In Focus: The mesmerising automaton created by the man who made Chitty Chitty Bang Bang fly

Ian Fleming might be the man who dreamed up Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, but it was inventor Rowland Emett who created the unforgettable mechanical star of the 1968 film. Yet his finest work was a different machine altogether, as Carla Passino reports.

Fans of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang have a rare opportunity to see a working display of a whimsical automaton made by Rowland Emett, the inventor who designed the machines for the 1968 film of Ian Fleming’s children’s story. It will be on display at the Bonhams saleroom in London’s New Bond Street.

A 26-ft-long kinetic sculpture — Emett’s largest and finest work — is a masterpiece of English humour and eccentricity. It features the Wild Goose train, its tea-cake-toasting driver and its passengers chuffing along the magical Far Tottering and Oyster Creek railway line.

A detail from Rowland Emett's A Quiet Afternoon in the Cloud Cuckoo Valley

Passengers look out from the carriage, a detail from Rowland Emett’s A Quiet Afternoon in the Cloud Cuckoo Valley

As they move along the tracks, they go past Cow Parsley Meadow, where a farmer plays the harp to his cattle; Shrimphaven Sands, where a fisherman catches a mermaid in his net; Wittering Woods, where an ornithologist disguised as a tree cycles around looking for birds, and Oyster Creek, where a gentleman in a striped Victorian swimsuit dives into the sea.

‘Children adore it, as do nostalgic adults,’ says Lucinda Bredin of Bonhams.

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A Quiet Afternoon in the Cloud Cuckoo Valley

The Victorian swimmer plunges into the sea

Born in London in 1906, Emett was something of a real-life Caractacus Potts, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang‘s mad inventor. One of Punch‘s leading cartoonists, he loved to draw trains.

In 1950, the organisers of the Festival of Britain asked him whether he could build a real version of his drawings — and that’s how the Far Tottering and Oyster Creek railway line first came to life. Presented at the 1951 edition of the festival, it was a roaring success, attracting more than 2 million people.

A Quiet Afternoon in the Cloud Cuckoo Valley

The cows in Cow Parsley Meadow listen to their farmer playing the harp

After that, he created countless other ‘things’, as he called them, from the Forget-Me-Not mechanical computer to The Aqua-Horological Tintinnabulator — a water-powered musical clock for a Nottingham shopping centre. However, he considered the 26ft train automaton to be his ‘finest work’ and gave it the charmingly eccentric title of A Quiet Afternoon in the Cloud Cuckoo Valley.

Despite the name, though, the sculpture’s history has been anything but quiet. By the time it was completed in 1984, it was no longer required for the Basildon shopping centre that had commissioned it. Bought by the current owner, it only made its first appearance at Spitalfields Market in 1992 — two years after Emett’s death.

And, much like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s flying car, A Quiet Afternoon in the Cloud Cuckoo Valley has had a close encounter with the scrapyard. Stolen from the Hertfordshire warehouse where it had been stored, it was sold to a scrap metal dealer in 1999. Luckily, the man became suspicious and called the police — he must have been shocked to discover that the train set he had bought for £100 was actually worth closer to £250,000.

Rowland Emett's masterpiece, A Quiet Afternoon in the Cloud Cuckoo Valley

The disguised ornithologist is out looking for birds in A Quiet Afternoon in the Cloud Cuckoo Valley

Since then, the automaton has been fully restored by artist Andy Hasler and fitted with a new digital control system.

Previously exhibited at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in 2014, A Quiet Afternoon in the Cloud Cuckoo Valley will now be on show until September 3, 2019 at 12pm. It will then be sold in a stand-alone auction, where it’s expected to fetch six-figures.

Admission to the display is free and opening hours are Monday to Friday, 9am-4.30pm. For more information, visit Bonhams.

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