Made in Eng­land Noah’s Ark Toys

Noah’s Ark Toys

This England - - Contents - Iso­bel King

Tra­di­tional toy­maker David Plager­son is ded­i­cated to his craft. Iso­bel King finds out more.

ARTISTS are of­ten pic­tured in their stu­dios sur­rounded by half-worked can­vas, paint-splat­tered fur­ni­ture and a whole as­sort­ment of ma­te­ri­als – and David Plager­son’s stu­dio is no dif­fer­ent.

The air is thick with the aroma of var­nish and paint; the whole space is crammed with paint pots, rough hog-hair brushes and a mish­mash of con­tain­ers. The ceil­ing is cov­ered with im­ages and old cas­settes line the wall, and David’s work­bench has de­vel­oped a rich patina of dif­fer­ent coloured paint splodges af­ter years of work­ing here.

It would be fair to say that the home in Totnes, Devon, of David and wife Ron­nie is a true cre­ative space and sanc­tu­ary for the tra­di­tional craft of wooden toy-mak­ing. In­side the house, cab­i­nets of old wooden toys and mod­els line the walls.the kitchen leads to the small but mag­nif­i­cent paint­ing stu­dio, while a brief walk through the gar­den (“my com­mute,” David jokes), leads to a lit­tle work­shop where the wood­work goes on.

It’s so quiet, ex­cept for the odd quack from one of the cou­ple’s three pet ducks that wad­dle out­side the back door.

Lan­cashire-born David, Chair­man of the Bri­tish Guild of Toy­mak­ers, has been mak­ing wooden toys for over forty years now – be­gin­ning to do so on a reg­u­lar ba­sis in the au­tumn of 1977. He spe­cialises in Noah’s Arks, com­plete with pairs of charm­ing wooden an­i­mals – their friendly faces mak­ing them im­pos­si­bly en­dear­ing – as well as Mr and Mrs Noah, of course.

“Many cus­tomers build up their sets over a pe­riod of time,” David says. “Usu­ally they start with an ark and I post them a pair of an­i­mals each month, or they or­der a pair of an­i­mals for spe­cial oc­ca­sions such as birth­days or Christ­mas.”

Christ­mas is, of course, a busy time of year for David and Ron­nie, with David even fall­ing ill one year from over­work.

“I’m a com­pul­sive maker, that’s how I’d de­scribe my­self, from a fam­ily of com­pul­sive mak­ers” he says. “I’m much bet­ter at spac­ing out the work now, but as ev­ery­thing is made to or­der it’s very hard to know ex­actly how long any­thing is go­ing to take me.

“Those hip­pos there may look lovely,” he con­tin­ues, point­ing to a pair of hip­pos on the dry­ing rack, “but I’ve just no­ticed one’s got a fault and will have to be made again. There’s a lot of that. Ron­nie sends things back, too, and sets a bench­mark.”

Be­ing hand­made, of course, the toys nat­u­rally take time to make – some­thing one soon re­alises when David demon­strates how he makes one small wooden toy horse from start to fin­ish.

It be­gins with David draw­ing around one of his hand-drawn tem­plates (in this case, a horse) on to a block of wood. He then, with ex­tra­or­di­nary skill, re­leases the an­i­mal shape from the block by cut­ting into the wood with a band­saw.

The wood is then shaped and all the rough planes are smoothed. For this David uses a self-im­pro­vised method that in­cludes much sand­ing, plus whit­tling where he needs to.

It’s the lit­tle de­tails in the wood­work that give the fig­ures and an­i­mals their per­son­al­ity: a tiny nick there for the mouth; gen­tle in­den­ta­tions around the muz­zle; small sloped ears that, mis­po­si­tioned, would per­haps make a lit­tle horse look for­lorn rather than an­i­mated.

Paint­ing also takes time. For the base coat, David ei­ther dips each an­i­mal in paint and lets them drip-dry, or paints them with a brush. How­ever, the na­ture of wood means the paint in­evitably raises the grain, mak­ing them rough, so each an­i­mal then has to be sanded by hand and painted again to en­sure a smooth sur­face.

De­tails such as a mane and hooves are then added, with free brush work to give the toys a folk-art style and yet more char­ac­ter.

The eyes are care­fully dot­ted, and the horse is dipped in var­nish be­fore dripdry­ing again.

“It’s pretty nerve-rack­ing paint­ing the faces,” David ad­mits, nat­u­rally by this stage not want­ing to make a mis­take, “though I do find peo­ple much harder than an­i­mals. It’s so easy to get their ex­pres­sions wrong. Fun­nily enough, I also strug­gle with orang­utans!”

Clearly David’s reper­toire goes far be­yond the ele­phant and the kan­ga­roo. He can make any an­i­mal one can think of, from sloths hang­ing from a tree – “It was Ron­nie’s idea to make them de­tach­able so chil­dren can take them on and off” – to rare breeds, and even to rep­re­sen­ta­tions of his cus­tomers’ fam­ily pets.

He has made be­spoke arks that re­sem­ble the homes of his cus­tomers, too, whether that’s a thatched roof on one or a por­tico on an­other.

It’s not only arks, ei­ther: na­tiv­ity sets, circus sets, farm­yards with barns, pigsties, sta­bles and even a tra­di­tional fox hunt have all been com­mis­sioned over the years.

But it is the ark that he al­ways re­turns to. Why?

“There’s some­thing very deep-seated about the story of Noah’s Ark. In many ways it’s about man’s con­tact with an­i­mals and na­ture”, which in a world of dis­con­nec­tion with wildlife and the wider en­vi­ron­ment is so rel­e­vant to­day.

Its en­dur­ing pop­u­lar­ity as a toy, though, must lie in the en­joy­ment chil­dren, and even adults, take from it.

“Very young chil­dren who are just ac­quir­ing lan­guage love to name the dif­fer­ent an­i­mals; older ones en­joy pair­ing, clas­si­fy­ing, mak­ing ar­range­ments, cre­at­ing farms, zoos, boats, and all sorts of homes from their arks. I think they also love the idea of the ark as a safe refuge.”

It’s easy to see why, once given, they are so loved. Pick­ing up, hold­ing and look­ing at the toys is a sooth­ing ex­pe­ri­ence: the weight and warmth of the wood; the beau­ti­ful smooth­ness of the worked sur­face; their jolly coloured coats and the con­trast­ing tones of the wood.

Six­teen dif­fer­ent types are used for the un­painted sets, from cherry for the hip­pos to yew for the croc­o­diles.

I won­der whether these bright and beau­ti­ful crea­tures are re­ally for play­ing with.

“Of course – they’re child-proof!” David bashes a horse from his sam­ple set on the wall to il­lus­trate his point. “Hand-crafted toys are slow to make, but their life ex­pectancy is long. They’ll en­dure as an heir­loom gift for sub­se­quent gen­er­a­tions, sit­ting some­where in the house wait­ing for a child to come and play.”

They even have an aes­thetic value as a dec­o­ra­tive ob­ject in their own right, once, say, a nurs­ery is trans­formed into a room for an­other pur­pose.

This dura­bil­ity is all in the an­i­mals’ de­sign and David’s knowl­edge of his ma­te­ri­als. The fin­ish­ing var­nish pro­tects the paint from chip­ping, while un­painted an­i­mals are dipped in beeswax to nour­ish the wood.

Many of the an­i­mals are made from a sin­gle piece of wood, with the grain run­ning down through the an­i­mals’ legs to strengthen them. An ex­cep­tion is the leop­ards, where a sep­a­rate tail piece, made from ash for its strength, is at­tached to the body. Each piece of ash is cho­sen for grain run­ning hor­i­zon­tally to again pro­tect against break­age.

Toy­mak­ing is cer­tainly a spe­cial­ist area to get into.

“For me,” David re­calls, “it was a col­li­sion of teach­ing art near the Mu­seum of Child­hood in Beth­nal Green, Lon­don, my daugh­ter Anna be­ing born, and tak­ing a course that in­tro­duced me to the band­saw.

“At the mu­seum, see­ing the Ger­man Noah’s Arks re­ally in­spired me, as well as the story of how they were made. It goes back to around 1600 in an area in Ger­many called Erzge­birge, which means ‘iron moun­tain’. There was a com­mu­nity of peo­ple who were min­ers in sum­mer and toy­mak­ers in the win­ter – per­haps be­cause it was too cold to mine at that time of year.

“Dif­fer­ent vil­lages spe­cialised in

dif­fer­ent an­i­mals for the arks – you got one vil­lage which was very good at horses, for ex­am­ple. So li­cenced traders would visit each vil­lage in the area to col­lect whole sets to sell on.”

Later on, wooden toy­mak­ing in Ger­many moved down to Nurem­burg, which re­mains in many ways the cen­tre for world toys, with the largest in­ter­na­tional fair for toys and games held there ev­ery year.

Not that this means that there wasn’t a strong tra­di­tion of toy­mak­ing in Eng­land. In­deed, one of the rea­sons the Bri­tish Guild of Toy­mak­ers was founded in the 1950s was to pre­serve the tra­di­tion of toy­mak­ing in this coun­try. It was also to kick back against the large-scale man­u­fac­tur­ers and mass me­dia mar­ket­ing that dom­i­nates the toy in­dus­try to this day, which has put many smaller toy­mak­ers out of busi­ness.

One Lon­don pa­per re­ported in 1973, “Any­one with a nat­u­ral an­tipa­thy to­wards trashy plas­tic toys, flashy gim­micks and guns will prob­a­bly have it height­ened by the Christ­mas glut. For them, and al­most ev­ery­body else, the Bri­tish Toy­maker’s Guild ex­hi­bi­tion will be an oa­sis in a sea of dis­taste!”

It must be a com­fort, in our throw­away so­ci­ety, to give a gift that lasts and con­tin­ues to give so much plea­sure.

Is there to be a re­vival in the 21st cen­tury? David is pos­i­tive.

“Yes, I think there is. There’s gen­er­ally more of an in­ter­est in crafts, and there is still a re­ac­tion against mass-pro­duc­tion. Some par­ents are kick­ing back against tech­nol­ogy.”

In terms of pop­u­lar­ity, though, “the prob­lem with Noah’s Arks is that, so far, no-one’s be­come ad­dicted to them, un­like a video game,” David jokes.

It’s the im­por­tance of cre­ative play it­self which David holds in the high­est re­gard though, even above the types of toys chil­dren play with to achieve this.

“Plas­tic toys such as Lego and Play­mo­bil are fan­tas­tic,” he says. “I don’t want to say plas­tic toys are bad and wooden toys are good.”

What mat­ters most, David ar­gues, is that chil­dren, and adults, play in a cre­ative way. He tells me how he went to a lec­ture on “Homo Lu­dens”, a book writ­ten by Dutch his­to­rian and cul­tural the­o­rist Jo­han Huizinga in the 1930s.

Huizinga ar­gues that play is a fun­da­men­tal as­pect of be­ing hu­man, and what sets us apart from an­i­mals.

“It was a friend who told me, ‘We don’t stop play­ing be­cause we grow old; we grow old be­cause we stop play­ing’.”

Af­ter a day re­con­nect­ing with the idea of play, it’s quite pos­si­ble that truer words have never been spo­ken.

David in his stu­dio.

All David’s toys are hand­made.

Crammed with paint pots!

Paint­brushes for many colours.

The an­i­mals went in two by two . . .

A few of David’s cre­ations drip-dry­ing on a rack.

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