Automata in ‘The Beales Bequest’ exhibition

This article is published on The Ken Stradling Collection blog

'The Kissing Couple' by Peter Markey

‘The Kissing Couple’ by Peter Markey

The automata on display have very different subject matters, but each exudes a great sense of fun. They are both by Peter Markey. One is entitled ‘Kissing Couple’. We have not been able to find the title for the bold, beautiful runners.

‘Kissing Couple’, which is damaged and missing the base, dates from around 1999 and was probably bought from the Cabaret Mechanical Theatre in Covent Garden for whom it was made. This highly unusual shop sells unique handmade automata, as well as kites, card cut-outs and videos. Their permanent exhibition space in Coven Garden sadly dissolved in 2000, but part of their collection is currently in an exhibition at the American Visionary Arts Museum in Baltimore.

Colin and Jennifer had a third automaton, called ‘The Rare Appearance of the Lesser Spotted Markey Bird’. They left this to The Ken Stradling Collection too. It is not currently on display because it is broken and waiting to be fixed.

‘The Rare Appearance of the Lesser Spotted Markey Bird’

‘The Rare Appearance of the Lesser Spotted Markey Bird’

Automata date back to the eighteenth century and are closely aligned to the mechanisms of clockwork. It was not uncommon for them to be life size. One of the most famous automata in this period was made by Vaucanson in France and was called ‘The Defecating Duck’. Many of Vaucanson’s automata were made with scientific and educational uses in mind. For example, his ‘Flute Player’ simulated a human being’s actions of playing a flute in order to reveal natural characteristics needed to control this instrument. In this way, these automata were designed to simulate human actions and to show a process that revealed itself over time.

By the mid nineteenth century, automata were often ‘quotations’ of the latest technology – for example, pistons and pullcords as opposed to clockwork – and were frequently associated with mass aesthetic entertainment. So their values and functions significantly changed; many were made with the aim of performing circus tricks and took the forms of clowns or animals.

The runners by Peter Markey

The runners by Peter Markey

‘The Beales Bequest’ exhibition is open to view on Wednesdays 10am – 4pm at The Ken Stradling Collection until 11 March.

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