An exhibition which focuses on automata is intriguing adults and children alike in Warwickshire this summer.
Marvellous Mechanical Museum at Compton Verney near Wellesbourne goes back in time to look at the automata exhibitions of the eighteenth century, from various countries, through to more modern inventions. The exhibition publicity talks about how through history automata have “allowed us to view ourselves and raise questions about our existence”, as well as entertaining and amazing people with simulations of life. All together there are 57 works dating from 1625 until now.
There’s certainly a lot of variety in the exhibition. The smallest exhibit, a four centimetre Silver Elephant Automata complete with rider (top)caught my immediate attention; the Fabergé item dates from 1900 and has been lent by the Queen.
Other early pieces are spectacular clocks operated via clockwork, where characters perform to tell the time.
There are a lot of references to Cox’s Museum, opened in London in 1772 which showed the new automata of the time. We’re also told about John Joseph Merlin who liked to dress as a waitress and race around on roller skates to promote his automata.
Later there is the Cabaret Mechanical Theatre, developed in 1982 by Sue Jackson and now run by her daughter Sarah Alexander, which many of the contemporary artists exhibiting here are associated with. There is a display of their works in one section of the gallery. One tells the story of the Zennor mermaid, and in another a bather dives from a changing hut into the sea.
The most spectacular exhibit by far is also the biggest, the 15 metre A Quiet Afternoon in the Cloud Cuckoo Valley, created in 1988-9 by Rowland Emmett, which is set to operate at periodic intervals and definitely worth seeing. Emmet was responsible for the creations in the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang film, and it shows here. There’s almost too much to take in in one go; a set of train carriages go along the tracks driven by a charming driver, as a woman leans out of the window with a bird or butterfly net, and a friend has tea while a man in a separate carriage plays his gramophone records. Lovely trees and nature is shown all around the carriage. It’s stunning and magical.
Of the really recent works, Tim Lewis’s Crimson Prince is a pointy red velvet-clad arm, which seems to be telling us off as we watch it but is one of the modern additions to the show. As is Les Demoiselles, a 2017 work by Paul Spooner. Insert a coin and it goes into action. The five naked women, representing Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon painting, lounge there in wood, while characters fly through the sky above them, watched over by a nun. Other female characters hold tiny dancing figures below. It’s artistic and fun at the same time.
Although this exhibition has had some other glowing reviews I didn’t personally find it making me ask questions about our existence. Those who are more intrigued by mechanics and how things work are likely to find more enjoyment in it, and for young people there’s the possibility of fiddling with lots of items to get them moving, which is also appealing.
*The exhibition is on until September 30.