The Whimsical World of Rowland Emett

Rowland Emett works on display at the Ontario Science Centre.

Ontario Science Centre
Rowland Emett works on display at the Ontario Science Centre.
The British artist behind Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s magical contraptions is back in the spotlight after one of his kinetic sculptures was sold in London

The British artist behind Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s magical contraptions is back in the spotlight after one of his kinetic sculptures was sold in London

Courtesy of Rowland Emett Society

Emett with The S.S. Pussiewillow II

“They are the direct opposite, I suppose, of the average idea of the implacable, soulless machine, driving relentlessly on, … My Machines are friendly, they are happy, they crave love, and I really think they get it.”

Rowland Emett

If you’ve ever sat through the 1968 musical film, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, you’ll have come away with two things: an earworm (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang! Chitty Chitty Bang Bang! We love you!), and an appreciation for the protagonist, a quirky but lovable inventor named Caractacus Potts, played by Dick Van Dyke. While Potts’ inventions never quite get off the ground, Rowland Emett, who designed and fabricated the fantastical machines featured in the movie, was a hugely successful artist whose elaborate kinetic sculptures continue to delight viewers of all ages.

“They’re a wonder to behold,” said Tim Griffiths, founder of the Rowland Emett Society. Griffiths’ experience as a child seeing Emett’s automata on tour in Birmingham, England, sparked a lifelong interest in the artist, which he now channels into collecting, as well as locating Emett’s machines around the world and helping to get them out of storage and on view. In 2014, he organized a major exhibition at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery that showcased thirteen machines and over 100 original artworks.

One of the exhibited machines was slated for auction for the first time earlier this month at Bonhams in London. A Quiet Afternoon in the Cloud Cuckoo Valley, made in 1984, was Emett’s largest and last completed kinetic sculpture before his death in 1990—some have called it his masterpiece. As in many of his works, a train dominates the piece, while a closer look at the spinning and bobbing bits of painted metal and wood reveals intricate details like a conductor roasting teacakes, a farmer serenading cows, and a fisherman netting a mermaid. It had been on display at London’s Spitalfields Market and was then put in storage for almost twenty years before nearly being sold for scrap. Once saved, it was fully restored. Just prior to the auction, the owner accepted a six-figure offer from the National Railway Museum in York, England, according to Bonhams. Emett fans are glad to see the “quintessentially English” work of art remain in the country.

Emett’s name may not be as widely known today as his contemporaries Rube Goldberg or Ronald Searle, to whom he has been compared, but he was very popular both in the UK and the U.S. in the mid-twentieth century. He was born in London in 1906 with, some might say, artistic genes; his grandfather was a court engraver to Queen Victoria. According to Jacqui Grossart, who published an illustrated catalogue of his drawings in 1988, Emett always had a mind for the mechanical—he procured his first patent for something called the Pneumonic Acoustic Control at the age of thirteen—but he studied art instead and became an engraver and draughtsman. He tried his hand at cartoons, and though his first attempts were rejected, his spindly style soon began gracing the pages of Punch, the famous British humor magazine.

After the war, which he spent designing aircraft for the British government, Emett was called upon to submit artwork for the Festival of Britain held in 1951. So he built Nellie, a train that had made her first appearance in a 1944 Punch drawing. As Emett told Grossart, “I shall never forget the wonder of seeing this mad engine, which up until then had only existed in spidery ink squiggles, gradually filling out, and burgeoning forth into three glorious beaten copper, polished mahogany dimensions.” Nellie became the basis for a larger installation called the Far Tottering and Oyster Creek Branch Lines, a “real,” working piece of art that carried two million riders over the course of the festival.

The move into three-dimensional art changed the path of Emett’s career, both because he found he enjoyed hand-crafting his creations and because it brought him worldwide attention. Working through the dawn of the Information Age, Emett’s automata revealed not only wit but wisdom. As he said of his machines to Grossart, “They are the direct opposite, I suppose, of the average idea of the implacable, soulless machine, driving relentlessly on, or these frightening electronic proliferations, ready at the drop of a Silicone chip to take us all over … My Machines are friendly, they are happy, they crave love, and I really think they get it.” Companies like Shell Oil and Honeywell began commissioning work from the eccentric artist, and Life magazine sent him on a five-month tour of the U.S. that culminated in a twelve-page spread of wacky illustrations depicting American life titled “An Answer to Yorktown” and published on July 5, 1954.

Cloud Cuckoo Valley
Bonhams

A Quiet Afternoon in the Cloud Cuckoo Valley, 1984

Cloud Cuckoo Valley
Bonhams

A Quiet Afternoon in the Cloud Cuckoo Valley, 1984

Cloud Cuckoo Valley
Bonhams

A Quiet Afternoon in the Cloud Cuckoo Valley, 1984

Cloud Cuckoo Valley
Bonhams

A Quiet Afternoon in the Cloud Cuckoo Valley, 1984

Cloud Cuckoo Valley
Bonhams

A Quiet Afternoon in the Cloud Cuckoo Valley, 1984

Cloud Cuckoo Valley
Bonhams

A Quiet Afternoon in the Cloud Cuckoo Valley, 1984

Cloud Cuckoo Valley
Bonhams

A Quiet Afternoon in the Cloud Cuckoo Valley, 1984

Flying Machine
Mid America Science Museum

Flying Machine

Flying Machine
Mid America Science Museum

Flying Machine

Mid America Science Museum Display
Mid America Science Museum

Visitors enjoy Emett contraptions at the Mid America Science Museum

Mid America Science Museum Display
Mid America Science Museum

Visitors enjoy Emett contraptions at the Mid America Science Museum

Rowland Emett works on display at the Ontario Science Centre
Ontario Science Centre

Rowland Emett works on display at the Ontario Science Centre

Rowland Emett works on display at the Ontario Science Centre
Ontario Science Centre

Rowland Emett works on display at the Ontario Science Centre

Rowland Emett works on display at the Ontario Science Centre
Ontario Science Centre

Rowland Emett works on display at the Ontario Science Centre

Then Hollywood came knocking. First Emett worked on the 1957 Kenneth More film called The Admirable Crichton, about a shipwrecked family whose butler helps them adapt by making record players out of conch shells and the like. “It’s full of Emett devices, but made out of the sort of thing that you’d find on a beach,” said Griffiths. Then producer Albert (Cubby) Broccoli hired Emett to make eight contraptions for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the now-classic movie loosely based on Ian Fleming’s 1964 book about a flying car, which also included the Humbug-Major Sweet Machine and the Clockwork Lullaby. (If it all sounds Willy Wonkaesque, it’s worth noting that Roald Dahl co-wrote the screenplay.)

Soon several major science museums in Canada and the U.S. noted how brilliantly Emett’s work bridged the divide between art and engineering. The Ontario Science Centre in Canada, for example, owns nine of his machines, the most in North America, second only to a private collection in Leeds, England. They bundle-purchased them from the artist in the mid-seventies, and though they can be challenging to maintain, the museum puts them on exhibit for the holiday season, generally between mid-December and mid-January. “We display the Emetts by highlighting the imagination and innovation that he used to take everyday objects and turn them into kinetic machines,” said Cara van der Laan, artifacts coordinator at the OSC. “In the past, we have highlighted this creativity in our programming to help kids look at objects in their own houses in different ways. That kind of unique perspective is how innovators look at the world–‘how do I take this item and use it in a different way?’” One of their highlights, she added, is the Forget-Me-Not Open Minded Spoon-Fed Executive Computer, which “humanizes computers and compares them in a whimsical way to our own brains.”

Likewise, at the Mid America Science Museum in Hot Springs, Arkansas, which owns four Emett gadgets, director of design Niles Ellis said they provide a springboard to discuss tinkering and thinking outside of the box. “His machines provided a venue for people to see what can be done in that respect, when you just totally disregard what the functionality of one item can be and then how it can be whimsically infused into the machine to perform some other function.” Because they have been on permanent display since their purchase in the late seventies, they have needed extra care—a little Teflon, oil, and grease—but they draw visitors, particularly those who have seen Emett’s work elsewhere. Ellis said, “If you’ve seen one or two of them, it kind of gets in your blood and you might seek out the others.”

That resonates in the case of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Recently, a woman wrote to the Washington Post asking about a piece of colorful, 3-D art she remembered seeing when the NASM first opened. The paper responded with information about the two Emett sculptures that the NASM owns, neither of which is currently on exhibit. The S.S. Pussiewillow II appeared in the Flight in the Arts Gallery from around 1980 until 1990, when a motor caught fire and damaged parts of the machine. “It hasn’t been on display in decades and yet we still get a substantial number of letters every year asking … where it is now and all that,” said curator emeritus Tom Crouch. On Youtube, someone uploaded a home video of the Pussiewillow, summoning a string of comments from enchanted fellow travelers. Crouch said there had been talks about raising funds to reinstall the machine.

In the meantime, as the fiftieth anniversary of the 1971 lunar landing approaches, still-secret plans are afoot to bring Emett’s Exploratory Moon-Probe Lunacycle M.A.U.D. to the West Coast to headline a major public exhibition. After all, said Griffiths, “The thing is that if you look at pictures of them, they look, you know, quirky and interesting; if you see a video of it, you start to get some idea; but it's only when you've stood in front of one and been able to closely examine what's going on that you find that you're actually in front of something that's telling a story.”

About the Author

Rebecca Rego Barry

Rebecca Rego Barry is the author of Rare Books Uncovered: True Stories of Fantastic Finds in Unlikely Places and the editor of Fine Books & Collections magazine.

Subscribe to our free e-letter!

Webform

Latest News

Invaluable Manuscripts Fuel Tensions Between Iceland and Denmark
Denmark and Iceland are rekindling a decades-old conflict over an invaluable…
Heroes: Principles of African Greatness
With nearly 50 artworks from more than 40 artists, the exhibition tells the…
Andy Goldsworthy's "Watershed" Moment in New England
Andy Goldsworthy is a much-in-demand international figure known for creating…
Off the Wall: American Art to Wear
The exhibition examines a generation of pioneering artists who used body-…
Artemisia Gentileschi's Lost Lucretia Comes to Auction
For forty years, the canvas sat unrecognized in a private collection in Lyon,…