It's Cuckoo
Rowland Emett was a madcap genius who wanted to share his eccentric vision. Magical – and slightly dotty – machines, says Ivan Macquisten

Everyone remembers Skylon, the futuristic sculpture that dominated London's South Bank during the Festival of Britain in 1951. Arguably more popular was the Far Tottering and Oyster Creek Branch Railway, a madcap train ride in Battersea Park, which brought its creator, the artist and inventor Rowland Emett (1906-1990), instant fame. The train welcomed more than two million passengers, earning back its construction costs in under three weeks.

Emett was heir to Heath Robinson in celebrating the eccentric, whimsical and gently humorous. London-born and schooled in Birmingham, where he also trained at the School of Arts and Crafts, Rowland caught the inventing bug early, after his father registered a patent on behalf of his teenaged son for a gramophone volume control. During World War II, he worked as a draughtsman in the Air Ministry, contributing to the design of bombers, but it was his cartoons and humorous drawings that got him noticed, first by publishers, then by the British government who, eager to raise war-wearied spirits, approached him with the Festival of Britain commission.

Emett is now best known in Britain for designing Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the magical flying car, and for the crackpot inventions of Caractacus Potts, as played in the film by Dick Van Dyke, but he has remained a star in North America, where he was first acknowledged as a serious artist in a Life profile of 1954. The Smithsonian and the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry house his works, and no institution owns more Emett machines than the Ontario Science Centre.

Even the names Emett gave his works were inspired: The Featherstone-Kite Openwork Basketweave Mark Two Gentleman's Flying Machine, The Honeywell Forget-Me-Not Computer and The Aqua Horological Tintinnabulator, a water-powered musical clock installed in a Nottingham shopping mall in 1973.

Another commission from town planners was to prove his last and largest great work, as well as – in Emett's own opinion – his finest. By the time A Quiet Afternoon in the Cloud Cuckoo Valley was complete in 1984, local authority restructuring meant there was no longer a place for it, and it was sold privately to the current owner.

The work shows Emett's imagination at its ambitious best in a creation comprising eight separate machine sculptures. Wild Goose, a train on which the driver toasts revolving teacakes on the firebox, is the centrepiece, surrounded by a farmer serenading his cows on a harp, a water wheel, a fisherman catching a mermaid in a net, an elderly gent diving into the sea from a bathing hut, a cycling birdwatcher disguised as a tree, and a wishing well. First exhibited in 1992 in Spitalfields Market in London, it went back into storage until it 'disappeared' seven years later, nearly meeting its end at a scrapyard.

The entire sculpture underwent expert restoration, with the addition of a digital control system, prior to going on display in 2014 at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in the exhibition Marvellous Machines: The Wonderful World of Rowland Emett. It boosted visitor numbers by 70 per cent over expectations for the period.

Now Cloud Cuckoo Valley comes to Bonhams, first for a summer exhibition at Bonhams, 101 New Bond Street, from 12 August to 3 September, then for auction on 3 September, where it promises to light up as many faces as it did in Birmingham. Wouldn't it be wonderful if it ended up on permanent public display, where Emett's magic could deservedly continue to cast its spell?

Ivan Macquisten is a writer and art-market analyst.

Sale: Rowland Emett's Masterpiece:
A Quiet Afternoon in the Cloud Cuckoo Valley
Tuesday 3 September at 1pm
Enquiries: Claire Tole-Moir +44 (0) 20 7393 3984
[email protected]


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