Figures of Fun and Folklore

It’s hard to believe that there hasn’t been a Museum of Folklore before in Britain.  I just imagined that there would be one somewhere tucked into a little side street off Kensington.  I remember vividly being taken to most of the main museums in this area when I was a child.  I used to gaze in awe and wonder at extraordinary things in the Natural History Museum, Science Museum, British Museum and so on and so forth.  Even in later years when I was employed in London as a teenager, I used to spend most of my lunch hours trailing round the more little known establishments and curiosities near where I worked.  I have a fascination for such places…

Now there are plans afoot for the first Museum of British Folklore and rather than write reams here on this blog, it’s probably better – and more concise to guide you towards this promotional video:

https://player.vimeo.com/video/86265188“>

Exciting stuff!  One of the ongoing projects that caught my attention in the early days of meeting Simon Costin, Director of the Museum of British Folklore, was the ambitious Morris Doll collection.  The aim is as follows:

The museum has launched a new initiative to represent the wide variety of Morris sides within the UK. Any teams wishing to take part will be sent a blank figure to decorate with their team kit. The idea being that over time, the collection will grow into an original and unique visual record created by the people who participate in the dance. For any teams wishing to receive a figure, please email us – mofbf@clara.co.uk

Morris Doll

Morris doll poster

Story posted on September 21, 2013 from the Museum of British Folklore’s website:

http://www.museumofbritishfolklore.com

I have belonged to a Morris side for about five years now, so had a special interest in creating a doll that would be part of a display in a museum.  The side I’m with is called Boekka (Cornish for Scarecrow) and I’m a founder member.  Myself and Laetitia along with her son Rhys first formed this group following the departure of our Obby Oss, who used to be a Penglaz, from the Golowan Festival.  We changed her appearance, her name and title – she then transformed into Penkevyll the Lands End Obby Oss appearing alongside Boekka.

Following many months of pestering the beleagured Simon (a notoriously busy man!) eventually a large package arrived at our cottage containing not one, but two dolls.  This lead us to believe that maybe they wanted us to create not just a doll representing our side’s Morris dancer, but also our famous (or should that be infamous?) Obby Oss as well!  Simon had seen our Oss, Penkevyll in 2012 at Charms Day in Boscastle when Boekka gave a performance to wind the day’s events up.

Boekka & Oss3
Boekka & Penkevyll Charms Day Boscastle 2012
Boekka & Penkevyll Charms Day Boscastle 2012
Boekka & Penkevyll Charms Day Boscastle 2012
Boekka & Penkevyll Charms Day Boscastle 2012
Boekka & Penkevyll Charms Day Boscastle 2012

So it was time to start making the dolls.  First job was to assign who was going to do what – always a tricky one!  We started on the Teazer doll first. Laetitia drew the short straw and was lumbered with all of the sewing.  She has small hands and produced neat work creating the T shirt, tailcoat tatters, trousers and boots.  (This is what comes from being really good at something, you become the victim of your own success – a lesson I have found out many times to my cost!)  Whereas, I have large hands for my size and am very clumsy with tiny, meticulous work.  I sourced materials, created and cut out templates and was a general ‘gofer’ (go for this, go for that etc).

We were trying to think of how to make a snapper for the doll.  This is what we were trying to replicate:

Teazer Snapper
Teazer Snapper

I asked a good friend of mine, Chris White for advice on how to make this as he is into model making; and before I knew it he had kindly offered to help us out by creating it himself – and what he created was superb!

Model Snapper

Chris is an amazing guy who we have meet only via the Internet/Facebook.  He used to be a Beast Rider with a Morris side and has a really fine sense of what is required of someone who dares ride these fabulous creatures.  Sadly he no longer is able to do this as he has a progressive medical condition that has rendered him seriously disabled.  However, he has an indomitable, cheerful spirit and a delightful sense of the absurd and ridiculous.  He often has Laetitia and me crying with laughter over something he’s written – he’s particularly good at finding the right caption for many photos, especially ones that include Obby Osses and the like.   One day we would love to meet him.  🙂

After several weeks of sporadic work on our Teazer doll in between work and gigs, we finally had our completed doll:

Boekka Doll 023

Then it was time to consider the Oss doll.  We had approached a local lady who makes, amongst many other things, marionettes and puppets.  We knew she would do a very good job but we weren’t too sure whether we could afford her services, even though we were offered ‘mates’ rates’.  As Chris had already alluded to the possibility before, I tentatively approached him and asked whether he was interested in attempting the unusual modelling project of making a mini sized Penkevyll head for our doll, although we insisted on paying him for materials.  Chris said he would be honoured and to offer him money for the privilege would be tantamount to offending him – so we quickly agreed!  😉

Between me and Laetitia we created another T shirt, trousers and boots, plus the Riders skirt for the doll and then waited for the necessarily long process of creating Little Penk’s model skull.  It was such a fascinating process, and so many folks have asked us, that I think it best if Chris himself takes over the story at this point:

The Construction of Little Penk
Chris White

I’ve been asked to write about how I did the construction of what all involved came to call ‘Little Penk’.

I’d just like to stress a couple of things. I’m disabled and this took months rather than days. Secondly I’ve never done anything like this before. Although my background is in art and design I have no skill in symmetrical sculpture and had to work out just how to do this from scratch. What I came up with was a combination of hybrid techniques that would give me a guide to work to as it progressed.

Living halfway up the country I didn’t have direct access to Penkevyll so I bought a digital model of a horse’s skull. I was lucky that one was available! I brought this into Cinema 4D, a program I’ve used in the past for digital modelling. It was used for the dragons in the Harry Potter films so it’s a really versatile program. I scaled the skull to size using photographs of Penk’s skull next to her ‘Rider’ so the small one would be the appropriate size next to the Teazer doll.
The important first stage was to build the basic skull from a series of cross sections taken from the digital model, printed out of the computer then cut from a material called ‘Plasticard’. I found out about this from a friend who does a lot of model railway modelling. I hadn’t a clue what materials I’d need so this was the first step of many like this. All the cross sections had to be kept in careful order obviously until I could put them together. I used three different kinds of adhesives until I found one that did what I wanted too!

So now we have a rather fragile basic construct that gives us and accurate 3D reference to work on to. That’s the hardest part over. Very scary and very slow, that bit.

Penk1
Next I used expanding insulation filling. This comes in an aerosol can and is a pig to use! It’s sticky and sloppy and risks distorting the flexible cross sections as it expands between them so I had to scrape some of this gloop out as it started to dry.

Penk2

It expands so much it pretty much buries the form. However, weight is a major problem with man-animals of any scale and insulation foam gives you form with minimum weight. The adhesive property of the stuff bonds the Plasticard sections together very nicely.

Disgusting isn’t it? So now I could cut and sand the foam away back down to the surface of the cross sections without distorting the base of the shape. Now I had an accurate, symmetrical 3D shape.

Penk3

Although I had a stable form it was still quite fragile so I had to coat it with something to give it strength. I opted for something like polyfiller. This was quite heavy at first but, being water based, it dried much lighter. I skinned this one and sanded it back as much as I could to retain the outline of the underlying form.

I’d been looking forward to this part. I love the delicate, architectural form of skulls, especially rodent and bird skulls.

The orbits of the eye sockets are particularly lovely and as the form refined I spent a lot of time just enjoying running my hands over the emerging shape. The more I did though, the more there seemed to be that needed doing! It’s just as well I didn’t have a deadline for this.

The fine point at the top of the nose was another piece of Plasticard which I embedded.

Penk4
This brings me to the final ‘skin’. It had to be strong and light while being smooth, being able to take detail well and giving a good surface for paint. I found the perfect material. Called ‘Miliput’, it’s a two-part epoxy putty. Once I got it stretched onto the surface, working it carefully across the form, flattening and smoothing, I found that working with wet fingers makes it very smooth, taking out any finger marks and smoothing out irregularities in thickness beautifully! Once cured, it’s very hard; sands well and takes detail very well.

The teeth posed a bit of a problem. I opted for Plasticard again. To bend the teeth around the curve of the skull I heated the ‘denture’ in very hot water. Fortunately Plasticard is a thermoplastic so once heated and shaped, it will cool to that new shape and can be glued in position without it trying to flex back again.

Penk5
To my delight the jaw fitted perfectly! All that slavish measuring and cutting at the beginning had paid off. Just as well, because to correct something like that in three dimensions would have been a nightmare. I drilled and hinged the jaw using a piece of coat hanger wire. All the usual bits and bobs that Animal keepers end up resorting to!

Penk6

When it came to the eyes I decided to print directly from the photos of Penkevyll. Cassandra and Laetitia took such good pictures that I was able, correcting for distortion, to copy and scale the eyes straight from those. They were glued onto disks of Miliput and varnished to keep them bright and lively.

Since my fine art days I’ve always preferred alkyd paints. They have the depth and transparency of oils but dry much, much faster. They’ll go onto practically any surface and can be layered and glazed for depth and subtlety. Perfect for bone, then, as it’s such a tricky colour and changeable under different lights. Alkyd can take care of all that.

Finally the ears. I carefully copied the profile (thanks again to lots of rapid feedback from Cassandra!) for the ears and cut them from black leather.

Then came the support for the head. Tricky. Traditionally I’d always kept the internal bits of my Animal in my Green Oak days, strictly schtum. So it goes a bit against the grain. Nevertheless, this is essentially an archive piece so on we go. Although Penkevyll has a harness support, the doll would not be able to support this Animal so I had to think of an alternative. Pole mounted heads are traditional so I went with that option as it could be set to take the weight off the doll. I nobly sacrificed one of my metal walking poles. Let me tell you, aircraft aluminium is a pain to saw!!

Penk7

Ears, jaw strung and working and staff mounted. Ready for the off! It’s been a long project but very enjoyable. I was able to test some ideas and see how much I’d retained of my skills. Truth to tell it was hard on the hands (as I’d suspected) and when I occasionally overdid it I had to take a few days off. But in the end I got a result that I was very happy with.

Next she was shipped to Cornwall to be properly dressed and coiffed by Latham-Jones Haute Couture. And a magnificent job they did too! See Cassandra’s pictures.

Photos in a moment.  Once we’d got over oohing and ahhing over Chris’s remarkable work we set to finishing off the dolls.  Together we managed to lash the doll to its accompanying pole, secured the ears and the mane that I had painstakingly woven loads of tatters into, and then Laetitia sewed on her gown which was lovingly covered in tatters.

Here’s a close-up of Little Penk’s head showing the skill of Chris’s work:

LittlePenk 014

Then we introduced Little Penk to Penkevyll…

Little Penk 005

This is when we realised that Little Penk was looking far too neat, so I set to with a pair of scissors and made her tatters more ragged and more in keeping with the ethos of Boekka.  Here are the final photos of all the dolls and Penkevyll together.

LittlePenk 034

LittlePenk 010

LittlePenk 001

LittlePenk 006

At last we were finished!  Both me and Laetitia agreed that we didn’t want to trust the Post Office with delivering our finely crafted Oss & Teazer dolls – we had awful visions of them throwing the parcels across the room and ruining all that hard work.  So I sent a deliberately tantalising email to Simon Costin and asked him when was he next down to the Museum of Witchcraft at Boscastle, as we had something very delicate and fragile with a guaranteed ‘Wow’ factor to deliver to him.  It worked beautifully and we successfully delivered the dolls (which we had become quite attached to over the months) to the Museum.  Here we are presenting Simon with them:

Little Penk2 004

To directly quote Simon, ” Thank you so much for coming over with your wonderful creations! They really are spectacular.”  It was well worth all the hard work and we look forward to seeing the dolls displayed within the next exhibition of the Museum of British Folklore.  It’s good to know that you are producing something that will be preserved for prosperity and displayed within a museum environment.

What a Team – Well Done to All!  🙂

 

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