A Curious Turn @ the Heath Robinson Museum

The Heath Robinson Museum must be one of my favourite places. It never fails to put a smile on my face and prompt happy laughter from all the visitors around me.

Its latest exhibition is actually not a home-grown product, but has been curated by the Craft Council and is finding its London home at the HR Museum as part of a tour round the UK.

A Curious Turn is a collection of 30 intricate and imaginative automata, beautifully made, complicated and entertaining contraptions. Heath Robinson didn’t, apparently, turn any of the thousands of ridiculous contraptions depicted in his cartoons and illustrations into actual three-dimensional models, but his spirit hovers over the whole show, and it includes a couple of wonderful illustrations by his characteristically convoluted inventions.

But this is first and foremost an exhibition of moving machines.

A Busy Day at No.12 West Street (2012) by Fi Henshall

A Busy Day at No.12 West Street (2012) by Fi Henshall

What is an automaton?

The dictionary defines automaton as:

  • a moving mechanical device made in imitation of a human being
  • a machine which performs a range of functions according to a predetermined set of coded instructions

According to the wall labels, the post-Newtonian vision of the world, indeed of the universe, conceived of as an enormous machine following the clear mathematical laws which Newton had discovered, helped to make the 18th century the Golden Age of Automata, characterised by high-end mechanical devices constructed of expensive components, designed to entertain the rich, such as the Writer made by Pierre Jaquet-Droz in 1774.

The Writer by Pierre Jaquet-Droz in (1774)

The Writer by Pierre Jaquet-Droz in (1774)

During the 19th century cheaper, more accessible devices were created to entertain the masses at circuses and fairs. However, at the turn of the 20th century new mechanical marvels came along to entertain the people, not least the cinema. Watching an elaborate machine recreate a small circuit of human actions paled into insignificance compared to the watching the Keystone Cops or Charlie Chaplin’s madcap adventures at a penny a go.

The taste for, and the manufacture of, automata went into a steep decline. The exhibition singles out two exceptions – the moving sculptures Alexander Calder made in the early 1920s (and which I was lucky enough to see for myself at the 2015 Alexander Calder retrospective at Tate Modern) and the elaborate contraptions devised in the 1950s by the inventor Rowland Emett.

Emmett is best known nowadays for creating the elaborate inventions of Caractacus Potts in the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) but a number of newsreels from the 1950s and 60s capture him and his world of elaborate contrivances.

The 1970s revival

It was only in the 1970s that automata began to undergo a revival. Instead of expensive toys for the rich, or gewgaws for Victorian gawpers, the revival was associated with folk and craft elements from traditional sources.

The exhibition attributes a lot of this revival to the work of Sue Jackson, the founder of Cabaret Mechanical Theatre. Apparently, she encouraged makers in Falmouth, Cornwall, to build automata to sell at her local craft shop, Cabaret and, as you read on and progress through the exhibition, you come to realise that almost all the artists and model-makers included in the show are or were associated with Sue and the Cabaret Mechanical Theatre. It’s not an international show. It’s very much about this one lady and the group of model-makers she gathered around her.

Sue Jackson and Paul Spooner outside Cabaret, Falmouth, 1983

Sue Jackson and Paul Spooner outside Cabaret, Falmouth, 1983. Image courtesy of Cabaret Mechanical Theatre

This new generation of automata moved away from the 18th and 19th century pleasure of machinery for its own sake, and placed it much more within the context of contemporary art and sculpture, of folk motifs, incorporating craft techniques with wood and fabric.

A little later, from the 1980s onwards, there is the growing influence of the Steampunk movement in comics and novels.

So not only are almost all the works on display associated with the Cabaret Mechanical Theatre, but almost all the automata on show are MODERN – there are no examples from the 18th or 19th century. Almost all of the 30 or so examples on display date from the 1980s onwards and, I didn’t count but I’d guesstimate that about half of these date from the 2010s.

This is not an overview of the History of Automata: it is an exhibition of very modern-day moving machines, which display a very modern range of subject matter and often dry, ironic temperament.

Dia de los Muertos (2016) by Wanda Sowry

Dia de los Muertos (2016) by Wanda Sowry

Influenced by the creaky contraptions of Emett and Heath Robinson, modern-day artists like Keith Newstead, Tim Hunkin and Jan Zalud explored how you can use the form or genre of mechanically moving human or animal puppets to make sculptures which satirise, explore or glorify the weird and wonderful world around us.

Certainly there’s a lot to bewitch and amaze the visitor. Bring children. Almost all of the displays have BUTTONS to push which make the contraptions perform in exotic and imaginative ways. Possibly the most compelling of all the devices is this wonderfully ornate flying machine by Keith Newstead. Press the button and all manner of cogs and cams whir and click to make the driver pedal, the wings flap and the wheels go round.

Transports of Delight (2010) by Keith Newstead

Transports of Delight (2010) by Keith Newstead

But there’s also a wide range of looks and styles. Since the turn of the 21st century the style has moved away from a folk-craft style. The influence of Steam Punk is just one among many diverse trends, some artists returning to the elaborately metallic roots of the automaton but combining this with an expansion into a much broader range of styles and techniques.

Many of the works coming into the ambience of contemporary fine art, becoming interesting sculptures in their own right as well as clever or entertaining ‘toys’.

Take this piece by John Grayson, which initially looks like something from the Victorian era because of the use of porcelain and the dresses, hair and beard style of the figures. But it was in fact made in 2016 and, if you read the texts in the newspapers which are flowing down in front of the main figure, you realise that they are about Brexit and the Leveson Enquiry and all kinds of contemporary issues which fill the headlines.

This very knowing use of ceramics combined with an up-to-the-minute text or pretext reminded me very much of Grayson Perry.

The Discombobulated Brexiteer (2016) by John Grayson

The Discombobulated Brexiteer (2016) by John Grayson

A different spin is given to the form by artist Melanie Tomlinson who uses a great deal of illustration to decorate her sculptures. In her work the complex machinery so obvious in works by someone like Keith Newstead is completely concealed beneath a metal carapace which is itself printed with beautifully intricate drawings of folklore and fairy tales, images which gently come to to life when the sculptures move.

And then I saw a deer by Melanie Tomlinson (2006)

And then I saw a deer by Melanie Tomlinson (2006)

Among the smallest works of art I’ve ever seen is the tiny series of circus acrobats by Laurence and Angela St Leger, which are only a centimetre or so high, and hand made in exquisite detail.

Two Acrobats (2016) by Laurence and Angela St Leger

Two Acrobats (2016) by Laurence and Angela St Leger

Summary

The making of automata, or mechanical moving models, is an area on the border between art and craft which you rarely hear about.

You sometimes see odd examples of old automata in local museums, but it’s extremely rare to get the opportunity to see the work of contemporary artists who are developing and expanding this old format into ever-more inventive, more earnest or more comical channels – artists like Keith Newstead, Melanie Tomlinson, Paul Spooner, Sam Smith or Tim Lewis. Which makes this a rare and fascinating exhibition.

It’s also funny. It’ll make you laugh. It’ll make you marvel at the intricacy of the workings and the cleverness of the conceits. You’ll get to the end and wish, like me, that there were more buttons to push and more automata to watch whirring and moving.

A Curious Turn is another thought-provoking, inspiring and above all happy-making triumph for the Heath Robinson Museum.


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Heath Robinson Museum

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