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John Joseph Merlin, the ‘Ingenious Mechanick,’ was famed in the latter decades of the 18th century for being a prolific inventor, musical-instrument maker, horologist and performer. Here, Gainsborough portrays Merlin as a respectable society gentleman, his right hand gently tucked into his jacket – a customary gesture to signify a polite yet firm manner. From a green silk tassel in his left hand hangs one of his inventions; a pocket-size beam balance for determining the weight and value of gold guineas. The tool not only defines his occupation as an inventor and mechanic but also suggests that Merlin’s intellect and inventions equipped him with the power to judge a viewer’s wealth. Gainsborough was perhaps indicating the power of science to cut through the pretence of fashionable 18th-century society.
Merlin is known to have visited Kenwood to tune several pianos in the house and household accounts show that David Murray 2nd Earl of Mansfield purchased a 'Balance Sanctorius' from Merlin in 1780. Today Kenwood is home to two of Merlin’s inventions – a ‘skeleton’ table clock and a ‘Gouty Chair’, an early type of wheelchair.
John-Joseph Merlin (1735–1803)
oil on canvas
H 76.2 x W 63.5 cm
purchased from Princess Hohenlohe-Longenburg with the assistance of the National Art Collections Fund, the Victoria and Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund and the Friends of Kenwood, 1983