Why life really is a cabaret for this group of automata artists

Why life really is a cabaret for this group of automata artists
The Barecats

The latest exhibition to grace the Amelia, the beautiful new cultural space in Tunbridge Wells, is a rather quirky one as it showcases and celebrates the intriguing world of contemporary automata.

Not familiar with this creative term? Then in short it means a moving mechanical device made in order to imitate a living thing – usually human beings. Its traditions date back centuries but the golden age of automata came in the 1700s and included the life-like machines of Jacquet-Droz and the Silver Swan of John Joseh Merlin.

By 1820 English and Swiss mechanics had refined their highly complex automata, into writers, musicians and exquisite singing birds. These marvels were expensive and made for exhibition and as gifts for the nobility. By the 1830s in the narrow alleys of the Le Marais district of Paris artisans were developing ingenious ways of bringing automata into the home. They perfected batch production of the singing birds, Circus and Music Hall celebrities and animated them in automata form so that by 1844, when Robert-Houdin opened his Soirees Fantastiques, a mix of magic and automata, there was huge public interest.

Like most trends, the interest in the automata artistic tradition eventually waned but it was revitalised in the late 1970s when Falmouth-based creative Sue Jackson opened her Cabaret Mechanical Theatre.

‘Cabaret Mechanical Theatre revived interest in the automata artistic movement and as a result has toured extensively internationally’

It started life in 1979 as a one room, first-floor crafts shop on the High Street in Falmouth, Cornwall. Its founder Sue Jackson named it ‘Cabaret,’ after the Liza Minelli film. She sold a vast range of locally made delights both in the shop and by mail order, including traditional wooden toys, and harlequin inspired merchandise. A local group of artists including Ron Fuller, Paul Spooner and Peter Markey – whose work is now being featured at the Amelia – supplied automata for Sue’s shop.

Five years later Sue moved Cabaret Mechanical Theatre to Covent Garden in London. The new location was in the vaults of the former fruit and vegetable market and the interior was dark and cave-like. Sue painted all the walls black, which worked well with the brightly lit automata. The new location also included larger arcade style amusement machines made by artist Tim Hunkin.

The small retail area of the new venue had opened in December 1984, and by March 1985 the relocated permanent exhibition, with 52 motorised automata, was ready to receive its first intrigued visitors. Cabaret Mechanical Theatre remained in Covent Garden until 2000, and during this time it became a cult destination.

Since leaving its home in Covent Garden, Cabaret Mechanical Theatre has toured extensively internationally and added to its extensive collection of contemporary automata with artists such as Keith Newstead, Carlos Zapata, Pierre Mayer and John Lumbus joining the group during the 1990s. Tim Hunkin went on to open his own popular amusement arcade on Southwold Pier after Cabaret Mechanical Theatre closed in Covent Garden.

Automata making has now become a popular pursuit and is widely taught in schools and colleges.

Many of the aforementioned artists are featured in the Amelia’s new exhibition: Cabaret Mechancial Marvels. Its curator Ed Liddle says that the show will feature pieces from some the finest contemporary automata makers including Paul Spooner Manet’s Olympia 1981 and Keith Newstead’s Junkas Giles Agriplane 1.

‘This show gives visitors the chance to enjoy lots of colourful, humorous, and thought-provoking masterpieces, which come to life at the push of a button’

“By visiting the free Cabaret Mechanical Marvels show at the Amelia you will have the chance to enjoy looking at lots of colourful, humorous, and thought-provoking masterpieces, which come to life at the push of a button.

“This is an ideal opportunity to learn more about the artists who made them, and discover all about the revival of this inspiring art form,” Ed states. “It’s fascinating and fun for all!”

Some of the artists featured in Cabaret Mechanical Marvels:

Paul Spooner

The Cornish artist and husband of Cabaret Mechanical Marvels creator Sue Jackson produces devices, made mostly of wood, mostly small enough to fit on a mantelpiece but sometimes of more ambitious sizes. “I make machines about things I find funny or absurd, hoping that others will feel the same. Even if I am a little annoyed when I start making something, the feeling has usually worn off by the time I’ve finished. Better for me to start with an idea that strikes me as wonderfully funny, hoping that some vestige of that survives the making process.”

Ron Fuller

The late artist was born in 1936 and went to art school in Plymouth and Falmouth before studying Art and Theatre Design at the Royal College of Art. After a career in teaching he began making wooden toys for a living in 1972. He developed many techniques for producing his toys in short production runs. His work is highly sought after and has been exhibited and sold in specialist shops all over the world. Ron was involved with Cabaret Mechanical Theatre since it began and has produced a number of designs exclusively for the group, such as the ever-popular Lion Tamer and Sheep Shearing Man. He also made larger scale pieces such as The Circus, and the Ticket Stamping Man for the entrance to the theatre.

Keith Newstead

Keith had childhood memories of the machines in the Penny Arcade at Southend and counted them as being one of the most important influences on his work. When he saw a TV film on David Secrett (automata maker) he was inspired to start making his own machines. Keith also designed automata which was made by CMT crafts people in limited editions. Prior to his death in 2020 he said: “I find the mixture of art, craft, graphics and movement very exciting and I love to experiment with new styles and materials and to find new ways of creating movement. I never aim my work at a particular age group, and it makes me happy that both children and adults enjoy my work.”

Lisa Slater

She makes automata primarily from wood creating handcrafted pieces and bespoke commissions. Lisa’s work reflects a humorous insight for the application of movement in automaton that are beautifully made with an added dimension. Each automaton is unique responding with the materials to produce a quality original outcome. Lisa is influenced by historical craft and folk art objects, her love of animals and things that give humour. Lisa’s way of seeing and attention to detail results in delightful work. Born in Yorkshire, Lisa returned teach Design Technology. In 2010 Lisa set up her studio and picked up her ideas where she left them in the Mid 80’s after her BA Hons in Wood Metal Ceramics at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Peter Markey

He studied painting at Swansea Art College and taught art for 25 years in secondary schools. He left teaching in 1980 and began making simple wooden automata after someone innocently suggested that he try making his footballer sculptures move. This coincided with the opening of Cabaret in Falmouth where he lived. Peter had many exhibitions of his mechanical work and his paintings. His work is known for its simplicity of design and the use of bright colours.

He made little attempt at realistic representation and never carved the wood he used. Peter was fascinated by the seemingly ridiculous idea of trying to produce wave-like motions from wood. He made many ‘wave machines’ using a variety of simple but effective mechanisms. Many imitators have failed to produce results of such charm.

Carlos Zapata

Born in Colombia in 1963, Carlos has always had an interest in visual arts, and although he didn’t relate to automata initially, the ideas stayed with him for over a decade, and in 1998 he showed some pieces, which he had been making at home, to Sue Jackson, the owner of Cabaret Musical Theatre. Although it moved from its home in Covent Garden in 2000, Carlos quickly established himself as a new force in contemporary automata through the group’s virtual exhibitions, and accepted many commissions for private collections around the world. He has developed a style of his own over the last few years, and his pieces are vibrant and full of emotion, and feature political themes, and draw on his Colombian background in his work.

This piece (below) is entitled is Anubis in Montmatre and it was sculpted by Paul Spooner in 1981. Here Anubis has arrived in modern day Paris to enjoy a cup of coffee. He has disguised himself by wearing the green suit of BarBar the Elephant. A fly continues to interrupt his enjoyment of his coffee.

Spooner was a prolific automata artist who also created Flight into Egypt in 1985 (below) which shows Mary, Joseph, the Donkey and the Baby Jesus flying through the sky.

The Barecats 1993 (main picture of article) showcases an automaton within an automaton. The small cat is being wound by the large cat. Barecat is also an anagram of Cabaret and the piece started out as a drawing for the original logo for Cabaret Mechanical Theatre. 992 Keith Newstead was very inspired by the work

This 2008 portrait of Paul Spooner by Carlos Zapata shows Paul drawing his wellknown Barecat design on his T-shirt with a pencil. 

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