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Mechanical tortoise with triton rider.

Mechanical tortoise with triton rider.

  • Place of origin:

    Germany (Possibly made in Augsburg, made)

  • Date:


  • Materials and Techniques:

    Tortoiseshell, brass, cast and chased, red enamel on the tortoise's mouth.

  • Credit Line:

    Given by Colonel Sir C. Wyndham Murray, KCB.

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    Europe 1600-1815, Room 6, The Lisa and Bernard Selz Gallery, case CA4

This piece was almost certainly made to be shown with other examples of scientific and artistic skill, and natural wonders, in a Kunstkammer. A Kunstkammer was a room (or rooms) in a large private house or palace specially reserved for the display of rare, valuable and intriguing objects, both natural and man-made, to select visitors. In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, automata that incorporated mechanical clocks regularly appeared in inventories of these rooms. In this example the tortoise's head jerks in and out from under its shell as the object is rolled along. The merman on top of the shell (known as a triton) is designed to raise its arms and bring its trident down on the head of the moving tortoise. However the crude workmanship of triton and its disproportionate size in relation to the tortoise suggest it is a later alteration, and that the tortoise may originally have carried only a clock on its back.

Physical description

The shell of a tortoise fitted with the head and feet of a tortoise cast in brass, a mechanism inside the shell, wheels, and an articulated figure of a triton, cast in brass.

Place of Origin

Germany (Possibly made in Augsburg, made)



Materials and Techniques

Tortoiseshell, brass, cast and chased, red enamel on the tortoise's mouth.


Height: 15.5 cm Base to top of triton figure's head, Length: 14.5 cm from nose of tortoise to edge of shell, Depth: 13.5 cm across the shell of the tortoise, Weight: 950.4 g

Object history note

The tortoise was given to the Museum by Colonel Sir Charles Wyndham Murray (1844-1928), British army officer and politician. It entered the collections after his death.
Nothing is known of the early history of this object. The triton figure seems to be the result of a later alteration to the piece. It is crudely cast in comparison with the head and feet of the tortoise, and disproportionately large. Moreover, the presence of a triton - a mythical merman familiar in marine iconography - is curious and suggests that at some stage the V&A tortoise was confused with a turtle. The hole now used to secure the triton probably once held a clock. A comparable example (Augsburg, ca. 1610, now in Darmstadt, Hessisches Landesmuseum) shows a rider on a turtle, seated closer to the turtle's head, with a clock fixed to the top of the turtle's shell. The V&A tortoise has no piercings that suggest there ever was a figure seated towards the edge of the shell.

Descriptive line

The shell of a tortoise fitted with cast brass head and feet of a tortoise, a mechanism inside the shell, wheels and an articulated figure of a triton.

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Maurice, Klaus and Otto Mayr, eds. The Clockwork Universe: German Clocks and Automata 1550-1650. New York: Neale Watson Academic Publications, 1980. Catalogue of the exhibition held Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich, 15 April - 30 September 1980 and Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC, 7 November 1980 - 15 February 1981. ISBN 0882021885.
Maurice, Klaus. Die deutsche Räderuhr: zur Kunst und Technik des mechanischen Zeitmessers im deutschen Sprachraum, 2 vols (Munich: Beck, 1976). ISBN 3406062970
Chapuis, Alfred and Edmund Droz. Les automates: figures artificielles d'hommes et d'animaux: histoire et technique. Neuchâtel, Éditions du Griffon, 1949.
Clifford Smith, H. Exhibition of 'a mechanical toy in the form of a tortoise', Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries, 2nd Series, November 1914 - June 1915, vol. 27, p. 52.
Mauriès, Patrick. Cabinets of Curiosities. London, Thames & Hudson, 2002. ISBN 0500510911


Metalwork Collection

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