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  • Mule Make Mule. Tim Lewis, 2010, mixed media construction. © Tim Lewis, courtesy Flowers Gallery, London and New York.

A Curious Turn: Moving, Mechanical Sculpture

An exhibition of automata

Automata are sculptures which are brought magically to life through a sequence of cogs, cams, cranks and levers. For centuries they have delighted and bewitched people.

A Curious Turn features 30 automata from the leading makers of the last 40 years, ranging from the humorous to the macabre and from the playful to the satirical.

Visitors will be able to turn, push and crank to see many of the pieces in action, while other pieces will have films to show them in motion. Amongst many others some key makers and automata promoters explored in the exhibition are;

Sam Smith is seen as the grandfather of contemporary automata! Despite being a folk art toy maker, his celebrated style has influenced generations of automata makers. His beautifully painted colourful ‘toys’ at first glance look playful and harmless, but on closer inspection they explore the darker side of human life. The Crafts Council Collection holds some wonderful examples of his work, some of which will be shown in the exhibition.

Sam Smith.  A second groom being rowed across the lake by his third bride, 1972-1973, mixed media.  Crafts Council Collection, W1.  Photo: Todd-White Art Photography.

Paul Spooner is a dedicated automata maker and has been perfecting his making process for over 30 years. His work is humorous but also makes you think, as with Five Artists Reflect on Their Waning Powers, a popular Crafts Council collection work. As well as being a skilled carver, Spooner is a an accomplished illustrator and in the course of developing the exhibition the Crafts Council have discovered some his wonderful drawings in the archive, which will be revealed in the exhibition for the first time. Spooner played an important role in revival of the automata craft in the late 1970s, supported by Cabaret Mechanical Theatre.

Five Artists Reflect on their Waning Powers.  Paul Spooner, 1983, Limewood, bamboo, Baltic pine, beech, plywood, acrylic paint, steel and brass.  Crafts Council Collection, W49.  Photo: Todd-White Art Photography.

Illustration and storytelling are the focus of Melanie Tomlinson’s automata. The surfaces of her automata are printed with beautifully intricate drawings of folklores and fairy tales, which are brought to life when the sculptures move. Her illustrations will be exhibited alongside her work in the exhibition. Tomlinson works hard to keep secret the mechanisms that make her characters come to life, making her decorative work even more intriguing.

And Then I Saw a Deer, Melanie Tomlinson, 2006, Hand printed steel, gilded wood and glass beads.  Image courtesy of the artist. Photo: Bogdan Tanea.

There will also be a free family-friendly workshop with Fire the Inventor on Saturday 24 September from 2-5pm where you can create your own automata then connect it with others to create a long snaking line of cams, colours and shapes!

Cabaret Mechanical Theatre and their founder, Sue Jackson, have played a strong role in the revival of automata and in supporting a growing number of automata makers. Recognising the potential popularity of these moving machines, Jackson actively encouraged a group of makers in Falmouth, Cornwall - Peter Markey, Paul Spooner and Ron Fuller – to make automata to sell in her local craft shop, Cabaret. She often actively guided their creative direction, looking for wit and entertainment in the automata that she collected.

Cabaret Mechanical Theatre have assisted the Crafts Council in developing A Curious Turn as exhibition consultants.Sue Jackson and Paul Spooner outside Cabaret, Falmouth, 1982.

Find out more about automata

From ancient cultures, there has long been a desire to use machines to replicate real life. However it was the strong scientific drive to imitate the natural world that made the 1700s the golden age of automata production. During the Victorian era of mass production, automata became the height of popular home entertainment. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that their popularity began to fade, as the technology that had made automata appear magical began to be harnessed by the new and exciting cinema.

There was little development in automata practice from the early 20th century until the revival of the 1970s. It was at this point that Cabaret Mechanical Theatre founder, Sue Jackson, began to encourage a group of Falmouth-based makers to produce automata as craft objects. The work from this period had a strong illustrative and craft style with obvious influence from Roland Emett, William Heath Robinson, and Sam Smith.

The 1980s and 1990s was an exciting time for 20th century automata production. Cabaret Mechanical Theatre, continued to play a strong role in supporting a growing number of makers, and organisations like the Crafts Council, began to take note and collect these works.

By the 2000s a new body of automata work was beginning to emerge moving away from the folk craft style of the previous decades. Instead this period showed more similarities with the expensive curiosities of the 1700s and 1800s, or the 20th century fineart approach, pioneered by artists like Alexander Calder.