Whilst writing a feature about Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Collectibles we learned about the amazing work of Frederick ‘Rowland Emett’ who was responsible for creating the wonderful inventions of Caractacus Potts for the actual film. Known as Rowland Emett, Frederick Rowland Emett was a celebrated cartoonist and inventor who really came to prominence when asked to bring some of his incredible cartoon inventions or things as he called them into a real-life version. He was asked to create the the Oyster Creek Railway at Battersea Park for the 1951 Festival of Britain. The railway went onto be one of the main attractions of the festival and led to numerous commissions including from Albert Broccoli who hired Emett to create 8 contraptions for the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Rowland Emett was born in 1906 New Southgate, London, the son of a businessman and amateur inventor, and the grandson of Queen Victoria’s engraver. He found an early talent for caricatures of his teachers and for drawing vehicles and machinery whilst at Waverley Grammar School in Birmingham. He went onto to study at the Birmingham School of Arts and Crafts. He started to publish work in Punch Magazine in 1939 and also during World War II he worked as a draughtsman for the Air Ministry including working on the Lancaster Bomber. He continued to create cartoons for Punch well into the 1950s and less son in the 1960s. His work elsewhere was often attributed as Emett of Punch. His cartoons were seldom political, except when he caricatured bureaucratic absurdities, and his early subjects typically found humour in the difficulties of life in Great Britain during the second World War. His drawings soon started to include railway scenes and he gradually developed a unique concept of strange, bumbling trains with excessively tall chimneys and silly names.
Rowland Emett and Punch Magazine
Rowland Emett started to work for Punch Magazine in 1939. His work was often humorous and eccentric featuring fanciful contraptions operated by daydreaming characters such as Professor Critchlore, and the fantabulous Funnibuses and Cataracts of Wishing. His contributions consisted mainly of cartoons, satirising cars, trains and all things mechanised. His particular style was a type of slapstick parody with fantastic elements and surreal visuals. Some of his most popular pieces were about inventions such as the ‘Vegalateen’ food-growing machine, the rotisserie-like ‘Mitten Roasting Machine’ designed to roast marshmallows over a campfire faster than humanly possible, and the peculiar ‘Gatwick Express’. Punch Magazine online has a gallery of some Rowland Emett cartoons and covers.
He was also known for producing fantastic models in exhibitions which included a model car powered by frozen gobstoppers, an umbrella-powered airship, and a confectionery railway that ran on sherbet lemons. Emett’s unmistakable and hilarious art style, coupled with his clever use of anachronistic technology, made him a hit with audiences who eagerly awaited his cartoon inventions.
When asked how he came up with his strange designs, Emett remarked, “It is a well known fact that all inventors get their first ideas on the back of an envelope. I take slight exception to this, I use the front so that I can incorporate the stamp and then the design is already half done.”
Rowland Emett and The Festival of Britain
As part of the Festival of Britain in 1951, Rowland Emett constructed the Far Tottering and Oyster Creek Railway which ran through Battersea Park Pleasure Gardens. The Battersea Park railway was a great success during the Festival taking a thousand passengers an hour and over 2 million people around the park in total earning its cost back in just three weeks. The railway had three locomotives: Neptune, Wild Goose and Nellie.
A great video with actual footage of the Far Tottering and Oyster Creek Railway at The Festival.
Rowland Emett and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
Albert (Cubby) Broccoli hired Emett to make eight contraptions for the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang film. 5 of the 8 inventions remain in collections today and include The Humbug Major and The Little Dragon Carpet Cleaner.
Outside of Punch, The Festival of Britain and Chitty, Emett created a number of models, automatons, kinetic models and clocks for companies and buildings. Notables examples include: The Featherstone-Kite Openwork Basketweave Mark Two Gentleman’s Flying Machine at the Merrion Centre, Leeds; The Aqua Horological Tintinnabulator his water-powered musical clock at the Victoria Centre, Nottingham; and The Cats Cradle Pussiewillow III clock in Basildon.
A Quiet Afternoon In The Cloud Cuckoo Valley
This piece is the last and largest of this celebrated artist’s output, and encapsulates many of the themes that appeared in his work over the decades. It depicts the tale of a pleasure trip on the Far Tottering and Oyster Creek Railway that tell a single, coherent story. The fully restored and working kinetic sculpture is in fact made up of eight larger-than life automata which complete the canvas of ‘A Quiet Afternoon in the Cloud Cuckoo Valley’.
Originally commissioned as a landmark clock, ‘A Quiet Afternoon in the Cloud Cuckoo Valley’ was destined to adorn a new shopping area in Basildon, England. But by the time the artwork was completed in 1984, those plans had changed. Instead, it was exhibited at several sites in the UK, before being stolen and then later saved from a scrapyard and returned to its original owner. Bonhams subsequently sold ‘A Quiet Afternoon in the Cloud Cuckoo Valley’ for a six-figure sum to the National Railway Museum in 2019
The model depicts the tale of a pleasure trip on the ‘Far Tottering and Oyster Creek Railway’; the centre of the creation featuring a train called ‘Wild Goose’, driven by an ingenious driver who toasts tea-cakes on the fire-box as the train trundles along a raised railway line. At ‘Cowparsley Meadow’ a farmer plays his harp soothingly to his herd of cows, who nod their heads in appreciation. There is a large water wheel that turns timelessly at ‘Far Tottering’, its brass cups beaten and misshapen from years of use. In a secluded dell at ‘Wisteria Halt’, there is a beautiful flowering tree on top of which sits a clock – originally intended as the focal point of the whole piece. At ‘Shrimphaven Sands’, a fisherman can be seen out at sea, hauling in a net in which, rather surprisingly, he appears to have caught a mermaid. As ‘Wild Goose’ continues its journey past ‘Twittering Woods, an ornithologist is seen cycling along with his camera – he is disguised as a tree. On the beach at ‘Oyster Creek’, a bathing hut is occupied by an elderly gentleman dressed in full length Victorian swimwear, who dives dramatically into the water from time to time. The model is housed in a Perspex case; overall 29.5in long x 15in wide x 20in high (75cm x 38cm x 51cm); model 24in x 11in (61cm x 28cm)
The Charming Story of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the Collectibles and Memorabilia it Inspired
The Whimsical World of Rowland Emett at Art and Object
Rowland Emett and the Festival of Britain 1951
Rowland Emett Cartoons at Punch Magazine