In a world of his own
PUBLISHED: 11:25 30 November 2009 | UPDATED: 16:22 20 February 2013
This month Torre Abbey hosts an exhibition of toys, picture books, models and automata – all the work of Rodney PeppÃ©. Trudy Turrell talks to the artist whose inventions include the <br/><br/>much-loved Huxley Pig
In a world of his own
This month Torre Abbey hosts an exhibition of toys, picture books, models and automata all the work of Rodney Pepp. Trudy Turrell talks to the artist whose inventions include the much-loved Huxley Pig
Sitting in Rodney and Tatjana Pepps kitchen at their home in Torquay, the models and automata which line the dresser shelves are a constant distraction. For Rodney, who has written 80 childrens books, created the TV animated characters of Huxley Pig and Angelmouse and had his work exhibited at the V&A, its always models which are central to his work.
Most take a month or more to build. The most intriguing are built around everyday objects: an old shoe sprouts an elaborate tall house complete with balconies, clock tower and playground. Next to it an old kettle makes a pirate ship, its upturned lid the crows-nest, the anchor dangling from the spout. A simpler vessel is based on a sardine tin with a leaf sail. These are all inhabited by Pepps famous family of mice, who turn discarded objects into homes and vehicles for their adventures.
Interestingly, these fantastically detailed models were created not for display but to draw from, giving Rodney a three-dimensional object to illustrate and populate his childrens books. I think he is the only person I know who works in this way, explains Tatjana. A childrens writer and textile artist herself, it comes as no surprise to learn that their sons have inherited the couples creativity. Jonathan, who lives at home, is an artist and sculptor, while Chris works in the film industry in Los Angeles.
Trained as a graphic designer, Rodney started illustrating his own childrens books based on the alphabet and popular nursery rhymes, alongside his day job as graphic consultant to a food firm. When he progressed to writing his own stories, the first based on an elephant called Henry, he made an articulated model from which to draw, much as Disney animators used to. From several simple stories starring Henry, Rodney progressed to more complex tales about a family of ten mice, with each page featuring the whole family and brimming with activity. Through the series of stories theres an ongoing theme of a poor family trying to make ends meet and outwitting their adversary, D. Rat, through ever more amazing adventures.
Rodneys next model and character, Huxley Pig, became one of his best loved and best known. Huxley Pig started life as an articulated wooden model; the basis for illustrations in a new series of books. Ever the perfectionist, Rodney persuaded his mother, who was a talented seamstress and craftsperson, to make six costumes for Huxley, from a sailor suit to minute knitted winter woollies. The model easily transferred to the screen, becoming a popular character in the 1980s with his own student cult following too!
When Huxley Pig was televised as an animated series, Rodney found himself working in a TV studio with actor Martin Jarvis, whom he remembers as having a bagful of voices from which he could pull out just the right one for each character. Each of the scripts for the 26 episodes took Rodney three days to write, in between which he created his fabulous Twelve Days of Christmas automaton. Id been admiring this on the kitchen wall since we started to chat and was treated to a visual display of the carol, as Rodney turns the tiny handles at the side of each boxed section of the automata. Two turtle doves kiss, nine can-can dancers do high kicks, ten lords leap drunkenly and twelve drummers drum, each with minute beaters on perfect drums.
Further television animation followed, with trainee angel Angelmouse in the 1990s. It was around this time that Rodney started to make automata. This, he says, was fired by a love of Victorian moving toys and an admiration of Kingswear-based toy maker and sculptor, Sam Smith.
Recreating the mechanisms devised by the Victorians, Rodney creates automata that are both beautiful and witty; characters often act out a comic or thought-provoking scene to the delight of whoever turns the handle. One piece, entitled Castaway, shows a castaway scanning the wrong horizon, as a ship sails behind him. Despite crabs, seagulls and other island creatures trying to attract his attention to it, he remains utterly oblivious.
Although he rarely makes automata for sale, Rodney enjoys using them to inspire others to make moving toys. He has made many a visit to schools and has published several books on the subject. From elaborate moving jungle scenes to carousels, sailing
ships and simple snapping crocodiles made from clothes pegs, the books inspire people of all ages.
I wondered which of the whole collection might be Rodneys favourite and was shown an understated frame in which a tiny acrobat turns unpredictably over a bar. It recreates a Victorian sand toy operated by turning the whole thing upside down, which lets sand slowly fill up chambers to turn the bar. His names Luigi, says Rodney, and hes a trier, which is part of his charm. I think hes my favourite because I identify with him.
The wonderful world of Rodney Pepp exhibition at Torre Abbey runs from 20 November to 18 April 2010. For full details see www.torre-abbey.org.uk.