Battle scenes from a basement
Rich dioramas draw on military history
STAMFORD — Walking through Charles Trudeau’s basement is like stepping into a Memorial Day time machine, of sorts.
Upon entry one sees a sprawling miniature display of the Battle of Monmouth from 1778, complete with tiny Revolutionary War soldiers and British Redcoats holding paper flags. Nearby is a scene from further back in history — the Crusades — with 10 mm tall figures representing a Middle Eastern army in the shadow of the Krak des Chevaliers medieval castle in Syria. Shelves and cabinets are decorated with Civil War
imagery and the like. Trudeau has 33 military dioramas on display at the Stamford home he shares with his wife, Lee. The collection, which spans from wars fought by the Spartans to scenes from the two World wars uses over 10,000 figures.
“It’s a personal pleasure,” he said. “It’s self satisfaction. I created something and I have the power of God in changing it.”
The 74-year-old’s interest in creating military dioramas began at age 9, when his mother bought him a box set of knight figurines from FAO Schwartz on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.
An only child, Trudeau split his childhood between New York and Latin America. The top floor of his Peekskill, N.Y., home became the “battleground” for his collection, which grew whenever his grandfather took him to the five-and-dime store. But when Trudeau went to boarding school as a teen and then on to the University of Arizona, his interest faded and the figures were lost.
“When you go to school and all that, it becomes a memory,” Trudeau said.
That is until 1971, when his job at Continental Insurance brought him to London. Trudeau renewed his interest in figurines after finding a shop that sold miniature Egyptian figure kits by Rose Miniatures. Trudeau painted little soldiers to pass the time until his family joined him in London.
Figurine work went on the back burner for Trudeau again for the next decade while he traveled for work. In 1981, he returned to the United States, where he went to a toy soldier show on Long Island and got back into collecting.
“I got enamored,” he said. Trudeau retired from a career in insurance in 2009, and that was when his hobby began to pick up. Now he spends hours in his basement studio, which was renovated after Trudeau’s three children moved out for soundproofing and the installation of shelving for additional figurines.
Trudeau spends hours researching military uniforms, painting soldiers, setting up landscape and arranging battle scenes based on actual military tactics, which he looks up in one of his 400-plus books on conflict, strategy and uniform. He will spend months setting up a single display, often using the same backdrops for different battles with some creative repainting. A muddy field in one battlefield becomes a pond in another.
“One thing I always believe in was the accuracy of the uniform,” Trudeau said. “You buy the figures, you have to paint it correctly. For me, as a historian, that’s very important. I like to research and know everything about what happened.”
Trudeau orders the figures from either the “toys and hobby” section of eBay or from dealers in the United States and United Kingdom. An unpainted packet of soldiers can go for about $20, but some individual figures can sell for $75 and up. On average, they are about 54 mm or about twoand-a-half inches tall. Most of Trudeau’s figures are made of pewter, while some are plastic. Sometimes, he buys two-dimensional groups of soldiers when he needs larger groups for battle scenes.
“You have to look at numbers,” he said. “If you want a big crowd, you have to do that.”
Trudeau’s largest diorama was of the Battle of Gettysburg, but it was his re-creation of the Battle of Fredericksburg from the Civil War that won third place in an international diorama contest. A diorama of a World War I first aid station took an honorable mention.
Trudeau’s basement is filled with military relics accumulated online and from family such as his father-in-law’s medals from his military service and a rifle from World War I, which is mounted over his fireplace.
“When you make a display, you bring it to life by bringing in a relic from it,” he said.
Trudeau, a Vietnam veteran and a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 9617, has long nursed an interest in military history. His father served during World War II as a captain on Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s staff and his great uncle was an interpreter in Cuba for President Benjamin Harrison during the SpanishAmerican War. His wife, Lee, has family who served in the Revolutionary and Civil wars.
“I love reading history,” Trudeau said. “When I read about a certain battle, I try to mimic it. It’s almost like taking a snapshot of a little corner of the battle.”
Charles Trudeau discusses the intricacies of his historical dioramas inside his home in Stamford on May 15. Trudeau’s collection began when he moved to Stamford in 1981. He has more than 10,000 toy soldiers and nearly 150 reference books in his...
A Civil War scene from one of Charles Trudeau’s many historical dioramas in his home in Stamford on May 15. Trudeau’s collection began when he moved to Stamford in 1981 and he now has more than 10,000 toy soldiers and nearly 150 reference books.