Cabaret’s automata delight returns to London
The automota show Cabaret Mechanical Theatre, for 15 years a feature of Covent Garden, has a new show in London with the artist Paul Spooner – thanks to the inspiration it gave a teenage visitor
Ben Davidson is repaying a debt. On childhood visits with his parents to London from the family home in Cheltenham, Cabaret Mechanical Theatre in Covent Garden was a repeat destination for him.
Main image shows 'We Want a Windo and We Want it Here'. . Pictures courtesy of Gary Alexander
Paul Spooner explaining one if his creations
“It was partly responsible for me wanting to be an architect, as simple as that” he says now. “The jokes made it such a friendly place, but the precision of the mechanics was fascinating. The combination of sculpture, engineering and sheer fun, so when the practice came to London I thought of Cabaret and got in touch, just for old time’s sake.”
It led to more than a reaquaintance, however. Ben is now head of an award-winning architectural practice, Rodic Davidson, which was founded in Cambridge but has now opened offices near the British Museum in Bloomsbury, and its six large street windows on Bury Place are now host to an exhibition by one of Cabaret’s founder artists, Paul Spooner, with six specially commissioned pieces, the result of that friendly email.
It had gone to Sarah Alexander who now tours Cabaret automata with travelling exhibitions across the globe. “It’s wonderful to be back, and so near to where we once were” she says. That initial contact led to a meeting, a discussion about possible collaboration, and the idea of a Spooner exhibition.
Left to right, Sarah Alexander, Paul Spooner and Ben Davidson
Cabaret was started 40 years ago in Falmouth, Cornwall, where the artist Sue Jackson had a miscellanies shop. A fellow Falmouth Art School graduate, Peter Markey, sold carved figures there, Spooner joined him and gradually other artists followed; Sue persuaded them to add movement with hand-turned mechanics, and then coin-operated motors. Traffic jams were caused when she had a slot made for the outside of the shop to operate the window display.
The artists couldn't make them fast enough for the market, and when a frustrated American tourist, finding everything she wanted was already sold, exclaimed "This is a museum, not a shop", and Sue decided to formalise the idea.
Pieces were commissioned with originals on display but copies for sale. A community of artists developed, relying on Cabaret. The Crafts Council put on a hugely successful exhibition in London, and Sue, by now with her daughter Sarah in partnership, decided on the move to Covent Garden.
It opened there in 1985, and by now included pieces by the cartoonist and TV film-maker Tim Hunkin – creator of the Channel 4 series The Secret Life of Machines who now has his own display, Novelty Automation, nearby in Holborn - and a decade-and-a-half of popular success followed. But rent and rates rose beyond the level they could charge customers, and insolvency beckoned. Sarah began the touring operation in 1993, and Sue died in 2016 (https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/apr/25/sue-jackson-obituary).
Ben and Sarah approached Paul Spooner in January, and he immediately set to work with his extraordinary combination of skills as sculptor, engineer and humourist. “They came to see me in Falmouth, and as these things usually happen we met in the pub. It was a great idea, to make window displays for an architects’ practice, and we immediately hit it off”. The exhibition, A Day at the Architects, is the result.
After art school, Spooner says, he never became a “proper artist” but after working as a schoolteacher and occasional lorry driver, took up the almost extinct profession of automatist. He and his wife, Sue, moved to Stithians near Falmouth where he was reunited with the late Peter Markey and he began making pieces for Sue’s shop. Spooner installed his coin-operatedThe Last Supper and used the proceeds to buy a lathe, and he hasn’t stopped making his devices since.
“Once I’ve had the idea it takes a couple of weeks to make the pieces, and the best thing is to stand on the opposite side of the street and watch the responses of passers-by. They always move on smiling.”
The exhibition, which runs in Bury Place until September 30, will later develop into a second display next door in the London Review Bookshop. “It’s wonderful to be able to have Cabaret back, ten minutes from where they used to be” says Ben Davidson. “It adds new life to the street, and is inspiring for us.”