Thursday, March 23, 2006

THE ORIGINS OF THE SPECIES


With thanks to Chas.Darwin Esq

A SHORT DISCOURSE UPON THE ARTISTIC DESIGNS THAT ONCE UPON
A TIME PROBABLY INFLUENCED WILLIAM BRITAIN
IN THE PRODUCTION AND MANUFACTURE OF LEAD SOLDIERS
AT HIS HORNSEY WORKSHOP IN NORTH LONDON

John Tunstill


William Britain, as we all know, was an inventor and manufacturer of toys. His invention of a hollow casting process for lead soldiers has given many people much pleasure for more than a hundred years and dozens of books and hundreds of articles have been written on the figures.
But, the original drawings, from which to make the master figures, where did they come from? This article attempts to throw light on the original illustrations that I believe were used in order to create the famous Britain’s figures.
In the mid 1950’s when I was researching into uniform detail there was hardly anything available that one could beg, borrow or obtain by other means. I, as a youngster under 18 was not allowed access to the British Museum Reading Room, or the Library of the Victoria and Albert Museum without special permission. Letters of authority had to be obtained from schoolmasters, pillars of society and other worthies before a temporary reader’s ticket was, I thought, somewhat grudgingly, handed over by the keepers of the books.
But William, being a grown-up, and probably having a few sovereigns in his pocket, could afford the latest works by Simpkin, Burnett, Payne and the like, as well as the postcards produced in such glorious quantities by Raffael Tuck, and of course the weekly editions of The Army & Navy Gazette, and later the illustrations produced by the artists Caton Woodville and Fortuno Mattania in the various military histories of the Victorian conflicts.
So, what inspired our Bill? But as he was the Guv’nor of the company, we had better restrict our informality to William. Inspiration, that ephemeral muse, must have come from the pages of one or more of the popular publications, England was still part of Great Britain, the sun never set……etc., the old Queen still ruled, all was well with the Empire, and never mind the natives, “They didn’t like the cold steel up ‘em”, yer know.
Edward Muybridge of the human and animal movement photographic fame, hadn’t produced his work, and even after it was generally available the majority of ordinary folk would not have had any interest in the fact that horses couldn’t raise all four feet off the ground at the same moment and that footsoldiers couldn’t, and didn’t march with splayed feet and bent knees. Up until this time no-one had actually looked at anyone in action, walking or running, and most illustrators had lost sight, even if they ever seen them, of the Greek and Roman representations of human and animal movement. All that was generally available was the art that was being produced by the illustrators of the day, which in turn was reproduced by the soldiers makers, which reinforced the public perception of movement which was based on the art that was being produced by the illustrators of the day. QED and full circle!
The illustrations in this article are taken from original books or artwork in my own library, and they complement the figures in my collection, and all are held in the Calzolaro Soldier Collection, La Preghiera, Calzolaro, 06018, PG, Italia, in the middle of Italy in the province of Umbria, to which you are all invited.