I’m discovering that during the late 1940s and through the 50s and 60s, there was a group of British cartoonists who paralleled the style of Ronald Searle. I’ve already profiled Trog and the Canadian cartoonist Len Norris. Today, I’m going to introduce you to another interesting artist… one who had the mechanical skills to build his own cartoon world.
Rowland Emett was born in London in 1906. His father was an amateur inventor and his grandfather was a prominent engraver. He showed aptitude in both engineering and art at a young age. He studied at the Birmingham School of Arts and Crafts, and was drafted into the military during World War II. Beginning in 1939, he joined the staff of Punch magazine, where he was free to create cartoons on whatever subject he wanted… Usually, that subject was trains.
The cartoons at the bottom of this post come from Punch in 1947. At this time, Punch was at the peak of its circulation- 175,000 copies a week. After the war, there was a determined effort to brush away the cobwebs from the preceding century and update the graphic look of the magazine. More modern cartoonists began to replace the old guard, and subject matter became more centered around the everyday life of the average Brit, rather than the political struggles of the upper classes. Rowland Emett’s mechanical whimsey fit perfectly within this new framework.
But Emett wasn’t content to limit himself to pen and ink. His urge to tinker took over in 1951 when he created the Far Tottering and Oyster Creek Branch Railway at Battersea Park for the Festival of Britain. Intended to lift the spirits of the British public, the Festival of Britain received mixed reviews. Sir Thomas Beecham described it as “a monumental piece of imbecility”. But at least it was entertaining imbecility thanks to Rowland Emett.
Built of mahogany and copper over the top of a 15 inch gauge diesel electric engine that Emett obtained from a war surplus supplier, the cartoony railway was a huge hit with the public and repaid the cost of designing and building it in just three weeks.
The main locomotive was named “Nellie” after the engine in his Punch cartoons. In the five months the festival operated, around 8 1/2 million people visited the park. A lot of the design ideas for kinetic sculptures at the Festival of Britain influenced Disneyland’s “imagineers”, in particular, with the design of the “Small World” attraction and the Casey Jones ride in Fantasyland.
Thanks to our reader, Matt Jones here are a few links to videos of newsreels about Emett and his creations… These videos are mind-blowing!
- British National Archives: Festival of Britain
- Pathe Archive: Rowland Emett’s Ideal Home
- Pathe Archive: Rowland Emett At Home
- Pathe Archive: Rowland Emett’s Mechanical Farmer
Emett went on to design “The Featherstone-Kite Openwork Basketweave Mark Two Gentleman’s Flying Machine”, two copies of which still exist. He designed a “Forget-Me-Not Computer” for Honeywell and acted as a production designer for the 1968 film, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. His last great kinetic work was the “Aqua Horological Tintinnabulator”, a water powered musical clock which still operates at the Victoria Center in Nottingham. Rowland Emett was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1978 and passed away in 1990 at the age of 84.
During December of 2012, the Ontario Science Centre hosted an exhibit of Emett’s machines. Here is an amazing video of them in action.
Enjoy these fantastic cartoons by one of Britain’s most interesting creators…
This posting is part of the online Encyclopedia of Cartooning under the subject heading, Magazine Cartoons.