Tucked down a side-street off High Holborn is a strange little museum – more of a shop, really, and not an especially cheap one, but who could begrudge a place filled with such lunatic joy? Some of you may remember the Cabaret Mechanical Theatre, which had its arcade in Covent garden from 1984 to 1999, and was a wonderful meeting place for artists interested in coin-operated machines – it inspired Tim Hunkin to start The Under The Pier Show, which has its home in Southwold on the East Coast, and has a branch in central London called Novelty Automation.
You’ll have to be of a certain age to remember the novelty machines that filled penny arcades at the English seaside – the helicopter race, the Jolly Jack Tar, the Laughing Policeman, and those strange automata left over from the 1930s, still working in the 1950s and even into the 1960s that showed you executions, burglaries, the Haunted Library and my favourite – the Drunkard’s Dream. In it, a drunk guzzled his booze as demons and ghosts appeared from cupboards.
In the history of art, automata are usually overlooked – too whimsical, too frivolous, but I’ve seen some amazing ones in France. Two of the most famous are the silver swan that catches a fish in Castle Barnard and the peacock that opens its feathers in the Hermitage, St Petersburg. The American novelist Mark Twain saw the Silver Swan at the Paris exhibition in 1867 and described it in his book The Innocents Abroad:
‘I watched the Silver Swan, which had a living grace about his movement and a living intelligence in his eyes – watched him swimming about as comfortably and unconcernedly as it he had been born in a morass instead of a jeweller’s shop – watched him seize a silver fish from under the water and hold up his head and go through the customary and elaborate motions of swallowing it.’
The Silver Swan dates from 1773 and was first recorded in 1774 as a crowd puller in the Mechanical Museum of James Cox, a London showman and dealer. The internal mechanism is by John Joseph Merlin, a famous inventor of the time. The peacock is surrounded by other moving creatures. Both can be found in action on YouTube.
The exhibits at Novelty Automation may lack the same grace, but they’re an awful lot of fun. I liked the instant holiday simulator, the alien probe and especially the mad dog test, which requires you to remain with your hand pressing a button in a cage with a mad mechanical dog until – well, something happens that would, I imagine, make a child scream.
These items are clearly labours of love and must be a pain to maintain in full working condition, operated by tokens. But if Mr Hunkin was really given his head I imagine an arcade with hundreds of such mechanical experiences from different artists.
One can imagine the updates on ‘The Drunkard’s Dream’ that could be made now! When I visited it was bucketing with rain and the place was empty, which meant no waiting, but I’ll come back and see it with others, as the shocked reactions of people would be half the fun. Several of the items have physical effects at the end of the movement which make you jump.
For a while Brighton Pier had a display of automata, but it didn’t last. The Holborn museum solely features new machines, but has a website here detailing other mechanical devices from the past. It’s a lovely way to while away an hour, and will put a smile on your face. In its next incarnation I hope it’s bigger and even madder.