The BBC have a lovely programme called ‘The Repair Shop’ on TV at present. I don’t often watch it but last week left it on by chance. I’m very glad because one of the items up for repair by the team of experts was a rare item by Rowland Emett- a small train that was given to his cousin to destroy-which thankfully he didn’t.
Now Emett is a name you either know or don’t. However, chances are you are familiar with some of his work without realizing it. Because the most well known, around the world work are the wacky inventions of Prof Caratacus Potts in the 1968 musical film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang He also co-designed the infamous car!
He started off as a cartoonist, and was regularly published in Punch magazine.
His big break was when he got taken up for the Festival of Britain in 1951 in Battersea Park.. The Festival of Britain was a big celebration and aimed to raise the nations spirits whilst promoting the best in British art, design and industry after WW2. Emett’s style was precisely on trend. It was the first time he had translated his cartoons into 3D ‘things’ (his description of his sculptures) . The festival featured two kinetic sculptures and also one of the big visitor attractions of the Festival; ‘The Far Tottering and Oyster Creek Branch Railway’– a bonkers, whimsical, ride on miniature railway originally featured from his Punch cartoons.
He also became popular with advertisers with his eye catching styles, making many models for shops and he also produced many kinetic installations in UK shopping malls.
Wonderfully, back in 2014 Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery held the ‘Marvellous Machines: The Wonderful World of Rowland Emett’ exhibition in 2014. It was the largest ever display of his extraordinary creations with 12 of the 15 machines left in the UK amongst many of his drawings and advertising paraphernalia. . Luckily Birmingham is only 90 miles away from home, so I went up with my other half one Sunday.
It really was truly a wondrous exhibition, his cartoons are so detailed, funny and imaginative. As someone very much into steampunk, his work speaks very loudly to me. The eccentricity, the imagination, the cobbling together of random objects to make things of beauty and wonder!
The last and biggest machine he ever made was the star of the exhibition- ‘A Quiet Afternoon in Cloud Cuckoo Valley’. It was originally designed for an indoor shopping centre but by the time it was completed, the mall had changed it’s mind . The concept of the piece was a train ride through an eccentric English countryside landscape, where farmers play harp music to appreciative cows and bird watchers disguise themselves as trees, among other crazy scenes.
It really was a joy to see so much of his work in one place, and also quite sad to think that someone of such talent and quintessential Englishness has almost disappeared from common knowledge and popular culture. Maybe this blog post will help?