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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Sally Kindberg’s 101 Activities

Some years ago I worked on a book idea, 101 Activities, which was almost picked up by a small independent publisher in the US, but it went bust I think, and I forgot all about the drawings after getting involved in many other commissioned projects at that time.

Whilst looking for something else recently, I found the drawings again, and thought they were quite a propos  recent events and the experience of being in isolation.

Some of my original text:

When mundane activities are isolated, in both a formal and temporal sense, they may become mysterious.  The activity and/or the importance of the objects involved is exaggerated and meaning is questioned.

How many times does an action have to be repeated before it is seen as excessive? Does its function become obsolete? How many everyday activities are manifestations of an obsession? Are they necessary to reassure us that we have some control over our lives? How important is our own commitment to everyday rituals?



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Sally Kindberg – isolation, seaside longings and playing with handwriting

Dreaming of being able to go on day trips again to the coast and walk the salt marshes, or of long but pleasurable train journeys to the south west (where I was born).  Still in isolation after more than six weeks but Corona symptoms less frequent if still horribly unpredictable. Fingers crossed it will soon be gone. Meanwhile if the sun’s out I can sit in the front yard and listen to the drain’s whooshing water down to the Thames and out to sea. Enjoyed playing with handwriting and my new Winsor & Newton brush pen, making seaside longings on a bit of wrapping paper …

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Sally Kindberg, isolation and twitching

Still in isolation, and still have daily and unwelcome visits from Mr Corona, but this morning enjoyed a bit of bird spotting in the tiny fernery of my back yard, between bouts of fever and headaches.

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Sally Kindberg – still in isolation – Camden New Journal, and some info in the British Medical Journal

Yesterday a kind fellow allotmenteer left these, sparkling with raindrops, at the top of my steps.  What delight from the outside world. Another kind friend and neighbour took bulbs (a present from someone else) to my tiny allotment square and planted them for when I can be there again.  It’s over four weeks (maybe five – I’ve lost count) since I was out, and still plagued by the horrible bug with its dawn attacks of fever/headaches/nausea/tight chest etc.   But still breathing.  Always a bonus. Fingers crossed. Some of my virus diary appeared in the local newspaper Camden New Journal.

Photo taken pre-corona btw!

Interesting to see this today – Professor Paul Garner writes about his Corona Virus experiences in the British Medical Journal

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Sally Kindberg’s Corona Virus Diary

Not sure now how many days I’ve had this blooming virus, but yesterday spent at the Royal Free Hospital being checked out, as had chest pains etc. I have arrhythmia a not uncommon heart condition but it felt it was going into overdrive (fighting off bug?) yesterday and the day before. My helpful GP phoned for an ambulance.  The NHS staff at the Royal Free Hospital are stars, NHS 111 both online and phone was rubbish, hugely frustrating when you have a fever and feeling awful and not sure what the hell is happening to your body. I was in the designated corona area and drew some fairly wobbly pics which helped to take my mind off what I was feeling/seeing/hearing –  a stream of really sick people being brought in on trolleys and the sound of groaning, coughing, vomiting and machines beeping. Plague times. Long live the NHS! 

Beginning of week four I think, but the bug is still persistent even after a lull or two which makes it even more infuriating. And shame on companies who sent me TWO plan your funeral letters yesterday … grrr …

Week four possibly, and glorious weather and actually slept through the night, hooray. But … hardly dare say I’m getting better because this virus tends to sneak up again in the early hours of the morning. Sigh. Today investigated the camellia on the Kindberg Estate (actually my back yard), such a great feeling to be out and feeling stronger though still pretty wonky and looking a bit ghoulish … Dream of being able to roam again.


With many thanks to the kind paramedics who robed up in my front yard before coming in to visit me and check me out last week.

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Sally Kindberg’s books – some of my backlist

The first published book that I both wrote and illustrated – over the years I’ve illustrated hundreds more! Lutterworth, 1986.

Two of four books published in 1986 by Grafton, then part of Collins Children’s Books.Robotina Finds Out, about a cheeky and curious robot and her companion. Faber, 1990.

Published by Macmillan in 1991, I over-researched as usual but great fun, and research is never wasted – results might appear later in another guise!

Rat a Tat Tat was a book of traditional rhymes for young children, with additional ones written by me. Macmillan, 1992.

Hair, Walker Books, 2003, with its counter display pack.

One of seven Draw It! books, Bloomsbury up to 2013.

 The Hand Book (of hopes and dreams), Design For Today, 2019.

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Sally Kindberg’s workshop with Andrew Wille and Words Away

Great fun and intriguing results when Andrew Wille and Wordsaway asked me to join them at a Water Ways writing workshop – one of a series – and get writers drawing, in my invited role as a Wave Maker. Very exciting!

What better way to warm up than close your eyes and draw a self portrait in the dark?  Then I asked participants to choose a character from my trusty Hat of Surprise and make a four frame story – using my version of a yonkoma manga structure. There were fish involved btw.

Here’s amazing book doctor Andrew Wille, who devised the workshop day with Kellie Jackson Here he is with his special Simon Seahorse self portrait and a four frame comic strip. We all had appropriately watery noms-de-plume for the day (I was Seashell).

And here’s a bit of a four frame story I started on the workshop flip chart …Some comments …

A.W: Thank you for bringing drawing and your energy into class

E.A: Brilliant day … playing with drawing and finding new ways of seeing

K.J: I especially loved the exercise where we closed our eyes and sketched our own faces – hilarious and illuminating results!

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Sally Kindberg looks at painting palettes

I’m currently a RLF Writing Fellow at City & Guilds Art School, and when not seeing students or getting on with my own work, it’s good to have a brief walk through the studios. If there are no students about – they’re probably in a lecture or having a crit somewhere – they sometimes leave these mysterious clues behind, looking as if they’ve been suddenly discarded, and full of painterly possibilities.

My own mixing palette is made of white ceramic, generally washed clean of its watercolour ink stains, but pinned over my work desk is this palette shaped postcard, sent from Venice in the 1980s.

Just found a notebook page from 2015, at an exhibition visit to Turner Contemporary in Margate, which had Turner’s palette and paintbox on display.  Note the handy addition of morphia in his paint tray.


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Sally Kindberg’s work in progress (pencil roughs)

Pencil roughs for work in progress Unfinished Business, an unreliable memoir in comic strip form.  It’s moving slowly, but moving at least …

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