Automata in Falmouth

Falmouth has been described as the ‘home’ of automata making due to the legacy of a special shop called Cabaret and its association with three figures who were central to the renaissance of automata making in the UK: Peter Markey (1930-2016), Ron Fuller (1936-2017) and Sue Jackson (1938-2016).  The town continues to be an important nucleus of contemporary automata makers, many of whom have international reputations.

Peter Markey, The View from Tuke’s Cottage, Automaton, Falmouth Art Gallery Collection

The ‘father’ of the Falmouth automata makers was Peter Markey, who taught art for many years at Falmouth School and encouraged his pupils in automata making. Markey is famous for his naïve style which can be seen in the large public mural he designed in 1984 and can be found on Webber Street, Falmouth.  The mural has recently been restored as part of Falmouth Art Gallery’s ‘A Cabaret of Mechanical Movement Project’ funded by National Lottery players through the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Peter Markey was the first recruit when in 1979 Sue Jackson, a former Falmouth art student, opened a craft shop called Cabaret in the High Street, Falmouth.  Peter’s work was soon joined by the creations of Paul Spooner and Ron Fuller, both of whom had been encouraged by Sue to turn their hand to automata making and went on to become internationally renowned makers.  Many people still remember seeing in the shop window Paul Spooner’s large coin operated skeleton, The Last Judgement.

Cabaret, High Street, Falmouth

In 1983 Sue founded Cabaret Mechanical Theatre, the first collection of contemporary automata in Britain, made by artists originally recruited in and around Falmouth.  Sue moved Cabaret Mechanical Theatre to London’s Covent Garden in 1984 where it delighted visitors until 2000 but the Falmouth shop is still fondly remembered locally. 

Cabaret Mechanical Theatre still exists online and provides a showcase for some of the country’s finest toy and automata makers including Paul Spooner, Keith Newstead, Ron Fuller, Will Jackson, Tim Hunkin, Michael Howard, Richard Windley, Lucy Casson, Andy Hazell and Jan Zalud.

Paul Spooner, Barecats, Automaton, Cabaret Mechanical Theatre Collection

Cabaret helped to make Falmouth into a town of automata enthusiasts and collectors, the perfect environment for new makers to thrive.  Over the last 30 years Falmouth Art Gallery has developed a significant contemporary automata collection which includes all of the established local automata makers.  The gallery has strong links with these makers and regularly commissions new works when funding is available.  The gallery is fortunate enough to have received funding to commission twenty-one new automata depicting scenes from Falmouth’s artistic heritage, such as Henry Scott Tuke’s shivering models and John Singer Sargent painting marine artist Charles Napier Hemy, as part of Heritage Lottery Funded projects. 

Falmouth’s automata collection is in constant demand from visitors and school groups and has been loaned for national exhibitions.  The gallery regularly delivers automata workshops to local schools, students and community groups.  In addition to the gallery’s collection there are also a number of automata related landmarks in the town.  This includes three large scale public automata in Kimberley Park and the ‘Peter Markey Mural’, which was restored in 2018 using funding from the The National Lottery Heritage Fund.

The Peter Markey Mural restoration before and after

In 1998 Cath Wallace, supported by Sir Nicholas Goodison, curated at Falmouth Art Gallery a pioneering exhibition of automata featuring work by Markey, Spooner, Robert Jones, Will Jackson, Alice King, Vicki Wood, Anthony Crosby, Patrick Bond, Neil Hardy, Tony Mann, Matt Smith, Simon Ellwood and Fuller.  These artists share a delight in the absurd and the ridiculous.  Since then the gallery has shown automata in a wide variety of exhibitions, most recently ‘A Cabaret of Mechanical Movement’ which was a celebration of  Peter, Ron and Sue and their contribution to automata making as well as the important role Falmouth plays in the history and development of automata making in the UK

Paul Spooner and Sue Jackson outside Cabaret

Cabaret Mechanical (is our middle name) Theatre
by Paul Spooner

Cabaret began as a shop in Falmouth, Cornwall, presided over by the restless spirit of Sue Jackson who, wishing to move on from a successful restaurant business, thought she’d give retail a whirl for a few years.  This was in the late seventies when people from the sixties had tired of the endless partying and settled down to become goatherds and self-employed artisans.  The shop was full of their products; pottery, knitted goods, woodwork, quilts, toys.  It was cheerful, quirky, and because Sue knew Ron Fuller and Peter Markey, some of it moved when you turned a handle.  Pretty soon the mechanical things predominated over the stuff that just sat there doing nothing and other mechanically minded artisans saw a chance to sell their products.  Paul Spooner was in this second wave and the place began to get a reputation for somewhere to go if you if you wanted to buy ‘automata’ – that’s what these things had rather presumptuously started to call themselves.  Many people didn’t want to buy; they just wanted to look, so Sue roped off a section of the place as if it were a tiny museum and made people pay to look.  Money was also extracted from them by home-made slot machines, of which Tim Hunkin is a past and current master.

Sue didn’t like the way Falmouth, a seaside town, tended to shut down in the winter and in 1984 moved her enterprise to the then-fashionable Covent Garden in London.  Lots of people visited, then other makers: Keith Newstead, Carlos Zapata, Andy Hazell, Lucy Casson etc. added their pieces to the show.  Outreach projects: the automata competitions for schools, publications, kits and collaborative efforts such as the Ride of Life (an ambitious spoof theme park for a shopping mall near Sheffield) were instituted.  Among the many visitors to the renamed Cabaret Mechanical Theatre, Design and Technology teachers were particularly keen, and incorporated automaton design onto their courses.  Many people who have passed through the British educational system will have constructed some jolly mechanism of their own; a surprising number of them electing to make cows jump over moons.

The Covent Garden premises closed in 2000 but its spores have spread.  Several versions of the collection are to be seen in exhibitions around the world.  There is a website and online shop selling educational materials and examples of automata to suit every pocket (except the almost empty).

Strictly speaking, Cabaret is a business.  Now run by Sue’s daughter Sarah Alexander, it sells goods and services to a rather specialised clientele.  It is also a collection of people who enjoy each other’s company, those who make, sell and buy automata as well as those who just look.