Sunday, April 27, 2008

Of Clockwork Trains and Faberge Eggs

Wonder is in the mind of the beholder, so it is always best to limit your visits to hobby sites. However, there is a great deal to be said for starting-points, and toy trains were my starting point when I began to think, today, about the craftsmanship of toys.

Clockwork train afficianados seem to like to make their own locomotives, and sometimes they get very creative with their mechanisms - and that is often quite interesting. Take, for example, Jeffery Young's decision to use an old Meccano* wind-up motor (from back when the cheap motors were wind-up and the expensive ones were electric) to power his locomotive, Windus:

The Meccano innards

The finished train car

Or Kevin Strong's wonderful Super-8 powered clockwork "thing":

For another thing, there is a long and historical gradient from the cheap wind-up toys of fun fairs and dime stores, stamped out of tin and painted or printed with colorful paints, through the kind of toys a genteel lad or lass might play with - porcelain dolls and actual steam-powered toy boats (like the one below from the estate of Ward Kimball, the Disney animator - which just sold for $71,500) and on upwards to toys of the rich and powerful.

I don't mean silly boring grown-up toys, like the ones Sharper Image used to sell, but real toys, made from precious materials such as gold and platinum, with encrustations of diamonds. The kinds of trinkets that Tsarinas or maharajas' sons might play with, in their off hours. Little things made by people like the Freres Rochat in Geneva in the early 1800s. Here are a few I found in several auction houses (here, here and here, for example) across the web:

Singing Canary Clock

Pearl encrusted gold and enamel pocketwatch with automata

Gold and enamel pistols with pearls and singing birds

The caption for this one reads, "Toward the end of the 17th century, it was a popular pastime to raise canary birds and teach them to sing. This fashion was the inspiration for the decorative objects using singing birds of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, of which this clock is an example. At first, the bird's song was provided by a serinette mechanism, as is the case here; later, the Jaquet-Droz were to invent the whistle with sliding piston, which allowed a much greater miniaturization and the imitation of true bird song. In this case, the bird sings popular tunes of the period."

The ultimate example of this kind of perfection, the miniaturization and delicate workmanship personified, is of course Faberge and his fabulous eggs. These masterpieces began as art pieces for the Tsar and his family, complete with function and whimsy, a celebration of the family's greatness; but by the early 1900's they included some of the finest and most delicate examples of hand-made automata to be found anywhere. One example is the famous Trans-Siberian Railway Egg which included a tiny, fully-functioning clockwork train made of gold and platinum, the ultimate expression of toy train delight. The train fits into the hen-sized egg in three pieces, and when assembled is no more than one foot (33 cm) long.

PBS has a really nice website describing the relationship Faberge and the Russian royal family, the pathos of a relationship based on doomed morals and private privilege. The Faberge eggs are the ultimate expression of this very intimate and curiously emotional response to a family's life:

"The jade Alexander Palace egg (1908) contains a perfect replica of their favorite royal residence in the country – only two and one half inches long. And sailing on the clear rock crystal sea of the Standart egg (1909), is a replica of their royal yacht – reproduced to the last detail – where many happy days were spent together. 'I think that was where Fabergé differed so much from all the other jewelers of the period,' adds author Lynette Proler. 'Where they were only interested in large gemstones, Carl Fabergé was interested in the ultimate effect that a piece would have, a lasting effect so that every time you looked at a particular object, you would have this great sense of sheer enjoyment and pleasure from it.'"

Like many people, I have a many-sided response to the eggs. They are so very beautiful, and the craftsmanship is lovely. And yet, what kind of people would commission these exquisite, insanely expensive trinkets when thousands of people in their country were near starvation? I look at the lifestyle of these people and I feel that push-pull so familiar to us all: I wonder what it would be like to live a life like that, full of rich beauties and luxurious houses in interesting places with your every wish taken care of; and yet I can't comprehend the kind of dream-world they must have been living in, fooling themselves about the divine rights of kings while the rest of the world marched on.

On one hand, there are the starving peasants who eventually rose up and murdered this family, with their beloved yacht and favorite houses and jeweled trinkets. They had enough reason to revolt, this is certain. On the other hand, I look at the extraordinary craftsmanship, the time put into it, the overwhelming quality of the materials, and I think how wonderful it is that there are times and places where free rein can be given to pursue an art form to its absolute utmost: to make things that are so exquisite, so intensely perfect, that people are still knocked over by them a hundred or more years later.

"At the stroke of the hour, a ruby-eyed rooster emerges crowing and flapping its wings from the top of the elaborately designed Cockerel egg (1900). Fabergé was known to have worked on the mechanism of the Peacock Clock in the Winter Palace, and his familiarity with that famous automaton no doubt inspired the creation of this egg.

'Fabergé, who had traveled a lot, had absorbed all the currents, the various artistic currents, in Paris, in Florence, in Dresden, in London,' says author Géza Von Habsburg. 'He could go back to this memory bank and select objects from it. For instance, the Bay Tree egg in the Forbes Magazine Collection is based on an 18th century mechanical orange tree, a French automaton, which was a fairly well-known object which Fabergé must have seen during his travels.

Other eggs that Fabergé made were based on objects he saw in the imperial treasury and used as prototypes for his first eggs.' The Bay Tree egg (1911) is laden with gemstone fruits set among carved jade leaves. Turning one of the fruits opens the top of the egg as the tiny bellows inside produce the sweet song of a feathered bird."

There is a weirdly fascinating article I read about a man raised in Soviet Russia who was so affected by a Faberge egg (curiously, the Trans-Siberian one, with the train) on a visit to the museum that he spent the rest of his life thinking about eggs - even down to learning to be a jeweler in a state school and working in a factory - before starting his own business as soon as it was allowed in the 1980s, making Faberge-type eggs which are now all the rage in Europe and America. The article's description of a six-year-old child, raised with the not-very-lovely sights and sounds of Soviet Russia, seeing these exquisitely-crafted, jewelled eggs for the first time, caught my imagination. He describes how he could not stop talking about them, and his parents, good soviets, were in a quandary as to how to discuss these objects which were essentially religious objects and to couch the discussion in terms which simply couldn't reconcile the obvious beauty, lavish care and spiritual elements inherent in the eggs with the simple, politically-driven language of communism.

And ultimately, that is what makes the eggs special, because rather than going for full-on bling, wowing us with big rocks and a sort of timeless and grandiose vision of "royalness", he went for emotion, an undeniable sensitivity of spirit. Under all the purity of quality, the miniaturization, the perfect, delicate craftsmanship, lay more than the desire to either simply glorify or make money off the royal family. And he took his time over it. Each piece or part was carefully carved, carefully set, carefully planned. It is no wonder that they have been so thoroughly loved.


More on Marklin toy boats, both clockwork and steam-powered.

Makers of toy trains through history, including very old German and Swiss companies.

Victoria and Albert Museum's Museum of Childhood has a section on mechanical toys.

A grade-school class who made their own "Faberge" eggs.

Faberge research site.

Another site with a collection of interesting Faberge eggs and info about each egg.

*aka Erector Set


Aquilifer said...

The "starving peasants" view of the Russian Revolutions has been somewhat overworked. It's reported that pre-Revolutionary Russia exported grain from a surplus the Communists lost. Anyhow, it's been said that the *middle class* makes the revolution!

Of course, ol' Stick-It-To-'Em Stalin was happy to starve peasants,at least in Ukraine...

Heather McDougal said...

This might be true, however, by 1857 there were 23 million private serfs out of a population of about 62 million, according to a wikipedia article on Russian serfdom. Of course, it's not that simple: "Serfdom was abolished in 1861, but its abolition was achieved on terms unfavorable to the peasants and served to increase revolutionary pressures. In 1864-1871 the serfdom was abolished in Georgia. In Kalmykia serfdom was only abolished in 1892."

I'm just not sure that the middle class was actually that big. The same article states that at the time (1857) the number of peasants of all classes was about 49 million. So if the pressures were as they say, then that percentage of the population was a pretty strong push.

And Faberge went on making his eggs until the October Revolution in 1917 - one egg, the Constellation Egg, remained incomplete. The story goes, Faberge was given only a few minutes to get his hat and coat and leave his workshop. So it seems to me that the Royal Family did simply go on being extraordinarily affluent in the face of an increasingly large and unhappy peasant population.

But then other sources mention a collection of stones and the unfinished Constellation Egg being given to the Fersman Mineralogical Museum at the Russian Academy of Science by Faberge's son, who was forced to work inventorying the Imperial treasures - so perhaps the hat and coat story is apocryphal. It's hard to tell.

Another interesting egg is the second-to-last one, the Karelian Birch egg, which was made much more plain than previous eggs because of discontent with the Monarchy. The Tsar abdicated before Easter, so the invoice was adressed to "Mr. Romanov Nikolei Aleksandrovich" rather than "Tsar of all the Russias". It was the last egg the Romanovs paid for. It was sent to the Grand Duke's palace but he fled before it arrived, and it stayed there until it was looted in October. The "surprise" inside was subsequently lost.