Sally Kindberg’s visit to the House of Automata in 2019

Every thursday this month the House of Automata has taken us on fascinating virtual tours of their amazing world, but last year in 2019 the House of Automata was kind enough to let me visit their extraordinary headquarters in Scotland …

Through a metal gate and a little courtyard in Forres town centre is a workshop of disconcerting delights. A horse-headed human figure, frozen in mid-greeting, waits to welcome visitors. Boxes of exquisite body parts of bisque or papier mache are stacked on shelves. This is where nineteenth century (and later) automata wait patiently to be re-animated.  Here their delicate mechanisms are re-tuned, and their limbs gently replaced. Flywheels are adjusted, clockwork is re-wound with the appropriate key chosen from an assortment of hundreds.

Tiny songbirds are re-feathered, their miniature bellows repaired with ‘zephyr’skin so they can rise up out of their ornate boxes and trill nineteenth century birdsong once again. This is the workshop of the House of Automata aka Michael and Maria Start.  “We have our favourites,” says Maria, taking a four legged but headless creature out of a cardboard box, and winding it up. It creeps slowly across the table on papier mache paws. “Martin Scorsese wanted our leopard, he was making the film ‘Hugo’ at the time,” Michael explains, “but we didn’t want to part with it, so we lent it to him so the mechanism could be copied.”

Michael modestly doesn’t mention that he was official automata advisor on that film as well as others. The House of Automata‘s wide range of clients include fashion designer Lulu Guinness, who had an idea for a mechanical songbird handbag.  Maria tells me she enjoys the process of restoring the plumage of these tiny birds, meticulously replacing and matching each feather by dyeing it with Dylon.  “It’s very labour intensive, but soothing work,” she tells me.

While I’m there I’m introduced to music hall entertainer Little Tich, waiting for his replacement wig and new leather eyelids, a white rabbit about to pop up out of a silken cabbage, a Man in the Moon that once belonged to Roger Daltrey of The Who …and then there are cabinets bursting with ventriloquists’companions, and a flea circus …

I asked the Starts why they find automata so fascinating.  “They never grow old,”explained Michael, “If something wears out, we replace it.”

May 28th 2020, Instagram post from @thehouseofautomata: that is such a wonderful review, thank you so much.  You are always welcome at the House of Automata xxx

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