Meet the Brontë sisters as you have never seen them before, in the form of fascinating, if slightly eerie, small wooden automata models to wind and watch as they read their novels to their aching hearts’ content.
“I have always thought I should make them because they are only over the hill,” says automata maker Lisa Slater, whose workshop, at Northlight Art Studios in Hebden Bridge, is only eight miles away from the Brontes’ Haworth home by foot.
“I started with the idea of making little wooden folk art dolls – penny dolls or farthing dolls – so I bought myself a small wood turning lathe,” she says. “When you look at that picture that Branwell painted of his sisters, they look like kind of wooden people.”
Influenced by historical craft and folk art, a love of animals and humour, Lisa creates simple mechanical automata pieces, many of them bespoke commissions, each unique, and working in harmony with the woods they are crafted from.
The Brontë automatons are wooden doll-like characters that turn and perform simple movements – turning her head and lifting a copy of Wuthering Heights, in Emily’s case. She encases them in old wooden sewing machine drawers, which used to be plentiful when there was a trend for putting hardwood table tops on old iron sewing machines, but are harder to come by now. “They are beautiful and they have their own character,” says Lisa.
She is making them for private clients and to sell at Hawksbys Gallery at Haworth (the sisters sell individually at £345 each, although Anne is less popular), but she also has plans to place all three sisters within an old round station clock case she has found. The look of the sisters is based on Branwell Bronte’s famous portrait. “He went crackers and painted himself out,” she says. “I intend to put them in there reading their books and I’m going to have Branwell on a disc so he rotates in and rotates out behind them.”
The concept of automata is a curious one in a modern world, but there are, surprisingly, quite a few automata makers working today and gathering their work together for automata exhibitions. “There is always one happening somewhere in the country,” Lisa says.
“It’s a lovely walk down into town to get to my workshop and then a walk up home as well, with the day’s productive pieces to start my stove with,” she says, lifting up a bag of wood cuttings to show me. She buys her woods, especially oak and walnut, from British Hardwoods at Cross Mills, near Skipton (they do woodworking courses as well).
Automata became popular In 18th century France, Lisa explains, but in the 1980s, there was a resurgence by modern bespoke craftspeople. “Sue Jackson had Cabaret Mechanical Theatre, an automata museum based in Covent Garden, where you could see lots of mechanical things,” she says. It is now run by Sue’s daughter, Sarah Alexander, based in Bexhill, and hosts online international touring exhibitions.
Born in Barnsley, Lisa’s father was a music lecturer and her mother a primary school teacher. The family moved to Chester when she was three (she has a sister). At school Lisa’s design teacher took the students to see the graduate shows at Manchester Metropolitan University, so she decided that was where she wanted to study, taking a degree in metal, ceramics and glass. For her final show, she specialised in automata, making moving rustic donkeys.
Deciding she ought to be sensible, she took a teacher training course at Sheffield and found a post at Skipton Girls High School, where she became head of the design technology department and stayed for 19 years. She left in 2009 aged 40 and has since worked with The Industrial Trust and taught part-time. For the past 10 years she has mainly concentrated on making her automata and exhibiting them. At Christmas last year, she decided to become a full-time automata maker.
“I really enjoy doing very personalised pieces of work for people,” she says. She recently made a stable and horses automata for a client who lives in the New Forest. “She sent me the films of their different mannerisms. There is one who likes to gobble hay and one who pulls his tongue in and out,” Lisa says. “She even gave me the dimensions of a space she had in her kitchen, because she wanted it to be on a certain wall. It took about two months.
“Quite often people will send me their horse’s mane and tail, so to get a bespoke commission of your horse, which actually includes some of its own material, is a nice thing to do.”
As with most of her other figures, the horses are hand-carved from a soft hardwood called jelutong and then hand painted. “I often use leather for the ears and taxidermy eyes, like little glass beads,” she says.
Another recent piece is called Mark and Pep, commissioned by Mark’s partner for his 50th birthday – and yes, Pep really is that big. Something like this might take four weeks to make and cost about £450.
And there is a range of small, simpler pieces for sale on Lisa’s Etsy shop, including blue tits on top of old fashioned milk bottles turned from sycamore (They cost £98) and rabbits popping out of a vintage plant pot (£95).
In 2015, Lisa was asked by Hebden Bridge Town Council to make three automata dressed in local costumes to celebrate the town’s twinning with St Pol and Warstien, each identical and presented to the respective mayors when they visited.
One of Lisa’s all-time favourite pieces is a figure of the opera singer Dame Sarah Connolly, dressed as Lord Nelson, singing Rule Britannia at the Proms. A clip of it singing to the Proms soundtrack was a Twitter sensation in 2013.
At the end of September Lisa will be taking part in a Cabaret Mechanical Theatre series of online workshops and giving a seminar to explain how cams and followers work to make the automata move. A cam is usually an off-centred pear-shaped piece of flat wood rotated by the winding handle, and the follower piece sits on top.
As well as her Etsy shop, Lisa holds open studios in Hebden Bridge, and features at exhibitions, and at group shows at Hardings House Gallery in Lincoln, the Ruthin Centre in Wales. Her work has also been exhibited at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and at Leeds Craft Centre and Design Gallery.
But she has found that social media is a great accessible modern showroom for her traditional hand-crafted automata figures. “I can complete making something, pop it on instagram and I’ve sold it before I have walked home,” she says.
See more of Lisa Slater’s work at
lisaslater.org.uk, at https://www.etsy.com/uk/shop/LisaSlaterAutomata and at www.craftscouncil.org.uk/directory/lisa-slater-automata/