Jump to navigation

Crafts Council

Home // News & Features // Moments and Makers

Moments and Makers

Annabelle Campbell picks out seven key moments in the extraordinary history of automata

It seems as though 2016 is marking a renaissance in automata. At this year’s London Craft Week, the University of Plymouth hosted Marvellous Mechanica in The Chapel at the House of St Barnabas in Soho, which included pieces from Martin Smith and Jim Bond. Most importantly, the Crafts Council is launching the first major review of the field since the Rosemary Hill-curated show Automata at the South Bank in 1992. A Curious Turn: Moving Mechanical Sculpture opens at Habitat’s Platform Gallery on King’s Road, 15 September – 2 October, before touring nation-wide, featuring works by some of the leading makers from the past 40 years. To celebrate, we’ve asked Annabelle Campbell, the Crafts Council’s head of exhibitions and collections, to select some of the most important moments from automata’s extraordinary history.

Pecking Hens 

With its simple action and rhythmic tapping, the Pecking Hen toy is for many their first experience of automata. When the weight is gently swung in a circle, the group of wooden birds start to bob their heads and peck in order. The origins of this enduring toy are not certain, but carved birds of this type were being made in Germany for export at the beginning of the 19th century. In Eastern Europe we can find traditions of hand-carved and decoratively painted groups of hens, sitting on painted paddles, usually made by parents for their children. There are more intricate versions, with flapping wings and rocking tails, but it is the natural action of the bobbing head that holds the charm. For me, the Pecking Hens epitomise automata: enchanting, life-like action, simple in movement, with a whimsical and humorous character. 

Pecking Hens, Lisa Slater. Image courtesy of the artist

The Silver Swan 

When presenting A History of the World in 100 Objects, the BBC/British Museum collaboration extended beyond the BM’s collection and included The Silver Swan from the Bowes Museum. Made by James Cox in London, it is a life-size clockwork automaton that imitates the behaviour of a real swan, and was created to draw crowds to Cox’s Mechanical Museum in 1774. It was exhibited at the 1867 Paris International Exhibition, catching the eye of Mark Twain (who described it in The Innocents Abroad) and John Bowes, who purchased it in 1872 for his new museum. Sitting on glass rods that evoke a flowing stream, the swan elegantly moves its head from side to side before catching a fish, swallowing it and returning to the resting position. The three separate clockwork movements were designed by the inventor John Joseph Merlin.

The Silver Swan, James Cox, 1773. Images courtesy of the Bowes Museum

Karakuri Ningyo

Linguistically, ‘automata’ and the Japanese karakuri have shared meanings, although differing cultural contexts. With a basic translation of ‘mechanised dolls’, karakuri ningyo can be traced to the Edo period (1603-1868) and evolved from the Chinese ancient technology of water clocks and astrological machines. These traditional automata spread through the Korean Peninsula to Japan, evolving and adapting along the way, taking influence from early interactions with western culture. The most common form of karakuri was zashiki karakuri which was very popular in the Edo period as a luxury domestic entertainment. Other forms include those for puppet theatres and religious festivals, presenting traditional myths and stories. Intricate, concealed systems of cogs reveal the origins of Japanese innovation in technology.

Tea-serving automota doll (karakuri ningyo) with winding key and ceramic cup

The Writer 

Swiss watchmaker Pierre Jaquet-Droz, his son Henri-Louis and Jean-Frédéric Leschot were makers of fine automata in the mid-to late 18th century. The most renowned of their creations is often referred to as Jaquet-Droz automata: a group of three doll automata built between 1768 and 1774, consisting of The Musician, The Draughtsman and The Writer. Jaquet-Droz is widely considered to be one of the greatest automata designers, and The Writer his pièce de résistance. It was created as both an advertisement and entertainment tool to promote sales of fine watches among the nobility of Europe in the 18th century. The astounding aspects are not just the detailed features and clothing of the boy, but the mechanical workings, with 6,000 hand-made components working to create a fully self-contained, programmable writing machine.

The writer, Henri-Louis and Jean-Frédéric Leschot. Image courtesy of the British Museum

Sam Smith

Widely acknowledged as one of the most important and influential automata makers, Sam Smith (1908-1983) originally trained as a painter. The son of a steamship captain, he grew up around boats and the harbour, and his fascination with liners as well as theatre and visiting fairs later informed his work. He found limited success as a painter, but decided his creative language was wood. A highly skilled practitioner, he began creating toys in the folk tradition in the 1930s. These were popular and earned him a good living, but his interest lay beyond toys and his work evolved to be more sculptural, subversive in subject and often sinister in nature (as in The Punter’s Dream). In making a work, Smith had an idea then worked out the full story of the characters and scene, believing that he turned myths into people, that then have an independence, describing works that are unsuccessful as having ‘weak personalities’. Fellow automata-maker Rodney Peppé referred to Smith as ‘the father of modern automata’. Smith’s work has a graphic quality, seen in the boxes he created for each work. They carry the words ‘Sam Smith Genuine’, something he added when he learnt that his work was being copied.

The Punter's Dream, Sam Smith, 1972-3

Jean Tinguely

Operating within the art world, Jean Tinguely’s use of the machine and its moving components contribute to the story and debate around automata, as much as it does to modern and kinetic art. Constructed around notions of self-moving, Tinguely demonstrated a rather ambiguous approach to technology. Complex and witty, his works functioned within the rules of automata, sparkling with wit, vitality, irony and poetry. A seminal moment in his career was the making – and ultimate unmaking – of Homage to New York, commissioned in 1960 by MoMA, New York, to be performed in the museum’s Sculpture Garden. Created in collaboration with a number of artists and engineers, the work is effectively a self-destroying machine with a 27-minute performance, leaving the remnants of the machine as souvenirs for the viewing audience. Tinguely’s work was satirical and political in its message, a response to his perception of the mindless overproduction of material goods in an advanced industrial society. It is in a tradition shared with Sam Smith, Tim Lewis and Pierre Jaquet-Droz, where artists create work that has spectacle, surprise and seemingly a mind of its own.

Paul Spooner

At first, it looks toy-like, jokey. However, the joke in the pieces of Paul Spooner is always a bit deeper and darker than first appearances imply. His work fuses the worlds of conceptual art, cartoons, engineering and theatrical set design. As well as being visually exciting, his creations make us think and question, and the narrative content is as equally important and skilfully crafted as the making of the object itself. Working exclusively in wood, Spooner’s automata are skilfully carved and predominantly figurative. Commissioned by the Crafts Council in 1983 for the exhibition A Closer Look at Wood, Five Artists Reflect on Their Waning Powers came at a time when Spooner was keen to develop the scale of his work to create something spectacular. His original idea was to make an automaton depicting the Last Supper, but the number of figures were cut to five and became a series of fictional ‘chaps of an age’. Spooner gave each individual an inconsequential activity, and the last – the Judas figure – is in fact rubbing out
his picture. 

A Closer Look at Wood, Five Artists Reflect on Their Waning Powers, Paul Spooner. Photo: Todd-White Art Photography