8 December, 2021

Rowland Emett’s Backward-looking Vision

May 13-19 is Children’s Book Week, when children’s literature, reading, and literacy is celebrated in schools, libraries, and bookstores. The week brings appreciations too, of the writers and illustrators who keep children and books connected. Here, contributor Lauren Alwan looks at the work of  English author and illustrator Rowland Emett (1906-1990).

In 1954, when Rowland Emett made his first trip to the U.S., Americans dubbed him the British Rube Goldberg—but the comparison wasn’t exactly correct.

Goldberg was the cartoonist known for contraptions that executed mundane tasks through a series of intricate steps (like “The Self-Operating Napkin,” or “Putting a Cat Out at Night), and whose popularity made “Rube Goldberg” a stock term for the unnecessarily complex. Emett, though similarly grounded in art and engineering, applied a knowledge of mechanics and sense of the ethereal to objects that were intentionally inefficient, and if they never operated in a systematic, orderly fashion, so much the better.

from “New World for Nellie”

With a lineage that included a great-grandfather who was court engraver to Queen Victoria, and an inventor father, Emett was well poised to merge his eclectic talents: he wrote and illustrated over fifteen books, created dozens of kinetic sculptures and designed set productions. In a canny move, he rarely sold any of his works, but instead contracted them out on lease, which provided a steady income, and allowed for the freedom to tinker in his blacksmith shop/studio near his beloved Wild Goose Cottage in Sussex.

During that first visit to the States , Emett was on assignment for LIFE Magazine to record his impressions of the country in a series titled “Famous Cartoonist Takes Friendly Look at the U.S.A.” At the time, he was an art star in England—for decades he’d been a preeminent cartoonist at the iconic magazine Punch, and had also published numerous books, but it was his role as featured designer at the 1951 Festival of Britain that brought him far wider recognition. Approached by the government to create an exhibit that would “raise the spirits and aspirations of a weary nation,” Emett and his team of builders produced the Far Tottering and Oyster Creek Railway, an imaginary out of time railway line. Built at the Festival’s Battersea site, the attraction featured working rail cars that were impeccably made, and true to Emett’s style, eccentric in design. The engines and cars were embellished with musical instruments, kitchen gadgets and parlor curios, and their popularity far exceeded expectations. Before Battersea, Emett was famous as a cartoonist, but after he was in demand as the artist who made odd machines.nellie

One of the most popular engines at the Festival was Nellie, a spirited engine with an appealingly cobbled-together look, and the following year, Emett published a book for children that featured her exploits, Nellie Come Home. The book was a success, and by the time Emett arrived in the U.S., he’d adapted the story for American audiences as New World for Nellie.

The tale follows the steam engine and her crew who occupy Duckwallow Marsh in a forgotten corner of England. Engineered by Albert Funnel and “guard-fireman-and-porter” Frederick Firedoor, Nellie makes daily runs to market and the seaside, but due to wildflower picking and frequent stops for cow crossings, the line runs perpetually late. When the locals complain, the crew feels unappreciated and decides to seek their fortune elsewhere. With the aid of a few spare railway signals, some grey goose feathers and a pair of overalls, Albert and Frederick transform Nellie to a flying machine and set off for parts unknown. Eventually, they touch down on an elevated railway in New York City, where as it happens, the timbre of Nellie’s whistle is the precise note a symphonic maestro has been seeking for his orchestral score, and so begins a series of American adventures in which Nellie comes into her own.

From "Nellie Come Home"
From “Nellie Come Home”

In Emett’s world, metal seams are always hobnailed, joinery is fastened with spare wire, spectacles are cracked, and knitted cardigans will almost always sport a length of wool unraveling at the edge.

The illustrations in Nellie, done in ink and pale watercolor wash, are typical of Emett’s technique and suggest the Victorian illustrations he admired. His style, which is both whimsical and gothic, has been compared to George Cruickshank, the English engraver and caricaturist who illustrated Dickens’ original Oliver Twist. Emett’s line work is famously spidery and imperfect, flecked with splatters that occur when a metal pen nib catches the grain of heavy drawing stock. Like his contemporary Saul Steinberg, Emett references the materials and process of art-making, but his preoccupations extend to an interest in machines and the notion of mechanical soundness—or a lack of it. In Emett’s world, metal seams are always hobnailed,

joinery is fastened with spare wire, spectacles are

cracked and knitted cardigans will almost always sport a length of wool unraveling at the edge.

In a midcentury era obsessed with the future, with science and streamlining and efficiency experts, Emett’s retrograde creations gleefully ran against the grain.

It is as though Emett, who understood the mechanics of pretty much any device, was not so much interested in efficiency as he was the possibilities and states of deterioration. This interest in fallibility, in error and imperfection, runs in equal proportion to a sense of nostalgia for the non-electric, unmechanized world he was born into. In this, steam engines of course figure largely. In 1906, the year of Emett’s birth, the Light Railways Act brought construction of cheap rail travel to rural England, though the lines that proliferated were mostly unprofitable, with cars that were second-hand, usually patched, and often rebuilt with spare parts. The rail lines were short, no more than a few miles, and a blanket restriction of 25 mph kept them provincial and “tottering.” By the 1960s, the lines were mostly gone, lost to the efficiency and cost cutting reports of Britain’s Railway Ministry, but the feeling for time and place captured in Emett’s work is as finely developed as his engineering skills.

As it turned out, both Nellie the engine and the Far Tottering O.C.R.R. were as popular in the States as they were in England. In a midcentury era preoccupied with the future, with science and streamlining and efficiency experts, Emett’s retrograde creations gleefully ran against the grain. Borrowing the objects, occupations, and interests of a disappearing world, Emett used these as bits in an extravagant visual language, one that must have been comforting to certain audiences in America and England. Imagine walking into your village bookshop in 1952 and seeing the cover of The Forgotten Tramcar and Other Drawings (right beside Emett’s Home Rails Preferred) with its lonely rail track and single car tethered by pulleys. At the time, Emett’s meandering steam engines and gently disobedient characters must have spoken choruses to those at the periphery of the conformist and insecure postwar fifties.

This fringe sensibility was perfect for the counterculture era to come, but Emett never aligned himself with any social or artistic movement. He continued making what he called “Things,” expanding the applications to ever newer ideas, and continuing to resist progress while mildly lampooning it. For example, the Vintage Car of the Future (1972), features cut-glass decanter fog lamps and a speedometer that gauges not miles per hour, but runs from Nought, to Gently, to AWFUL. In 1973, Emett was commissioned to build The Rhythmical Time-Fountain or Aqua Horological Tintinnabulator, a water-powered clock, though time is the least of matters. Technically, the device does include a working timepiece, though it’s upstaged by a colossal copper flower that, on the hour, opens its petals to reveal an array of bejeweled creatures—quail, tree squirrels, frogs—that twirl on a wheeled base as they hold aloft their french horns, lutes, and lyres. Emett’s reach also extended to Hollywood, where as production designer for Ian Fleming’s Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang, he created the inventions for the eccentric protagonist Caractacus Potts.

Emett was not the first British artist to design eccentric machines. He was preceded by W. Heath Robinson, a classically trained illustrator-turned-cartoonist who poked fun at “modern” living through his drawings of elaborate, unnecessary systems. Like Goldberg, Robinson was immensely popular for excessive diagramming of simple tasks, like “How to Make a Garden Grow” and “How to be a Motorist.” Robinson’s devices, grounded as they were in 19th century mechanics, were powered by kettles, candles, and complex arrays of pulleys and knotted twine. Emett knew of Heath Robinson’s work and may have been influenced by him, though what sets the two apart is more than fifty years and the rise and fall of the rail system. Emett’s drawings served as designs for constructions that were actually built, while Robinson’s were not. But just as Rube Goldberg’s name in America became synonymous with excess complexity, a “Heath Robinson” stood for the same in England. Meanwhile, Emett, whose name never came to stand for anything besides himself, worked in a blacksmith’s forge in Sussex constructing his quirky devices. Though as he intended, none of them were very practical.

For more visit the Rowland Emett Society, here.

One animator’s appreciation of Emett.

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