This magical home in Scarborough contains an enormous collection of automata thanks to a couple of enthusiasts who want to highlight the joy of it
The black silhouette of a witch and her broomstick by the front door hints that there might be something out of the ordinary inside Maurice Feely and Octavia Gausden’s Victorian terrace house in Scarborough. Could they be Goths? Maybe they embrace the dark arts? Both are reasonable assumptions but they are wrong.
What newcomers never guess is that the couple are automata enthusiasts and that those who step over the threshold are greeted by a medley of mechanical, moving and sometimes musical works of art that make you go “wow”.
It’s a wonderful welcome that never fails to surprise and elicit a smile and often a full-blown belly laugh. The collection of over 70 automata fills the shelves, the walls and the table tops and no visitor can resist asking: “Can you make it work?”
The entrance hall is a hotspot and features one of their favourites – The Witch, a cackling hag who stirs a steaming cauldron watched by her familiars. Among their tiniest automata is a two- centimetre tall skeleton playing the bongos on his friend’s ribcage.
“I love that they make the house interesting and enthralling and that they’re not just for children but for grown-ups too,” says Maurice.
He and Octavia have been collecting automata for seven years and, most recently, they have collaborated with renowned maker Yuri Sharov to design their own. They also help market automata kits for children and adults. “They are fun but they also teach children about mechanics,” says Maurice.
Their obsession started when Octavia spotted The Cheese Thief on Facebook. The automaton features mice trying to recover a piece of cheese stolen by a cat. It reminded her of childhood visits to the Merrion Centre in Leeds where she loved to watch an automaton by renowned maker Rowland Emett – an artist, Punch cartoonist and maker responsible for many of the contraptions in the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
His Featherstone Kite Gentleman’s Flying Machine in a glass case with a clock on the top was there to enthrall shoppers thanks to businessman Arnold Ziff, who built the centre and was a fan of Emmet and his whimsical machines.
“I really wanted The Cheese Thief so I tracked down the maker, Keith Newstead, who lives in Falmouth, which is where five of the greatest UK automata makers live,” says Octavia. Keith initially refused her request as he doesn’t like to make anything twice but, with some cajoling, he was won over and the couple’s collection began.
The art form is said to have begun in Ancient Greece and China and became popular with the British gentry in the 18th century. “It’s largely an underground art movement and a lot of people aren’t even aware that it exists,” says Maurice, who adds that it has also evolved. “Purists say automata have to be hand-wound but we have pieces that are powered by clockwork and electric motors and some that are musical.”
He estimates that the average small piece costs about £700 while large ones run to £5,000. “The joy is that they make you smile and they tell a story but very quickly because the movement is cyclical and repetitive. The art sits on top while underneath there are cogs, cams and gears working away,” adds Maurice.
Choosing a favourite is almost impossible as the collection is so diverse but Maurice and Octavia have a soft spot for Boneshakers by Matt Smith, which features three skeletons riding a bike while being chased by a dog.
Pegasus, the mythical winged horse made from found materials by Keith Newstead, lives in the sitting room and is always a big hit. So too is their most valuable automaton, The Shipwreck by Argentinian Pablo Lavezzari, which is worth £4,500.
“It’s the most beautiful work I have ever seen,” says Maurice. “You look through a tiny window in an old sea chest and you see the inside of a ship. As it moves, you hear the sound of the sea made by hundreds of hidden ball bearings. The creaking of the ship is made by bits of wood.”
Also much loved is Dusty Old Classic by Keith Newstead, which Octavia commissioned for Maurice’s birthday. It shows her husband in his favourite chair, swaying his head to the rhythm of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven while powering a wine-dispensing contraption with his legs.
The result of their union with Belarus-based maker Yuri Sharov is also close to their heart. Whitby’s association with Dracula provided the inspiration for Nosferatu, the vampire who goes for the jugular of a sleeping maid to the tune of spooky music and sinister laughter.
“Octavia found the cabinet, Yuri made Nosferatu and created the movement and I dressed the setting and did the lighting and sound,” says Maurice, 63, who works as a consultant after a career in the lift industry.
While their own collection brings an enormous amount of pleasure, it was a pain when it came to moving house.
Downsizing to the coast from a larger property in Boston Spa recently would have been straightforward were it not for transporting the delicate works of art.
“They don’t travel well so moving house proved traumatic. We spent a fortune on wrapping materials and as we couldn’t allow the removal people to transport them, we put them in a lock-up and moved them into the house bit by bit,” says Maurice.
The decision to move to Scarborough has proved a great success. Property prices are relatively low and the spa town is up-and-coming thanks to investment in amenities. There is also a growing artistic community.
“It’s beautiful and friendly and we are a 10-minute stroll from the North Bay. Most days we spend a couple of hours walking by the sea and we rarely use the car because everything you need is on the doorstep,” says Maurice.
The three-bedroom house took some finding as they wanted original character and many of the Victorian terrace homes have been stripped of their period features. Their property has retained many, including a magnificent tiled mural of Scarborough in the lobby.
The only drawback is that, even though they sold 30 automata before they moved, finding space for the 70 remaining is still a struggle. Unable to collect many more, they are putting their passion into design and education. “We are really enjoying our collaboration with Yuri and we are on a mission to get more people interested in automata,” says Maurice.
Automata kits by Keith Newstead can be bought on Etsy via www.automatakits.co.uk