Rowland Emmett is probably best known as the creator of the fantastic machines in the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, although that represents a fraction of his work. The current exhibition at Birmingham Art Gallery brings together a substantial collection of both his drawings and machines, many of which have not been seen in public for many years, if ever.
Emmett was an artist and designer who had a highly successful career as a cartoonist and illustrator. The collection in the exhibition demonstrates his impressive skills. A child of a comfortable, upper middle-class family, grandson to Queen Victoria’s engraver, he was highly tuned to the distinctions of class. His machines poke gentle fun at the golfers and aviators, the tea drinkers and the toast eaters.
He was fascinated with trains and invented a fantasy railway company that featured engines with personality such as Nellie. After the First World War, he was commissioned to translate his cartoon railway into reality at the Festival of Britain show in London. Initially reluctant, he agreed and his miniature railway became one of the hits of the show.[i]
The exhibition is fascinating, fun, and informative. Although full of children when I went, it was the adults who appeared most delighted, grinning ear to ear. The children looked slightly bemused, for it is redolent with the last century, rather than this.
Anyone with an interest in drawing and design will enjoy this, but it also captures the psychotherapist in me. What was going on in the imagination of this man? He was born in 1909 and lived through two world wars, dying in 1960. He worked in aircraft design in Birmingham during the Second World War and his daily life must have been immersed in war. In response, seemingly, he created a fantasy world in exquisite detail of Edwardian ladies and gentlemen and railway lines. There is no anger, aggression or violence in any of his works: they are gentle, witty, charming, and fascinatingly clever. Cogs, levers, arms and pedals animate a series of characters and repeating motifs: cats, birds, teapots and flowers all wait to be identified in the cacophony of moving parts.
The exhibition includes a televised interview between Roland Emmett and Malcolm Muggeridge, where Muggeridge applied the adjective ‘mad’ to Emmett’s machines. In response, Emmett said that he thought the machines were very sane. It was the people who were mad – and it is easy to see how he might think that living through the times that he did.
(i) I wonder if the fascination with railways is a peculiarly British affair. Dad/Grandad’s miniature train layout in the attic is the standard cliché of middle class post war England: Thomas the Tank Engine has delighted and entertained thousands of us: The Railway Children must be one of the most successful films made. What about Murder on the Orient Express? Then I think of Turner’s beautiful painting and our national love affair with the steam train. What is it about trains? Whatever it is, it certainly hooked Roland Emmett. The psychoanalytic interpretation of our fascination with trains would make interesting reading. I must do some research here!