wheels on which the whole figure rolls; inscribed.

This object was collected by Anselm von Rothschild and bequeathed to the British Museum by Ferdinand Anselm Rothschild.

How big is it?

26.3 cm wide, 31.2 cm high, 12.8 cm deep, and it weighs 1.5 kg

Detailed Curatorial Notes

Text from Tait 1988:-

Origin: Nuremberg; probably c.1617-20; mark of Wolf Christoff Ritter (master 1617, died 1634).

Marks: The two marks (the town-mark and the maker's I punch-mark) occur twice: on the base of the detachable head and on the oval plate on the underside of the base of the automaton.

(i) Assay mark for Nuremberg, 1600-1700 (R3 3763).

(ii) Three six-pointed stars in a shield, tierce in mantle (or, parted in three mantle): the mark of Wolf Christoff Ritter (R3 3884).

Provenance: Baron Anselm von Rothschild, Vienna, before 1866.

See automaton by Fries , 1610-12 of Diana on a stag acquired by Liechtenstein Museum Vienna in 2009 which has its original clockwork mechanism. Se Apollo December 09 p. 41.

Commentary: In Read 1902 this exceptional object was described as a “table ornament or cup” and tentatively identified, for the first time, as bearing the mark “perhaps of Christoff Ritter (living 1547): Rosenberg, No. 1223”. In the third edition of Rosenberg (vol. III, 1925, R3 3880 (t), pp. 80-2), the mark was published as that of “Christoff Ritter(le) I, master 1547, died between 1587 and 1598”, and the Waddesdon Bequest huntsman automaton was published as one of his extant works.

This information was repeated in Dalton 1927 with due acknowledgement, and again in Hayward 1976. However, in Marc Rosenberg, ‘Geschichte der Goldschmiedekunst auf Technischer Grundlage’ (Frankfurt-am-Main, 1921; reprinted Osnabrück, 1972) the section entitled 'Stempelung' (pp. 49-64) includes a facsimile reproduction of the pages recording the Nuremberg masters of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in the Guild Book, and in most cases the mark used by the master is drawn between the man's name and the year when he became a master. There are four entries for members of the Ritter family (reproduced on p. 60, col. 1): Christoff Ritter(lein) II, master in 1577, was the son of Christoff Ritter(lein) I (master 1547, died 1573); these two goldsmiths are recorded as using the same mark in 1547 and 1577, and that is why the drawing of the mark is on a line halfway between the two lines on which their names and dates have been written - that is, the mark was recorded as being common to both men. The drawing of this mark shows the shield divided down the centre, which in heraldic terminology would be a shield parted per pale. If this punch-mark does, indeed, refer equally to the father and to the son, then such continuity would not be so surprising since the son only became a master in 1577, a few years after his father's demise.

Dr Klaus Pechstein not only most kindly permitted the author to inspect the original document in Nuremberg, but most generously discussed the question of the correct identity of the maker's mark on this huntsman automaton in the light of his published remarks on the punch-marks used by members of this family of goldsmiths (see ‘Wenzel Jamnitzer und die Nürnberger Goldschmiedekunst 1500-1700’, exh. cat., Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, 1985, pp. 249, 274 and 278; also p. 505 of the 'Meisterliste', contributed by Ralf Schürer).

Wolf Christoff Ritter, apparently the maker of this huntsman automaton, was born in 1592, the son of Christoff II, and became a master in 1617, one year after his father's demise in 1616. His brother Jeremias had already become a master goldsmith in 1606 with an unmistakably different mark, and in those ten years of overlap with his father had probably striven to establish his own reputation and identity. Similarly, the drawing of the mark recorded against the name of Wolf Christoff Ritter in 1617 differs significantly from the other shield punch-mark of the Ritter family in one major respect: the shield is divided into three - not two - areas by two curved lines, parting as they descend from the middle of the upper rim of the shield - in heraldic terminology, tierce in mantle, or alternatively, parted in three mantle (see C. N. Elvin, ‘A Dictionary of Heraldry, London, 1889’, pl. 21, no. 36). In French heraldic terminology, the field of this shield would be described as ‘Le champ chapé-ployé’ (see J. B. Rietstap, ‘Armorial General’, I, Gouda, 1884, pl. III, no. 62).

It seems likely that this automaton is, on grounds of style, one of Wolf Christoff Ritter's earliest works, probably before 1620, and should be compared with other early seventeenth-century silver figure groups, such as Jeremias Ritter's silver-gilt and coral drinking vessel in the form of Actaeon with his dogs being transformed into a stag, which has survived in the Grünes Gewölbe, Dresden (see ‘The Splendor of Dresden, Five Centuries of Art Collecting’, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1978, p. 155, no. 263 (H. 50 cm); also J.L. Sponsel, ‘Das Grüne Gewölbe zu Dresden’, vol. II, Leipzig, 1928, p. 218, pl. 34. The huntsman automaton should be contrasted with Wolf Christoff Ritter's extraordinary ewer and basin of rock-crystal and silver-gilt which has been preserved in the Schatzkammer der Residenz, Munich (see C. Hernmarck, ‘The Art of the European Silversmith, 1430-1830’, 2 vols., Sotheby Parke Bernet Publications, London, 1977; German edn, Munich, 1978, pl. 589; also ‘Wenzel Jamnitzer’ 1985, p. 278, nos 122-3, where it is dated “um 1630”). Another late work of Wolf Christoff Ritter, preserved since 1958 in the collections of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, is the bizarre elephant-fountain (see E. A. Jones, ‘Old Silver of Europe and America’, London, 1928, p. 204; also ‘Wenzel Jamnitzer’ 1985, p. 279, no. 124, where it is dated “um 1630-40” (sic).

There is one extant silver drinking-cup in the form of a standing huntsman (with his hound beside him), but it is of Augsburg origin and was not intended to be an automaton. It is 19.5 cm high, parcel-gilt with cold enamel, and is preserved in the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich (see Hannelore Müller in ‘Welt im Umbruch: Augsburg zwischen Renaissance und Barock’ II Rathaus, Augsburg, 1980, p. 382, no. 761, illus. on p. 383; also H. Seling, ‘Die Kunst de Augsburger Goldschmiede 1529-1868’ 3 vols., Munich, 1980, pl. 165, for a profile view on the left side). This rather unimpressive piece of goldsmith's work by Leonhard Umbach dates from the early seventeenth century and the costume (with small ruff, slashed trunk and hose) accurately reflects contemporary fashion. The costume of the Waddesdon huntsman, however, was probably no longer fashionable in Germany by c. 1620, and consequently it may have been either a deliberate copy of an earlier model - perhaps in an engraving or similar source - or perhaps it was merely finished by Wolf Christoff Ritter and, for that reason, the punch-marks only occur on the head and on the base plate, both of which he had supplied either to complete a slightly older, but unfinished, piece that had remained in the stock of the Ritter family workshop, or to restore a piece brought back by a patron, who needed the mechanism cleaned and perhaps had lost or spoilt the detachable head of the huntsman. There are no punch-marks elsewhere on this object, but on the other hand there is virtually nowhere else available for the striking of punch-marks without spoiling the piece.

The loss of the detachable head from an automaton drinking-cup of this kind is to be expected, because these toys were used in drinking games during banquets and court festivities. The mechanism in the base would, upon release, cause the whole object to be propelled along the table for a certain distance and stop by itself; the person in front of whom the huntsman had stopped would then be expected to drain the vessel. As the company grew merrier and the evening wore on these automata, especially the detachable elements, must have been at increasing risk - the head, for example, could easily be lost or crushed underfoot in a careless moment.

A few similar silver or silver-gilt automata which served solely as table ornaments - not as clocks with dials and striking mechanisms with bells - have survived. As early as 1612 there is a record of the very splendid equestrian St George and the Dragon automaton by Joachim Fries of Augsburg being included in the Saxon Electoral Kunstkammer in Dresden (see ‘The Splendor of Dresden’ 1978, p. 83, no. 39, with illus.; also, Sponsel II, 1928, p. 210, pl. 30). Since 1689 there has been a record in the Berlin Kunstkammer of Matthäus Wallbaum's well-preserved automaton of Diana the huntress riding a stag (see Stephan Bursche in ‘Die Brandenburgisch-Preussische Kunstkammer’ 1981, pp. 117-19, no. 42) and, most unusually, there is an almost identical but unmarked version without any mechanism in the base preserved in the Schatzkammer der Residenz, Munich (see R. Löwe, ‘Die Augsburger Goldschiedewerkstaat des Matthias Walbaum’, Munich-Berlin, 1975, p. 86, no. 61, fig. 72). The patron who commissioned the Munich example evidently not only wanted a non-mechanical table ornament but at the same time had the antlers of the stag executed in coral instead of silver. It is also particularly interesting to note the very considerable losses inflicted on Matthäus Wallbaum's marked automaton example in the Swedish Royal Schatzkammer in Stockholm, which was first recorded in the 1745 Inventory of the possessions of Queen Ulrika Eleonora of Sweden (died 1741). It has lost the figure of Diana and the detachable head of the standing hound, as well as a number of smaller decorative details attached to the base, in which the mechanism is located with the winding-hole at the side (see Lowe 1975, p. 84, no. 59, fig. 71). The example by Joachim Fries in the Moscow Kremlin has suffered even more, and the many empty holes vividly testify to the rough handling that this Diana automaton has endured (see G. A. Markowa, ‘Deutsche Silberkunst des XVI-XVIII Jahrh, in der Rüstkammer des Moskauer Kreml’, Moscow, 1975, no. 35, col. pl.). These losses of the more vulnerable parts are typical of the fate that has befallen so many clockwork 'toys', and therefore lend support to the notion that this Waddesdon huntsman automaton may have been repaired in the workshop of the young Wolf Christoff Ritter, who had taken over when his father died in 1616.

Augsburg seems to have specialised in automata, especially of a horological nature. Seventeen more marked Augsburg silver versions of the Matthäus Wallbaum's Diana on the stag group have survived, eight of which bear the mark of the goldsmith Joachim Fries (died 1620) and five of which are marked by Jakob Miller the Elder, a goldsmith who died in 1618. There is no evidence to show that these two goldsmiths were in partnership with Matthäus Wallbaum to produce all these examples (in addition to those that have inevitably been lost in the course of some 350 years or more). Furthermore, the suggestion that these Diana on the stag ornaments were made for one special occasion, such as the coronation of the Emperor Matthias in 1612, has been discredited by the recognition that they bear differing assay marks. Unfortunately, many have no recorded histories and cannot be traced back beyond the 1870s, and doubts about the age and origin of some of them seem justified.

In contrast, Nuremberg silver automata to be used as table ornaments are extremely rare, and this huntsman automaton in the Waddesdon Bequest is a most remarkable survival, for its mechanism is in its original state (as described in the diagram on p. 265). One other important Nuremberg silver automaton has recently come to light,

having remained in private possession for nearly four hundred years and having been neither published nor publicly exhibited before 1985-6. It is the tall silver-gilt automaton in the form of a standing monk who rings the bell in his right hand and pours wine with the other from a large container. It stands 31 cm high and is fully marked (R3 4004) - the work of the Nuremberg goldsmith Heinrich Jonas, who became a master in 1579 and died in 1605 (for another work marked by this maker, see WB.140). The monk's voluminous habit reaches to the ground; as a result the mechanism (wound with the small key that has survived) is hidden from view and so the figure of the monk is not mounted on any form of base - unlike the Waddesdon huntsman automaton. The monk's head is partly covered by his cowl, and on his back is strapped a large open wooden pannier. This large silver sculpture is first recorded in the 1684 Inventory of the Hohenlohische Kunstkammer as “ein vergühlter mönich mit einer butten und gutter auf so ein uhrwerck” (see Anna-Franziska von Schweinitz, ‘Die Hohenlohische Kunstkammer in Kirchberg’, Magisterarbeit der Fakultät fur Kulturwissenschaften, Tübingen University, 1985; also R. Sänger, Gold- und silberschmiedekunst , Bergkristall- und Steinschneidearbeiten, ‘Die Renaissance im Deutschen Südwesten’, exh. cat., Heidelberg Castle, Badisches Landesmuseum, Karlsruhe, 1986, p. 634, no. L. 33, with illus.; the hidden mechanism was neither described nor illustrated in the exhibition catalogue).

The fashion for these non-horological automata figures continued into the middle of the seventeenth century, and perhaps few more comparable - or better documented - examples have survived than the dashing equestrian figure of King Frederik III of Denmark (reigned 1648-70) tilting at the ring, which was made in Copenhagen in 1654 by the goldsmith is, now identified as Jørgen Stichmand (see Jorgen Hein and Katia Johansen, ‘Sophie Amalie: Den onde dronning?’ (Rosenborg, Copenhagen, 1986), no. 93, with illus.; H. 42.5 cm). The equestrian group is mounted on a high oval embossed base containing the driving mechanism which propels the galloping group towards the ring suspended between the two tall silver-gilt columns so that the lance held by the King scores a bull's eye. The figure of the King is attired in contemporary dress and is wearing a tall hat with a brim. This beautifully modelled piece was recorded in the 1690 Inventory of the Danish Royal Kunstkammer and is a smaller version of the monumental, but non-mechanised, silver-gilt equestrian group of King Christian IV tilting at the ring which was made by Heinrich Beust of Brunswick in 1598, when it was engraved with the names and coats-of-arms of those taking part in the tilting of 1596 during the King's coronation festivities (Rosenborg Castle; see Mogens Bencard, The Silver Cabinet in ‘Christian IV and Europe’, The 19th Art Exhibition of the Council of Europe, Copenhagen, 1988, no. 698, pp. 195-7). This earlier version, with its two detachable heads (horse and rider), is particularly relevant because both the attendant page and Christian IV are depicted in contemporary costume that roughly corresponds with that worn by the Waddesdon huntsman figure.

The use of these sculptural silver automata as ornaments of the festive table during the more spectacular Court occasions is not well documented. Nevertheless, the overall effect must frequently have resembled the vast 'landscapes' inhabited by elephants and unicorns, bears and huntsmen, lizards and birds, that were, for example, created in Düsseldorf for the wedding of Johann Wilhelm of Jülich, Cleves and Berg (published in Dietrich Graminaeus, ‘Fürstliche Hochzeit’, Cologne, 1587, and discussed in the Introduction (p. 22, fig. 5)).


  • Franz Schestag, ‘katalog der Kuntsammlung des Freiherrn Anselm von Rothschild in Wein’ Vienna, 1866, no. 198, with illus.
  • Charles Hercules Read, ‘The Waddesdon Bequest: Catalogue of the Works of Art bequeathed to the British Museum by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild, M.P., 1898’, London, 1902, no. 134, pl. XXXII
  • Marc Rosenberg, ‘Der Goldschmiede Merkzeichen’, 3rd edn, Frankfurt, vol. III, 1925, p. 82, R3 3880 (t)
  • O.M. Dalton, ‘The Waddesdon Bequest’, 2nd edn (rev), British Museum, London, 1927, no. 134
  • J. F. Hayward, ‘Virtuoso Goldsmiths and the Triumphs of Mannerism 1540-1620’, Sotheby Parke Bernet Publications, London, 1976, p. 387, pl. 506
  • Hugh Tait, ‘The Waddesdon Bequest: The Legacy of Baron Ferdinand Rothschild to the British Museum’, London, 1981, p. 81, figs 56-7
  • Hugh Tait, 'Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum, II : The Silver Plate', British Museum, London, 1988, no. 49, pl.XII, figs. 268-276
  • Dora Thornton, 'A Rothschild Renaissance: Treasures from the Waddesdon Bequest', British Museum, London, 2015, pp.304-309.
  • References

    1. Read 1902: Read, Charles Hercules, The Waddesdon Bequest. Catalogue of the Works of Art Bequeathed to the British Museum by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild, M.P., 1898, London, BMP, 1902
    2. Dalton 1927: Dalton, Ormonde Maddock, The Waddesdon Bequest : jewels, plate, and other works of art bequeathed by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild., London, BMP, 1927
    3. Tait 1988: Tait, Hugh, Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum; II The Silver Plate, London, BMP, 1988

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