With all the recent articles on the moon landing anniversary and the related exhibits at the National Air and Space Museum, I was reminded that when the museum first opened there was a whimsical 3-D piece of artwork hanging from the ceiling. This artwork was of a jaunty pilot sitting in the cockpit of a colorful plane made up of mechanical plastic disks on wires that twirled around and around. Can you tell this baby boomer that she is not losing her mind?
— Barbara Simmons, Laurel
Answer Man is not a trained mental health professional and therefore is not qualified to make a diagnosis. He will say this: There’s nothing wrong with your memory, madam. For years, the National Air and Space Museum displayed the whimsical work of quirky English artist Rowland Emett.
Longtime visitors to the aerospace museum on the Mall may remember two of Emett’s creations. When Air and Space opened in 1976, a manic, moving sculpture called “The Exploratory Moon-Probe Lunacycle M.A.U.D.” greeted tourists. (M.A.U.D. stood for “Manually Assisted Universal Deviator.”) In 1980, the museum displayed another Emett sculpture: “S.S. Pussiewillow II.”
Both are fanciful flying machines that look a little like Rube Goldberg devices as designed by a slightly mad Edwardian. They are kinetic sculptures bristling with found objects that spin, rotate, flap, trundle and roll.
As The Washington Post’s Hank Burchard once wrote of Emett: “His creations are gloriously complex, deceptively delicate, utterly engaging and absolutely useless.”
Emett was born in 1906. After graduating from art school in Birmingham, England, he worked in advertising. In the 1930s, his humorous cartoons began appearing in Punch, the weekly satirical magazine.
Emett’s art career was interrupted by World War II, which he spent helping to design actual flying machines: Royal Air Force warplanes, including the Lancaster bomber.
In 1950, Emett was approached by the organizers of the Festival of Britain, a celebratory event designed to lift the spirits of Britons still numb from the war. Emett had always been fascinated by railroads, and he designed something called the Far Tottering and Oystercreek Railway.
The engine and cars of the railroad had the distinctive curlicues and filigree of Emett’s illustrations. What had once existed only on paper carried tourists around the festival’s grounds in London’s Battersea Park.
This was the start of what Emett called his “machines.” He gained international fame for designing the contraptions featured in the 1968 film “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” Soon, companies began hiring him to create fanciful machines to use in their marketing.
As for the sculptures at Air and Space, “The Exploratory Moon-Probe Lunacycle M.A.U.D.” was on loan and eventually went back to Britain. The museum commissioned “S.S. Pussiewillow II” — imagine a wispy dirigible — but removed it from display in 1990 after a motor caught fire, burning a “flying carpet” that was part of the work.
Despite that, “Emett’s machines are remarkably reliable,” said Tim Griffiths, founder of the Rowland Emett Society, a group of enthusiasts. “The motor that failed on the Pussiewillow wasn’t the original and was possibly installed because of the difference in voltages between the U.K. and U.S.”
In 2014, the society put together a large exhibition of Emett’s artwork and machines at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.
In 1984, Emett completed his final work: “A Quiet Afternoon in the Cloud Cuckoo Valley.” Its eight separate animatronic tableaux include a railroad engine, the conductor warming muffins on the firebox; a farmer strumming a harp for his cows; and a beach where a man in Victorian bathing costume dives into the sea.
“Cloud Cuckoo Valley” was intended for an English shopping mall but was never installed. It wasn’t exhibited until 1992, two years after Emett’s death. After being erected in Spitalfields Market in London, “Cloud Cuckoo Valley” was placed in storage. It was stolen in 1999 by thieves who sold it to a scrap metal dealer for 100 pounds. He alerted authorities.
If you’d like your own Rowland Emett, “A Quiet Afternoon in the Cloud Cuckoo Valley” — fully restored and in running order — will be auctioned on Sept. 3 by Bonham’s auction house. Expect to pay more than 100 pounds.
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For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.