Rowland Emmet

Rowland Emett is known as both a cartoonist and a designer/creator of kinetic sculptures.

Born in 1906 in London, England, Emett studied art and started employment in the commercial art field. Seeing a friend paid handsomely by Punch magazine for what he thought was a poorly drawn cartoon, he submitted his own, quickly becoming one of the most popular cartoonists at Punch, and eventually becoming Cartoon Editor.

The word ‘whimsical’ is frequently used to describe Emett’s work. His most recognisable pieces (in many people’s eyes) are the crazy inventions of Caractacus Potts (played by Dick Van Dyke) in the 1968 movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Rowland Emett profile image

The Festival of Britain, 1951

Many of Emett’s cartoons featured outlandish trains, and in 1950 the organisers of the 1951 Festival of Britain approached him to see if he might create a real-life version of his cartoon Far Tottering & Oyster Creek Railway. Initially reluctant, he finally agreed and built a 15″ gauge version of the railway, complete with engines Nellie, Neptune and Wild Goose.

It became one of the main attractions at the Festival, carrying over 2 million people around the Festival park and made his reputation as a maker of mechanical ‘Things’. This led to numerous commissions by commercial organisations and local authorities, and the ensuing years saw Emett creating many other machines and artworks that have continued to fascinate onlookers for decades.

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His cartoons come to life

Emett’s growing fame as an artist saw him design and supervise the creation of numerous commercial commissions. His “things” – as he himself referred to them – were full of detail and whimsical charm, and generally had equally charming names. The Featherstone-Kite Openwork Basketweave Mark Two Gentleman’s Flying Machine, for example, was created twice, one version being displayed in a glass case in the Merrion Centre, Leeds, whilst the other became a permanent display at the Mid-America Science Museum in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

In the mid-1960s he was commissioned by Honeywell to create a mechanical computer, which he named The Honeywell Forget-Me-Not Computer.

Alongside his things, Emett also produced illustrated books through most of his career. In 1943 ‘Engines, Aunties and Others‘ appeared with some of the first cartoons to feature his trademark trains. This was followed in 1946 by ‘Sidings and Suchlike‘ and set the pattern for his later books ending with ‘Emett’s Ministry of Transport‘ in 1981.

Machines for all the people

In 1973 his water-powered musical clock, The Aqua Horological Tintinnabulator, was installed on the lower floor of the Victoria Centre, Nottingham, and is still in working order though it has been relocated to the upper mall. When commissioned, it played Rameau’s Gigue en rondeau II from the E-minor suite of his Pièces de Clavecin when striking the hour and half hour. Later modification enabled it to perform every fifteen minutes. The Cats Cradle Pussiewillow III clock was commissioned by Basildon New Town and inaugurated by Michael Bentine on 7 August 1981. It is on display at Eastgate Shopping Centre in Basildon.

His larger works, such as Emettland, went on extended tours, ending up in prestigious venues such as the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. The Ontario Science Centre in Toronto has a collection of about ten Emett creations and every December displays the restored working pieces, usually under the title ‘Dream Machines‘. The Mid-America Science Museum has had four of his inventions on permanent display for most of the museum’s existence.

The Aqua Horological Tintinnabulator in Nottingham

The Rowland Emett Society

In 2012, architect and automata enthusiast Tim Griffiths drove the establishment of the Rowland Emett Society, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to preserving the memory of Rowland Emett and his ‘things’. Just five years later, the Society numbered almost 1,000 members, all of whom have either discovered or re-discovered the charm of Emett’s machines.

The Society, and Tim in particular, has been closely involved in negotiating with museums and other display spaces and in organising the exhibitions at which A Quiet Afternoon in the Cloud Cuckoo Valley has been shown.

With the Society’s help, we are hoping that a permanent home can be found for our lovely artwork, ideally alongside the other surviving ‘things’ from the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang movie and others of Emett’s works, to create an ‘Emett Museum’ or maybe a ‘National Automata Museum’. Let us know if you might be able to help with this!

Find out more about Rowland Emett

For further information about Rowland Emett, his life and works, visit the Rowland Emett Society’s website.

‘The Magical Machines of Rowland Emett Exhibition’ that took place in the summer of 2015 at Ditchling, Brighton and Hove