A season of events on Hastings Pier kicks off with an extraordinary interactive exhibition of automata, including mechanical toys and other inventions.

Hastings Pier, 14 Mar 2018-15 Apr 2018
REVIEW BY Colin Gibson

Hastings Pier and community arts company Culture Shift have collaborated to display the internationally famous Cabaret Mechanical Theatre free of charge until Sunday April 15th. Local organisations involved in the project include, Active Arts, Autism Sussex, Boathouse Theatre, Open Door (Hastings and Bexhill MENCAP), Parchment Trust, The Seaview Project and Southdown’s Wellbeing Centre, Bexhill). Amongst the special events accompanying the automata will be a talk (Thursday 12 April) on the changing fortunes of amusement arcades by a man whose work has done so much to enhance Southwold’s popular pier, eccentric designer and arcade owner Tim Hunkin.

The original Cabaret collection was started in 1979 from a craft shop in Cornwall before proprietor and artist Sue Jackson moved it to Covent Garden in 1984, where it rapidly acquired a cult following amongst automata enthusiasts. Her daughter Sarah Alexander, the theatre’s director, decided to take the collection on tour and is curating the Hastings pier exhibition. Some of the work on display includes pieces by renowned artists in the field.
Paul Spooner’s Spaghetti-Eating Man in A Bath, Matt Smith’s Swimming Fish and Peter Markey’s Wave Machine are exhibited alongside pieces from Keith Newstead, Ron Fuller, Carlos Zapata and The Creativist Network, a consortium of local community organisations.

“….these machines have no earthly function. They have a wry, mordant distinctly English humour to them, reminiscent of Lewis Carroll and Monty Python – but with the feeling of the penny arcade”
– San Francisco Chronicle

A range of other events will take place including Family Workshops, in which local artists and
teachers will show children how to make their own automata, and Automata Community Day (Saturday 24 March 1.30-4.30pm), run by Culture Shift and The Creativist Network, where, accompanied by music, performance and refreshment, all the work made as part of the project will be exhibited.

For more information visit Hastings Pier, CabaretCulture Shift, Craftivists

The Rise of the Automaton

The fascinating art of automata creation has been around far longer than most people imagine. Figurines with moveable limbs, sometimes lever-operated, were found in Egyptian tombs around 2,000BC. Early examples of automata included jackal masks with articulated bottom jaws and terracotta doves with detachable wings.    

More elaborate machines evolved, often encouraged by royal patrons such as the Byzantine Emperor Theophilus (c. 835), whose throne was flanked by mechanical roaring lions and birds that sang in trees of gold. 

By the 1830s in the narrow alleys of the Marais district of Paris, artisans were developing ingenious batch production methods in order to bring automatons of singing birds, circus performers and music hall celebrities into the home. By the time Robert Houdin premiered his mix of magic and automata, Soiree Fantastiques in 1844, there was huge public interest in the form.  

Automata featured regularly in Trade Exhibitions during the second half of the 19th century and exports boomed. During the 1889 Paris Exhibition, one American diplomat noted that
fine French automata were now to be found in all the large department stores in America. However, the dominance of French automata across the world was in decline by 1920, a decline accelerated by the advent of the electric motor. The popularity of automata in general gradually subsided as the 20th century unfolded, being mainly confined to seaside-style ‘end of the pier’ machines which, nevertheless, continue to fascinate us as they have for centuries.


We hope you have enjoyed reading this article from Hastings Independent. The future of this volunteer led, non-profit publication would be far more secure with the aid of a small donation. It only takes a minute and we would be very grateful.