The Victorian Automaton

So, once again in my ceaseless veering away from actual illustrating, I'm going to tell you all about a recent project of mine for the Museum of Oxford: creating a solid oak Victorian style donation box, with an automaton in it that moves when the money is inserted.

I'll be honest, when I was originally contacted by the Council to design this piece, I didn't have a clue how to make automata (I'm still a bit sketchy now), but I took it on anyway because it sounded like fun. The brief was deceptively simple: the donation box had to look like a Victorian display cabinet, with the scene inside it based around the civil engineer William White, who designed much of the plumbing in Oxford, quite a few of the buildings, and the first ever Ladies Only bathing facility. They also wanted a vaguely steampunk feel to the whole thing, which is always fun to do.

So, having agreed to the project, I needed help (clearly), and after an exhaustive couple of minutes internet research, found an amazing designer of automata named Matt Smith (www.fourteenballstoy.co.uk) who lives in Cornwall. Matt very kindly put together the electrics that I needed for the motor, and designed the linkage system to make the figure of William White stand up and doff his stovepipe hat when the money goes in.

My friend Laurence happened to have a pretty much perfect cabinet in his shed that he had made to hold a maquette of one of his sculpture projects (www.laurencetindall.co.uk); he was going to use it for firewood, but he gave to me instead.  The bottom part of the cabinet I had made by Hawker Joinery (www.hawker-joinery.co.uk) to house the mechanism and the money collecting box and join seamlessly with Laurence's piece. All of this brilliant help meant that I could concentrate on the model making, which is definitely the fun bit.

I made the figure of William sitting at his desk, working on the signage for the Ladies Bathing facility; the Museum kindly gave me some scans of his actual plans, which I was able to reproduce to scale and put on his desk. The only thing I tweaked about him was to make his frankly splendid 'tache a little more smiley that in the photo that I was given of him. The shelves on the wall behind him have books with Oxford based titles on them (some highly anachronistic, like the History of Radiohead and the Haynes Morris Manual...), bad puns on bottles of wine and small jars of Henry Cooper's Oxford Marmalade; the wall beside him has a somewhat Heath Robinson-esque snarl of copper pipes, and a signed pin-up of Sarah Cooper that is reproduced from an original Frank Cooper's marmalade ad of the time. I even got to design and print my own Victorian inspired wallpaper design!

We installed the cabinet in the Museum at the beginning of May; if you are ever in Oxford, do pop into the Town Hall and say hello to him. Matt's original advice to me when I asked him about making automata was "Don't start! It'll take over your life...". Well, that hasn't happened so far, but I can see what he means: there is something incredibly satisfying and, yes, a little addictive about watching a model that you've made springing into life. I have a feeling this won't be my last automaton.

Cheers for reading!



Jane Veveris Callan said...

Looks brill Tony, must have been great fun to work on!

Frances Cony said...

Looks like you had a whale of a time with the Oxford jokes etc and making the whole thing, Tony.

Have you got a closer-up picture of your finished Mr White working at his desk? The unpainted model looks good, but it'd be nice to see the finished one in more detail - together with the books and your wallpaper!