Every once in a great while a wonderful coincidence occurs that captures your imagination and sends you off on an almost manic search for as much information as you can get. Such was the case when I dove into the history of a 19 century automaton doll called the “Snake Charmer.”
First a little background
One of my favorite movies growing up – one that my mother and I watched each and every Christmas – is the classic Alistair Sims 1951 version of Scrooge, based on the Charles Dickens classic tale A Christmas Carol. Most people are familiar with the basic story line behind this famous novella. Old Scrooge is a money grubbing money lender. He is led by supernatural forces to face the horrible conditions of poor people living in 19th century England, exemplified by the iconic character Tiny Tim. The 10-11 year old is the lame son of Scrooge’s ever suffering clerk. Bob Cratchitt cannot afford to pay for the life saving surgery his son needs on the salary paid by the miserly Scrooge.
In response to two solicitations for a donation to “ feed the poor, …at this time of year when want is so keenly felt,” Scrooge famously declares, “”Are there no prisons Are there no workhouses? “
In an poignant scene about 7 minutes into the movie Tiny Tim is watching a number of automaton dolls displayed in a toy shop window on Christmas Eve. He is looking longingly at the wonderful toys including a large model ship . The movie pans across the moving figures including a tall, scantily clad middle eastern woman blowing a small horn, a stern jester and a large laughing clown in a top hat. The exotic woman doll I came to discover is called the “Snake Charmer”. She seems to be holding a long staff which is actually a long snake. In addition to undulating the “snake” to and fro, she also raises her hand to blow a horn and pivots her head to look up at the other automated dolls. It is an amazing piece of artistry and -as it turns out – a classic automaton.
Snake Charmers as depicted in 1951 movie version of Scrooge.
The movie scene ends when Tim is downcast when the coveted model ship is removed – apparently purchased by a customer. The large automated laughing boy seems to be laughing at Tim’s disappointment but the young boy laughs again at the antics of the clowns. This has always been one of my favorite scenes in the movie…not only because I was fascinated with the automatons, especially the “Snake Charmer, but also how the poignant scene captures in a few short minutes the point of Dickens’s work. AND it was some 30 years before I developed a love for and starting collecting dolls (another serendipity story for another day!)
On to the Snake Charmer
While researching a doll history some months ago I was browsing through the excellent articles published in the second volume of a wonderful resource book Spinning Wheels Complete Book of Dolls. For those of you who may not be familiar with Spinning Wheels it is one of the best sources for in depth information about dolls in general including patent info and specific historical info on many vintage and antique dolls…the kind of details not found in the usual doll compilations. There on page 257 was a black and white picture of a woman automaton..the “Snake Charmer !” It was one of two illustrations for Mary Hillier’s in depth article in the book entitled The Lure of Automatons.
At first I doubted my eyes. While the doll illustrated with the article was slightly different than than the one in the movie, the costume, face, hair staff, horn and short dress were very similar (as you will see in the pictures below. ) While the picture in the Spinning Wheels book is a bit unclear, the scanty outfit looks very much like the costume of the the doll in the movie The second picture with Hillier’s article is entitled the Snake Dancer” and according some sources is attributed to the same creators as the Snake Charmer in Hilliers article. In her article, Hillier attributes the creation of the Snake Charmer as a French toy maker named Ernst Decamps. Decamps fashioned his Snake-Charmer after his father in law and partner, Jean Roullet’s Snake Dancer. The partnership was formed between Roullet and Decamps in 1889 but in 1906 Ernst Decamps became head of their firm and it is his son Gaston who is credited with the design of yet another version of the Snake Charmer… retaining the iconic features of a long snake, a horn and a pivoting head.
After this it becomes a little murkier as to who is responsible for additional versions, i.e. revised the costume and face of the variations to the original Gaston version. For example, the famed doll auctioneer, Theriaults had a version of the snake charmer included in their May 2004 published auction catalog. Notice how the dress is longer…the face and hair are different and the snake takes on a more undulating posture.
A partial review of Theriault’s description of the Snake Charmer reveals how complex and detailed the figure was designed . “An exotically sculpted woman of gesso and composition with rich amber-brown complexion,brown glass eyes,closed mouth,portrait- like features,and waist-length brunette hair…slightly bent right knee,and a separate plate above the bosom allowing for breathing. Movements: her head moves to and fro in a sensuous circular motion,her upper right arm pivots,bringing the trumpet toward her mouth; her lower left arm pivots which appears to bring the snake to life; the snake lifts his head,then lowers it as if charmed; her bosom lifts up and down as though she is breathing. “
The catalog entry goes on to speculate that the inspiration for the automaton as being the French novelist Colette who, in about 1905 performed as the infamous Salome in Paris theatres -costumed in a sensuous bare-breasted manner that closely resembles Roullet & Decamps’ Snake Charmer. In this exotic vein the Decamps figure was designed to be a nude, but “….Madame Decamps opposed this on moral grounds. This explains why the body figure is fully sculpted rather than an unfinished armature form designed to be covered by a costume as was the norm; and,in fact, it is the only automaton so made.”
Another probably more credible inspiration was the performance of Nala Damajanti …the stage name of a late 19th-century snake charmer who toured with P.T. Barnum’s circus and performed at the famed Folis Bergere in Paris.
A 1996 catalog of London’s Sothebys auction house features a Snake Charmer…attributed to circa 1900: “Papier-mache head, glass eyes, key wind mechanism, 90cm high.”
An in depth search on the world wide web also reveals other “snake charmers”…almost always attributed to one of the Decamps men of Roullet & Decamps, A good look at these variations reveal different faces, dresses, and positions of the snake, which may be as the snake moves with the motion of the head and arms.
Titled “Zulma, The Snake-Charmer”, this doll pictured below was listed in a catalog for an auction in Portugal , VERITAS Art Auctioneers in Lisbon, Portugal This description attributes this Snake-Charmer to Jules’ grandson Gaston Decamps… again a very different rendition of the dancer with a snake.
The Snake Charmer pictured below was found in a Russian Museum web site…also attributing the dolls creation to Gaston Decamps. The website pictures resembles the auction catalog photographs of the doll offered by the Veritas Art Auctioneers in Lisbon Portugal above.
La Gazette Drourot featured a snake charmer or La Charmeuse de serpent up for auction in a French auction house, Hotel Drouot sometime in 2018 . Notice the very different costume.
In 1994 a French documentary film shown at the Museum of Neuilly / Seine ‘s Mesnil-le Roi film festival won the first documentary prize . The film showed the motions of a variety of automatons including a short clip of the Snake-Charmer displayed at the museum. The short was presented by Lutèce Créations, the European specialist in music boxes and automatons.
Here is the link and time check if you would like to see the motion in the YouTube video:
So here we have at least five versions of the French made Snake Charmers, with decidedly different faces, dresses, “snakes” and mounts. All seem to have similar movements. One interesting speculation by a French auction site *La Gazette Drouot* is that the 1897nude sculpture by Josef Wind was the inspiration created in 1887. While the pose of the figure is the same, the lack of any costuming or a horn perhaps discouraged the French toy maker from marketing a nude. Also Decamps and company wanted to make a musical automaton for which some form of musical instrument was prerequisite.
In keeping with the other toys longingly viewed by Tiny Tim, the Snake Charmer dolls were really high end at the time they were made…and have retained their value today…only about 15 survive in private collections. The one at Theriaults sold in 2004 for $51000. A second lot offered by Theriaults in 2007- which appears to be very similar to the one sold some three years earlier (perhaps a re-sale?) realized an astounding $140,000.
If any doll collectors out there may own or know who owns one of the antique Snake Charmers or have any other information or pictures of this wonderful automaton, you’re welcome to contact me. firstname.lastname@example.org
If you access the links at each picture in this article you can get some close-ups which illustrates the differences among these variations of the Snake-Charmer .
Also I am offering at cost a copy of my doll history book, Through Their Eyes: the American Doll’s View of History. Illustrated with both B&W and colored pictures, this book documents the relationship between the American doll and major events in the United States between the 18th through early 20th century. Contact me at email@example.com to order a copy.