James Cox was a British jeweller, goldsmith and entrepreneur; he was the proprietor of Cox's Museum. Nowadays he is known for creating ingenious automata and mechanical clocks, including Cox's timepiece, powered by atmospheric pressure, the Peacock Clock and the Silver Swan.
Cox's career as a jeweler began as early as 1751, and his automata were designed by artists like Joseph Nollekens and Johann Zoffany. In the 1760s, John Joseph Merlin became his apprentice. Though he proclaimed himself a goldsmith, he employed a number of jewelers and manufacturers who might have done much of the work. The fact that he was never a member of the goldsmith's guild further substantiates the claim that he subcontracted his work. Cox specialized in intricate clockwork curios encrusted with gold, silver, and jewels, referred to as "sing-songs." His primary market was the Far East, especially India and China. The Chinese Qianlong Emperor possessed one of his automata, in the shape of a chariot. Cox's popularity was important to British trade: the tea trade ensured that British imports far outweighed their exports to China, and Cox helped redress the imbalance. His singsongs initially reduced British trade deficit, but in the early 1770s, Cox was stuck with large inventory and a flooded eastern market. He liquidated some of his stock at Christie's in 1772, and used the remaining inventory to start his museum.
In the 1770s, Cox managed a private museum in the Great Room at Spring Gardens, London. He had been exhibiting his wares since at least 1769, though the official museum opened only by February 1772. The site was near the Admiralty Arch, and would be among the most popular exhibition halls in London for the next half-century. Cox's Museum was so memorable that it was customary to refer to the room as "formerly Cox's Museum," and during the museum's run from 1772 to 1776, Cox's display eclipsed all other exhibits. His skill at advertising no doubt played a role in building the museum's popularity. Cox produced several catalogues and a collection of verses praising his museum, which had first been published in various London newspapers (some were probably planted by Cox).
Cox's Museum was among the most expensive exhibitions in London, and the price was purportedly to limit the number of visitors for security reasons. The museum was popular among London's upper classes and literary persons - James Boswell visited it in 1772, at the recommendation of Samuel Johnson, and Frances Burney staged a debate about art at Cox's, in her novel Evelina. Playwright Richard Sheridan paid tribute to Cox's Museum in The Rivals. As proprietor of the museum, Cox might have purchased Oliver Cromwell's head as a curiosity.
Though he hoped for royal patronage, and displayed, as was common, royal portraits in the museum, Cox never achieved his goal. In 1773, a special Act of Parliament authorized Cox to break up his collection and sell pieces by lottery. The museum was removed from Spring Gardens in 1775, and after being briefly displayed at Mansion House by the Lord Mayor, was dissolved and sold by lottery in May 1775.
In 1778, Cox went bankrupt for the second time. Cox dispatched his son John Henry to Canton, China in 1782 to sell off the accumulated stock. In Canton, both James and John Henry became partners with Daniel Beale and his brother Thomas in the firm of Cox & Beale. Cox remained in business as a retailer, if no longer as an artist or manufacturer, until his death.