|Status||Currently viable(see ‘Other information’)|
|Historic area of significance||Renaissance Europe, especially those with traditions of sophisticated manufacturing skills (e.g. Eastern Europe, Germany, metropolitan / courtly France, etc.). The UK and Japan are the most enthusiastic adopters of the discipline.|
|Area currently practised||All over the UK|
|Origin in the UK||18th Century|
The history of automata goes back to ancient Greece. The Ancient Greeks were fascinated with the notion of creating mechanical living beings. They had very advanced engineering skills and managed to make partially animated statues to be used in ceremonies. Operated by levers and human powered, there are descriptions of using steam and water as a source of power too.
Through the centuries there are records of mechanical creatures and living beings including an animated lion made by Leonardo Da Vinci for King Louis XII. These mostly sought to replicate exact human and animal activity and the more “accurate” an early automaton was seen to be, the more it was prized.
The 20th and 21st centuries see Automata emerging as a modern art form. School curriculums have given students the opportunity to make their own piece of kinetic art under the heading of Design and Technology. Today there is a great deal of interest in automata. Early examples fetch some of the highest prices in auctions. They are considered by many antique collectors to be the most valuable acquisition you can make. The art of animating the human form still fascinates us. Many modern toys now use electric motors and plastic gears to achieve this goal but the mechanical principles behind them go back thousands of years.
Automata today, particularly in the UK are often associated with humour, storytelling and the ‘anti-establishment’. They are often considered to be ‘toys for grown ups’.
There are a very wide range of skills involved in automata making including mechanical engineering, sculpture, carving, painting, decoration techniques, using recycled materials etc.
Paul Clarke, of the First Gallery comments that “While not a technique, per se, a particular mindset is probably a pre-requisite.”
• Music box making
• Fairground structures and machines such as carousel making
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
- Ageing workforce – Many of the makers now are elderly. If the skills aren’t passed on, the craft will vanish.
- Declining number of collectors – although the internet is seen a positive tool to introduce more collectors to automata.
- Covid 19 – This has meant there is less disposable income around to purchase items such as automata.
Many new entrants to the craft are women and this is seen as positive for the future of the craft.
- Cabaret Mechanical Theatre
- The British Toymaker’s Guild
Craftspeople currently known
- Paul Spooner
- Keith Newstead
- Robert Race
- Clare Pattinson
- Phillip Lowndes
- Justin Mitchell
- Andy Hazell
- Fi Henshaw
- Lisa Slater
- Wanda Sowry
- John Alden
- John Grayson
- Richard Hackney
- Matt Smith
- Melanie Tomlinson
- Mark Uttley
- Michael Screen
- Carlos Zapata
- Tim Hunkin
- Ian McKay
- Neil Hardy
There is a list of makers on the Cabaret Mechanical Theatre website.
Fourteen Balls Automata https://www.fourteenballstoy.co.uk
According to the British Toymakers Guild, automata making is thriving and is of ‘least concern’.
- Falmouth Art Gallery automata collection
- “The First” Gallery, Southampton http://thefirstgallery.co.uk keeps a stock of automata by various makers, and holds an automata-focused show about every 2 or 3 years.
- MAD Museum, Stratford, http://www.themadmuseum.co.uk displays automata and related exhibits.
- Falmouth Art Gallery Automata collection https://www.falmouthartgallery.com
- Rixford, Ellen Figures in the Fourth Dimension (self published by Ellen F. Rixford)