Monday, February 06, 2006

The History of “Tin” or “Lead” Soldiers, PART 2, John Tunstill

Following on from the last article we arrive at the time when curious figures were produced, which were called semi-round or semi-flat, depending on whether one is primarily a flat-figure or a round-figure collector. There were moulds available for these figures, which were made of aluminium in the early 1950s and 1960s, but currently two firms, Schildkrot in Germany and Scad in France, are making moulds for 30mm, semi-round figures, from vulcanized rubber, which is the moulding compound that the majority of professional soldier makers use today. Another company, Prince Rupert, from Ireland, also makes a wide range of rubber moulds for the home enthusiast.
The consistency of tin is such that it can be poured easily and will pick up the finest details from the mould. In order to make the flat figures, the manufacturers had to use a fairly pure tin in order to fill the cavity of the mould which were usually engraved in slate by the master engraver. One of the reasons for the advent of the half-round soldier was that the rising cost of tin caused manufacturers to look for an alternative and cheaper metal, lead. A much softer metal than tin, lead has flowing properties which are similar to that of warm toffee; thus, when it is poured into a mould, the viscosity of the liquid metal is such that the finer points of the mould are not readily reproduced. The makers therefore could not easily cast in the flat moulds and started to make the figures fatter and thicker, with less sharpness of detail, but at a cheaper price.
The standard-size model soldier, is the 54 mm figure, the size that the majority of the early toy soldier makers in England, such as Britains, John Hill & Company, Johillco, Crescent, Charbens, and a host of others, used in the early 1900s. They followed Lucotte and Mignot who produced 54 mm figures in France in the nineteenth century. Some fifty years ago when manufacturers started to make figures which were exact representations of human and animal bodies, they too produced their models in the original 54 mm scale. (The measurement of a figure is from the sole of the foot to the top of the head of a standing man, discounting any head gear.)
Currently figures in the 54 mm size are produced in both plastic and metal. One of the larger manufacturers of model soldiers in the 1970s that produced in metal was Hinchliffe Models Ltd. of Yorkshire, who provided a handbook for collectors which was a directory of the hundreds of castings that they produced but also a colour guide to the various uniforms of the figures, Frank Hinchliffe also excelled at producing 54mm scale artillery pieces.
Rose Miniatures, produced by Russell Gammage, and his wife Rose, covered almost every period from the days of Ancient Egypt to figures of British Guardsmen up to the mid 1970s.
New Hope Design, a company which operated from Northumbria, in England (rather than North Umbria in Italy, where the author of this article now lives) came up with a very good marketing idea for their figures. They produced models in conjunction with the Osprey series of Men at Arms books.
When John Tunstill was with Tradition, the model soldier and militaria shop in London’s Piccadilly, where he worked as the general manager, Charles, or Charlie, Stadden produced his wide range of 54mm figures for Norman Newton Ltd, which was the pare4nt company of Tradition.
Phoenix Model Developments, from Northampton, was founded by Les Higgins, an artist who created some of the finest 54 mm figures, of Regency period (1800-1830) ladies and gentlemen in court dress, sitting, standing, dancing, and playing the piano, and also a large range of accessories including furniture, plates, goblets, lanterns, tables, and chairs
Ensign Miniatures, which were produced by Bob Rowe and his partner, D.C. James, were novel in that they represented the British Army in mess dress and also a comprehensive selection from the British Navy. The Ensign Miniatures were not fighting soldiers, but attractive figures in the style of Harry Payne, Richard Simkin, or Walter Richards, who were famous British military artists at the turn of the century before last.
The firm of Greenwood and Ball, which was on Teesside made 54 mm figures sculpted by John Tassell called the Lasset range. (John transposed the T and L in his own name to give a name to the series). Abley assisted by Pat Bird; who later made the Series 77 range in the United States; Tassell produced a large number of figures for Tradition which were marketed under the sales name of “Stadden”. When John and Pat, the two model makers branched out on their own, many of the Stadden figures were crafted by Alan Caton, who also left Tradition in order to made his own range of Dek figures.
Leaving model soldiers to one side, there were many other ranges of 54 mm figures which were termed ‘toy’ soldiers. This time the word ‘toy’ is put in inverted commas, as these were no longer the playthings of children both because they contained lead, and because they were relatively expensive due to a limited production. These figures were meant to complement the huge ranges of early toy soldiers produced by Britains and other manufacturers. Due to the unavailability of real toy soldiers after the 1960s, several firms turned their attention to producing figures that were complementary to the traditional Britains soldier. These new toy soldiers were invariably produced in parade postures, came complete with peg-on or supposedly movable arms, were coloured with bright gloss paints, and were deliberately painted to a low standard in order that they would marry-in with the existing collections of earlier toys.
One of the earliest producers of this kind of toy soldier was the Welsh firm of Blenheim, the figures were attractively packaged in blue boxes. Blenheim also produced for Shamus Wade of Nostalgia Figures of West London a range of figures from some of the more exotic armies of the world. The firm of M.J. Mode, from Leicester, produced a wide range of figures and covered a number of the Indian Army regiments from the turn of the century. Ducal, Devon Model Soldiers, Mark Time and Gunners, also made figures which were in the same style as the Britains figures.
The Soldier Shop in Lambeth, London, near the Imperial War Museum, produced Soldiers’ Soldiers. They had over 350 models available, Their boxes were in the traditional Britains colour of deep maroon and contained eight figures, normally seven men and one officer. The advantage of these figures is that many have two separate arms, and, therefore, many castings could be adapted to represent a dozen or more different, but similar, soldiers. British and Empire Armies of the period from 1880 to 1914, and European nations were included. At last, enthusiasts were able to collect complete regiments in all the varieties and styles of dress which could be viewed in a barracks at the time of the great military artists, like Harry Payne and Richard Simpkin. Soldiers’ Soldiers were selected by two London museums – the National Army Museum, in Chelsea, and the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green – to produce figures for exclusive sale. Soldiers’ even produced model soldiers at slow march with reversed arms for use in a military funeral.
The production of 54 mm model soldiers in countries other than Great Britain was something very difficult to keep a check on, but now with the internet, on-line catalogues, and communication by e-mail, the task is much simpler.
In France, the long-established firm of Mignot was still going strong in Paris, producing toy figures exactly as it had done for the better part of 120 years. The figures were expensive but they were produced according to company tradition, and to those collectors who were addicted to their particular quality, no others would suffice.
In the United States, Imrie- Risley and Cavalier Miniatures, both of New York produced a wide range of models and castings.
Other American firms included Valiant Miniatures of Skokie, Illinois, Squadron/Rubin Miniatures of Michigan, Mini Men, produced in Ohio, Monarch Miniatures produced figures made by the British artist, Cliff Sanderson, and sold his series of ‘Pirates of Portuga’, and H R Products of Illinois manufactured a range of 54 mm weapons. Monogram had produced a good range of plastic armoured fighting vehicles. The Squadron Company made war gaming pieces in 54 mm which could also be used in a diorama and a range called the ‘Waterloo Series’, which were plastic figures.
Hinchliffe Models, had their figures were made under licence in the United States by Heritage Models of Dallas, Texas.
From San Sebastian, in Spain, came a series of 54 mm metal figures by the firm of Labayen. Jaime Hiriart, who lives in Montevideo, in Uruguay sells his figures from a shop in the Metro station, near the exhibition centre in Milano.
And now, via the internet, there are hundreds of companies throughout the world making and selling model figures.
In recent years the range of figures has enlarged from those merely depicting military subjects to those from a wide range of civilian walks of life, a collector can vary his collection by adding girl friends, pirate scenes, fantasy figures, and all the attractive sets of indoor and outdoor civilian life that are currently available.
In 1972 John opened Soldiers, a soldier and militaria shop, at 36 Kennington Road, and later at 44 Kennington Road, near the Imperial War Museum, and Lambeth North tube station in London, and organised the first "human" scale auctions for toy soldiers at the local public house, the Hercules Tavern. James Opie was one of his casual saturday morning boys and Norman Joplin, one of his customers. Marcus Hinton of Hinton Hunt Figures; Jim Johnson of MJ Mode; Roy Maitland, and Alex of Tradition; Russel Gamage of Rose Figures; Frank Hinchliffe of Hinchliffe Models; John Tassel of Lasset Figures, and Pat and Olie Bird of Series 77, were some of his suppliers, colleagues and friends in England and Nat Polk, Bill Imre and Clyde Risley were some friends in the soldier business in the USA. John started production of Soldiers' Soldiers, the 54mm range of lead alloy castings and he and his staff made and sold some 500 figures a week for about ten years! Something like a quarter of a million lead soldiers! Recent auction results have shown that the value of these figures is rising all the time. John authored the World of Toy Soldiers, c.1985.

For more information contact :

John Tunstill La Preghiera Calzolaro 06018 PG 075 930 2428