Thursday, October 06, 2005

Article for Collezionare

Once upon a time, there was a small boy in England, who, for his fourth birthday, which he spent in war torn London, received a box of lead soldiers, the traditional steadfast toy soldiers of Hans Christian Anderson’s wonderful story. From that day on, that little boy, John Tunstill was hooked, his passion was tin soldiers, and for every birthday, each Christmas, and on any other occasion when presents were given, he always asked for soldiers.

Now, sixty years later John has a large collection of soldiers in his home, the ex-monastery of La Preghiera, near Umbertide and Cittá di Castello in Umbria.

When John was at primary school, before he was twelve, he had already earned enough pocket money; by delivering newspapers in the early morning, between 7.30 and 8.30, to local houses; to be able to buy some aluminium moulds for the manufacture of lead toy soldiers, using his mother’s gas stove to heat the metal, and the kitchen table as a casting bench. The figures were later painted by John, and sold to his school mates or through local shops.

During his later school years John continued with his interest, and in order to obtain the correct details of the uniforms, had to persuade the Curator’s of the British Museum, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, both in London, to grant him, as an underage student, a “temporary” readers ticket so that he could investigate the original collections, held in those museums, of the uniform details contained in manuscripts in their libraries. When studying the Russian Napoleonic armies it was necessary for John to copy down the cyrillic letters describing the uniforms in order to get them translated by a White Russian “Princess” that he knew, who had escaped from the Bolsheviks at the time of the october revolution.

The summers, the school holidays, were spent playing soldiers, war games, in the back gardens of his and other friend’s houses. It wasn’t until many years later that John found out that H G Wells, Herbert George Wells, who wrote the “War of the Worlds” and many other classic novels, had written a book called “Small Wars” which recorded his garden wargames which were fought in the years leading up to the Great War. John and his friends had to invent the rules for their games, and eventually they were published by the British Model Soldier Society, the world’s first club for lead soldier enthusiasts, and again John, still under sixteen, had to get a special dispensation to allow him join this “grown up” group of enthusiasts. The society had been formed by Walter Lockwood, another wargamer, in the 1930’s and John, after Walter’s death was able to acquire many of “Old Man Lockwood’s wargame figures.

These summer wargames were fought with converted commercial figures which were available in the local toy shops. John would often buy yesterday’s cakes from the local baker’s to eat for his lunch at school, in order to save half of the day’s money that his mother would have given him to pay for his meal. Yesterday’s cakes and a soldier was the basis of his collection.

The figures that John bought were usually representations of those soldiers who fought in the Second World War or at the time of the British Colonial Wars. The reason for this was that the early manufacturers of soldiers had started their businesses at the time of Britain’s Empire, with red coats and spiked helmets been the uniform of the day, and although the makers produced new figures for each new war, they never deleted any of the earlier figures from their catalogues.

These available figures were bought by John, converted to Napoleonic War soldiers, repainted in authentic detail and used for wargames. At this time most soldiers were painted in gloss paints without any shading or artistic detal, they were in fact toys. Model soldiers, which were often the same basic figure, were usually painted with matt or flat paints, and were painted with a much higher regard for the minute details that a true model has in order to distinguish it from a toy. The time and effort needed to create a model made them unsuitable for mass use in wargame armies and made them individual and sometimes lonely statuettes.

John was required for military service and entually served for almost five years in the Royal Air Force, in a photographic aerial reconnaisance squadren at the time of the Arab Israeli War and John still has a pilot’s licence. During his time of service in the Middle East John continued with his hobby and made a considerable number of Royal Scots Greys, accompanied by charging Highlanders, to augment his ever growing collection of figures.

Back in civilian life John became a representative for a structural steel company, and later an advertising manager for an engineering magazine, and during this time he was reconstructing a semi derelict house in Woolwich, near the famous British arsenal. But because of his continued interest in militaria, soldiers, uniforms and similar items he was asked to become the general manager of the new shop in London’s Piccadilly, and the magazine, both operating under the Tradition title.

The magazine proved to be a great success amongst the soldier collectors and later John started another magazine for those who wanted to recreate battles in miniature, Miniature Warfare. John left Tradition and opened his own shop, in London, near the Imperial war Museum. The shop was called Soldiers, and catered for all collectors of military items. But because more and more clients would arrive trying to buy the early lead soldiers, which were by the early 1970’s superceeded by plastic figures, John decided to start, again, to cast his own soldiers. He made them in the same size, shape and style of the most popular figures, those made by the London company of William Britain. John’s figures were initially made to complement the original figures, so that if one needed a drummer, officer or standard bearer to complete an original set it was possible to use John’s figures to fill the gaps.

As the soldiers were made and sold by John’s shop “Soldiers”, and they were called “Soldiers’ Soldiers”. Some 500 figures were made and sold each week for the 10 years between 1975 and 1985, in all some quarter of a million soldiers!

During those years more than 350 different master figures were sculpted, and because many of them has individually applied arms the numbers of differnt models increased. For example the basic figure of a bandsman could have ten or a dozed different sets of arms attached, a basic officer figure could have perhaps five different arms, and a line infantry soldier could also carry his rifle in many different way, and, when in company with one of his colleagues, he could also be a stretcher bearer.
It was also possible to paint many of the soldiers in a wide variety of military costumes. Highlanders for example could be Black Watch, Gordon Higlanders, Argylle and Sutherland, Seaforth, Cameron, or any one of the Colonial highland regiments from Australia, Canada, South Africa etc

None of John’s soldiers are in warlike, or fighting positions, there are in their best clothes, clean, tidy and on parade, looking wonderful and attracting admiring glances from the girls. Even the “wounded” soldiers on the stretchers were not harmed by enemy action, these were just men who had drunk too much the night before, not had enough breakfast, and who had fainted on parade.

During the ‘80’s John and his wife Lilliana first bought a ruined farmhouse in Umbria, and during the next couple of years whilst they were restoring it, they were approached by a local “Count” a gentleman with a serious passion for toy soldiers who wanted special figures to be painted for him, but only for him, and which were not to be sold to other collectors or sold in the Soldier shop. John, and his staff of painters produced hundreds of figures for this collector, always using existing figures, but painting them in a huge variety of costumes. These sets were packaged in smaller boxes, to improve their chances of survival within the postal systems, and despatched on a regular basis to Italy. The “Count” didn’t have very much money to pay for his soldiers, but he did have a lot of crumbling ruined houses on the green hills of Umbria. John traded and his business of Umbrian Properties started. The old collector has now departed, and John has repurchased all of the enormous collection, most of which had never been taken out of their boxes! These figures are now coming onto the market and will be sold with a special certificate of authenticity.

John’s collection is open by appointment, and he has had many groups of interested people spending an interesting afternoon at La Preghiera, the collection’s home. Collectors are invited to bring their friends colleagues and acquaintances, and everyone is invited to bring any surplus figures or militaria for swopping, exchanging, trading or selling in order to bring this enchanting hobby to the attention of the widest possible audience. John looks forward to the pleasure of your company at his home in Umbria.