A unique toy in Virginia and Harry Robinson’s home is a gilt-metal 19th century birdcage which contains four taxidermied iridescent hummingbirds who sit on branches and move their heads while they sing. Virginia and Harry must have thought that the automaton was sufficiently entertaining as it still occupies a place of honor in their home. This toy for the well-appointed home reflects the Robinsons’ elevated social placement in Los Angeles’ cultural hierarchy. Harry and Virginia’s pedigrees show that both came from important families who moved to Los Angeles and left their mark on their nascent community.
The automaton reflects Virginia and Harry’s desire for novel experiences in the same way their decision to build their dream home in 1911 on a remote barren piece of land was extremely adventurous. It was five years before this area became the City of Beverly Hills, recognized today as the “Garden Capital of the World.”
I became interested in learning not just about Virginia and Harry Robinson’s automaton itself, but also why they had it, and what it meant to them. Although we don’t know with certainty the provenance of the piece, there are several possible ways in which such an amusing decorative artform ended up in the Robinsons’ home.
In 1883, Harry’s father opened the Boston Dry Goods Store, later named the J. W. Robinson Store, which was a “Carriage Trade” department store offering a wide range of goods, including many high-end decorative items such as the automaton. Also, there was a large book department. Indeed, as support for this possible path, there are a great number of books in Virginia Robinson’s library which have a small tag at the back of the book, stamped with J. W. Robinson and the price for the book.
Alternatively, Virginia and Harry could have bought it on a trip as they traveled extensively overseas. They designed their estate to accommodate their interests, including a Guest Pavilion/Play/Pool House along with a lavish in-ground pool and extravagant gardens. These emblems of success reflected Leslie Brand’s lifestyle, who was Virginia’s notorious and very successful role model uncle. Uncle Leslie loved airplanes and automobiles when they were completely novel devices, even turning his very large sloping hillside estate into an airfield for his and his guests’ airplanes which would arrive for his fly-in parties. The Los Angeles Times and the Herald Examiner would announce when the Robinsons would be receiving their newest automobile at a time when few people had cars, and such an arrival heralded an important event.
The Robinsons had diverse interests in toys and games, including tennis and bridge, usually accompanied with endless lunches and dinners. A fascinating character, Roland Young, who received an Oscar nomination for his role in “Topper” in 1937, also made caricatures, some of which he published in a book, Not For Children; Picture and Verse. He must have adored Virginia and Harry as he did a whole series of drawings charmingly memorializing activities in which Harry and Virginia participated, such as Harry in the pool on a dinosaur float, or Harry in his tennis clothes. (Please see the two photos below of Young’s caricatures of Harry in profile and in mid-swing while playing tennis, and of a swimmer diving over a dinosaur float).
The Robinson’s automaton was made in the 1860s during the “Golden Age” of automata by a very famous maker, Blaze Bontems. With the age of mechanization, the availability as well as the popularity of these devices tremendously increased. During the landmark 1851 international exhibition, “The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations,” over six million people came to London to attend this fair during its six month run. Demonstrating the popularity of Blaise Bontems’ work, jurors made a special note and showed their fascination with a selection of “ingenious drawing-room ornaments, containing automaton-birds, which are toys for adults rather than children.” 
To account for the sensational popularity of these singing birds back then, it is helpful to suspend our complete transformation or addiction to digital resources and activities. Try thinking of a time when there were no smart phones, and before a time when anyone could download a continuous stream of movies and sports on their big screen TVs or handheld devices. Nonetheless, even with this technological advancement, some things have persisted in popularity — such as the desire to be amazed or amused by watching a magician perform a trick or experiencing a device that performs a routine which creates an illusion of a living thing. People are still transfixed by skillful sleight of hand and other devices of wonder, especially when the magic happens before their eyes — just as the Robinsons and their friends were when they watched and listened to Bontem’s singing birds.
Post by Marcella Ruble
Friends of Robinson Gardens Member