Thursday, 7 December 2017

"All the world's a stage...."

And that of course applies to Small Worlds as well.   The pantomime season is well under way in England, and in the Czech Republic theatre companies are putting on special productions for children at this time of year.

So what could be more fitting than a little theatre to go into the Small Worlds window at the start of Advent?  

For many years I have been on the look-out for a small theatre to accommodate the string puppets lovingly restored by a Dutch friend way back in 2013 when Small Worlds first opened to the public.  

Last year I finally found one in a charity shop near home in the UK and it has been awaiting a redesign since then.   I didn't like the clunky red velvet curtains at all and since it is actually intended for glove puppets, it also needed some sort of stage.....   I later discovered it was from the Early Learning Centre and therefore quite expensive which made me even more pleased with my purchase.

When Lynda, who has in the past produced tiny liquorice allsorts, and ballet shoes,  came to visit me this summer, there were a number of skilled tasks awaiting her attention - here you see one of them...

To give her a gentle start I asked if she could make some curtains for the theatre whilst I altered the appearance of the wooden structure, and added a stage.   We chose a tasteful green for our colour scheme and were very pleased with the result.

Now it was up to me to produce a show.   I really wanted to use the string puppets but very quickly gave up on the idea since, unless one is actually performing with them,  it is impossible to find a reasonable way of making them stand up on stage without looking very foolish.  

I dithered for a while about what to present - I had grandiose ideas of a scene from Dickens' Christmas Carol, intending to stand copies of the book in both English and Czech, alongside the theatre.   I went as far as investing in a very nice-looking copy in English which more friends brought over to Bavorov later in the summer.

I had thought that they, also skilled seamstresses, might dress the dolls for the Christmas dinner scene in Bob Crachitt's house but we very soon established a)a lack of suitable dolls to clothe and b)not enough time during their short stay.   So that's an idea for another year....

I usefully remembered that I had a Czech paper theatre of very much the same proportions as the new one, and that it had sets of scenery illustrating various fairy tales.

One of them was Hansel and Gretel (Pernikova Chaloupka or Jeníček a Mařenka in Czech) so we settled on that. 

The back drop fitted almost perfectly and just required a little extending which was skilfully done by Jill with the aid of some watercolours.

She also cut out and constructed the little gingerbread house which I planned to tile and cover in sweets.

I had some mini Petit Beurre biscuits which I thought would make ideal roof tiles.   Ha ha....

Looking for a suitable glue that would hold them without turning them into mush, and trying to use them as properly laid roof tiles took up many minutes, much swearing, and some time spent wondering why we were not blessed with two pairs of hands. Then came a final realisation that I would have to give up the idea as I had envisaged it - too many "tiles" had crashed off the roof in bits and in any case a fully tiled roof would have been too heavy for the paper cottage to support.

In the end, I had to be content with a less interesting solution.  
The revoltingly scented sweets were much easier to manage. 

I thought the theatre would benefit from some musical attendants so these two were pressed into service....

None of the puppets, other than 
the witch, were suitable to take their places on the stage so I hunted around in the box of mini dolls. I unearthed several in Czech national costume but unfortunately all were female.   Step forward Jill, this time for a transformation scene.   

Result, the second Gretel became Hansel. Would you have guessed this was once a little girl?

The witch needed no work, other than to find a way of making her stand up (crooked, not straight, was the best we could do!)....... 
.....but one of the two cats had to be turned black.

Incidentally, black cats are considered unlucky in the Czech Republic, a fact that led to some confusion in my early days there when I was trying, unsuccessfully, to find a black cat greetings card for my daughter.  "But why," said one shop assistant after I had enquired in many shops for one "do you want to wish your daughter bad luck?"

So cottage ready, cast in the wings, all that was needed was to set the scene and get the show on the road.

On the road means in this case transporting the theatre, which has an unfortunate tendency to open out, dropping stage, cast and scenery onto the floor, along the corridor from The Stables and into the window ready to greet Advent.   I am already back in England so, happily from my point of view, this task has fallen to my good friend Jana and has been successfully accomplished - thank you so much Jana!  (I can see you!)

There will be one more seasonal post from me this year so I will hold my Christmas and New Year wishes for another couple of the meantime, thank you for visiting the Small Worlds blog and enjoy the show!

Sunday, 15 October 2017

"I'm a train...."

This post has followed fairly rapidly on the last - if you missed that one in the rush then you can find it here.   I needed something to put myself into the right mood for writing this latest post - this did the trick for me (and brought back many happy memories)!

When I first opened Small Worlds five years ago I invited a local class of ten year olds to visit and give me some feedback on what they might like to see in the museum.  The girls all said "some horses" and the boys "something for us".  I obliged very quickly with a couple of breadbins 

but since then have done nothing more to appeal specifically to boys, other than having many vintage cars standing around, including an array of Jaguars (although I understand the correct collective noun is a shadow....).
And before someone shouts at me - yes, I know girls love cars and trains - as a child I had a huge collection of Dinky toys, bought as they went back into production after the war,  (oh where are they now?) and also a Hornby train set. 

Often boys visiting Small Worlds surprise me by how fascinated they are by the houses, engaging in depth at what is happening in them and how some of the effects are created.  It does bother them dreadfully if houses are without staircases though.

On my way back to England in 2015 I visited a Bavarian flea market with "the doll people". On one stall, I saw an intriguing clock tower emerging from a battered cardboard box. Further investigation revealed several dirty buildings to match, with the sign "Stuttgart" on one of them. Naturally I grabbed the entire box.

At that point I knew nothing about Stuttgart Hauptbahnhof (main station), and had no opportunity to research it further.   But later in my journey towards the UK I stayed with friends in Dordrecht, Holland, and it was in a small museum there that I saw with great excitement a beautiful model station that reminded me of my box contents,  and read that it was a Märklin model of Stuttgart HBF. 
At this point I became very intrigued by what was clearly an iconic building and did some reading up about it.  It was built between 1914 and 1928, as a result of an architectural competition held in 1910 and won by the architects  Paul Bonatz and Friedrich Eugen Scholer with their plans under the ambitious title of  umbilicus sueviae - the Navel of Swabia.   It is regarded as one of the most significant buildings of its time and recent plans to modernise caused a furore.

Although my buildings are but a fairly crude and incomplete representation of the original, I decided to make them the main focus of a window display and looked around Small Worlds for as many railway related items as I could find.   The result was an eclectic assortment of railwayania that I suspected would be very hard to blend into a coherent window display!   I decided at once to completely ignore the question of scale - this was going to be an Alice in Wonderland version of the world of trains.

I had thought, before I researched the station, that some of the buildings were sheds for the engines.   That is not the case however, they are part of the station building itself.  I had therefore no sheds but I had collected several engines without tracks to go into what I had thought were sheds - so what now?   

At some point I had acquired a grey metal construction 
and I realised that the arched sides would lend themselves to holding my three or four engines.  The roof did not look quite right,  so friend Sheila and I set about finding an alternative.   We thought that a flat glass roof, covered by chicken wire, might work.  Reluctant to ruin the present roof by cutting the wire just in case it might come in useful sometime (ideas, anybody?) we took some wire off the giant roll that we had acquired for Butterfly to make the Gosthwaites lift (you can see how she did that at the very end of this link) and attempted to flatten it under the heavy art books I have. However, when we removed the books the next day, the wire sprang back up . 
At this point we realised that actually the rounded shape was far better since it echoed that of the station roofs.

The engines that were going into the shed would of course need some track so I dismantled a bamboo place mat and constructed some to fit each of the different engines - I am pleased to say that they all run smoothly on their tracks!

The windows in the station buildings were glass and many were broken and needed replacing.  Initially I played around with the idea of stained "glass" windows, using some designs from one of the wonderful Dover publications but that was before I realised the importance of the Stuttgart main station as an iconic piece of brutalist architecture.   In the end I settled for a very simple grid pattern which a friend enlarged and copied onto greaseproof paper.  (It's called butter paper over here which of course makes perfect sense). 

Sheila then nobly cut and stuck the windows into the many spaces and got beautifully sticky in the process.   

(She is the perfect person to fit the windows since she works with stained glass in the full-size world. This beautiful window made by her is in the doorway between my bedroom and the guest room....) 

In the meantime, Jill was finishing off the tracks that I had made...

Stuttgart HBF famously boasts a clock tower with a Mercedes Star on top.   I cannot rise to the star but I do have a working clock, thanks to my German clockmaker friend, Thomas, with whom I had left the tower back in 2015.  He cleaned and restored the clock and it is delightful to hear it  ticking away now in the window of Small Worlds.

After Jill and Sheila had headed back to the UK, having done sterling work on this (and something else, to be revealed later), I gathered up all the railway related jigsaws I could find, and also everything to do with Thomas the Tank Engine, popular in the Czech Republic as mašinka Tomáš, (if you want to practise your Czech and need a translation it is here) that I had, and set it all out on the table exactly as I planned to put it in the window 

When I came to do that though , I discovered that it would not fit as I had wanted and the jigsaws had to go, at least as a group.   I had wanted them like that so that they could be easily removed by my friend Jana when she puts the Christmas offering into the window in early December.   As it is, Thomas will have to retire at that point.

Anyway I realised that in fact the jigsaws worked much better as a backdrop and when I spotted the Guards parading through Waterloo Station in one of them, I added a lone soldier to stand guard through the winter....

Once again I apologise for the quality of the photos taken from outside - it is even worse now that we have new windows. The thicker double glazing distorts everything even more than before.  But for what it's worth here is the display in its final form (remember you can click on each photo to enlarge it...).

I have been interested to note how many men have stopped to look in the window this time.  And when I went this evening to try (unsuccessfully) for some better photos, I was enchanted to see a two year old boy in his sister's arms, shouting his delight at mašinka Tomáš!

Small Worlds officially closed in mid-September but we do try to open for the Farmers' Markets which happen about five times a year in Bavorov.   One was yesterday and we had nearly 40 visitors which was a delightful way to end the season.   There will be two more before Christmas, and Veronika and Jana will kindly open Small Worlds.  

I am off there now to set up the Christmas scenes; it feels very strange to be doing that whilst the sun is blazing down on the beautiful autumn scene I look out at whilst sitting at my computer, but needs must as I head back to the UK very soon. 

Thank you for joining me on my short railway journey and I hope to see you again nearer Christmas.

Monday, 25 September 2017

“To be silent does not mean to be inactive..."

Or at least so said Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

So although things may have been quiet on the blog this summer, there has been quite a lot of varied activity in Small Worlds itself.   Visitor numbers are a bit down, probably because I arrived back here much later than usual and had little chance of doing as much advertising as I would have liked.   A pity, because an excellent new assistant joined the team which has so far consisted of me and Veronika, the granddaughter of a good friend here in Bavorov.  Veronika has been with Small Worlds since we opened way back in 2013 and I could not manage without her, but she is now at university and has a part-time job as well, so sadly has less time to commit to being in the museum. 

To our joint relief, Tomaš joined us at the beginning of the summer and has carried the main load of showing visitors round the houses.   I was listening to him one day and thinking to myself that he does the tour better than I do it myself....

This has left me free to fully enjoy the advantages of having The Stables to work in. I can spread out projects, work on several things at once, leave boxes open as I search for things, and generally create chaos all around me which is clearly my preferred way of tackling tasks. I always plan to be neater and more organised; somehow it never happens. 

And having The Stables also means that when friends come to stay and find themselves creating things for Small Worlds, we have space to work together without cluttering up the museum, which is only just large enough anyway.  So far only Butterfly has flatly refused to create in a bright orange room!  (Of the three wall colours in The Stables I find the orange the least offensive - bright deep pink and lime green are even less conducive to creative work!)

Milena the Milliner was here a little while ago - here you can see some of her previous work.

This time she focused on producing a rather wonderful costume-clad mannequin for Gosthwaites Department Store.
I have to find a way of incorporating her into the showroom as she is slightly too large at the moment but I shall doubtless think of something.

She and friend Jana from Prague were closely followed by Lynda who last year gave sterling service in dealing with much of the stuff that had to be resorted into The Stables.   

This year there was time for her to produce something, and not content with just one item, she worked on three different projects at once.

I had found a pattern for a patchwork quilt in the June 2017 Dolls House World

and thought it was the very thing to cover the iron bedstead in the miner's cottage that is being furnished at this moment.  I have mentioned it before I think.   It is based on one of a row of cottages in the Beamish Open Air Museum and was given to me, in the form of many pieces of cut out wood, by a friend in England who in turn received it from a friend of hers. It had been commissioned by this friend's mother, but never built and Pat offered it to me.   It has now been beautifully made up by Colin Rose, who designed and built the Czech village house and there will be a post all about it when it is finished. 

The sweep arrived on the roof of the Czech house after two chimney sweeps came into Small Worlds and asked if we had any on view.  The answer at that point was no but I remembered that somewhere was a tiny sweep and, miraculously, he emerged from his hiding place.   He keeps falling off the roof though....

In order to make the quilt, Lynda had to burrow in the large suitcase filled to bursting with every kind of material.  

She was also keeping an eye out for some curtain material for a little puppet theatre I had picked up in a charity shop, as well as for suitable patchwork bits.  

As she burrowed, an old skirt 
emerged which I had long thought ought to be used as a patchwork blanket, and so that was the first thing she made.   

As she sat patiently doing very neat and tiny blanket stitch, I was reminded of how I had struggled to learn the same stitch back in primary school.   Unsuccessfully....

The finished blanket is adorning the bed of the maid in the Walmer Dolls House, and gives her rather bare bedroom a much more cosy look.  

I forgot to take a photo of the little puppet theatre before we transformed it, but it is so well-made that I figured I would be able to find it on-line.   

Sure enough, it is the theatre from the Early Learning Centre - I reeled back in horror at the prices on ebay!  I think I paid under £3 which is my usual charity shop limit for items for Small Worlds unless they are something very special.

Lynda sewed some elegant green curtains to replace the clumsy red velvet ones......

.....we used velvet ribbon for the pelmet, and we are both rather pleased with the final result.  If all goes as planned, you will see more of the theatre before the end of the year.

The patchwork quilt required much skill and a degree of trial and error.   I have a little tiny sewing machine, not at all the size that Lynda is used to, and wields very competently, so there was much under-the-breath muttering on the other side of the table as she learned to use it.
But the end result, as you can see from the photos, is a triumph.
Getting the squares into the right positions was a challenge!

Lynda's method - not quite as suggested

But it worked!

At the moment, the quilt is resting on one of the beds in the Cape Cod house as the miner's wife has not yet managed to set up the brass bed she inherited from her parents.

Whilst Lynda was sewing away, I was making a stage for the theatre which was stageless since it was intended for finger or glove puppets and I need it for string marionettes, and also digging out some scenery I was sure I had somewhere.  

At the same time, I was engaged in producing railway tracks for a number of small engines - the next window display will feature assorted trains and a rather special station.  
You can see my granddaughter here, cleaning said station in preparation for the display.   More of that in the next blog.

I have also been making up a Chrysnbon kit of the parlour organ for the miner's cottage.  

It's work that I can do on a board, so that I can take it up to the museum itself if I need to be on duty there.   

It's not a difficult kit to build, apart from the organ stops which are a complete nightmare. 

You can see the size of the stops from the photo with an Ibuprofen tablet plus some saccharin perched on top of it.  
There is no way to hold them whilst gluing them into the holes and mine finally ended up looking as if some drunken mice had inserted them.  I note that very wisely Bagpuss's mice built their organ without any stops!

However the final result is not unpleasing ...

Whilst all of this activity was going on, I was informed, with half a day's notice, that new windows were going to be put into the building.   This entailed much shifting of things, including the window display, and covering up of houses etc.   Fortunately one of the council's staff helped me enormously, and not only tirelessly shifted stuff but also, together with a colleague, insisted on cleaning the whole museum (although the workmen were remarkably clean and efficient in their work).   Both the museum and The Stables are now much cleaner and brighter than before the upheaval.   And the new windows are lovely....

And one final event that was completely delightful - a group of young people from six different countries - Jordan, Iran, Mexico, Georgia, Thailand and Turkey - have been spending a week at the local school and came into Small Worlds at the end of last week.  

They were enchanted by the houses,  and the stories attached to them, took many photos, and wrote lovely things in the guest book - the one that pleased me most came from Victor from Mexico "I can feel magic in this room" he said.

So as you can see, much has been happening, and at this very moment I am awaiting the arrival of two friends from England who will doubtless also grasp their needles and some thread and help me with creating this year's Christmas scene - I hope.   They don't know yet what is in store for them, but I hear them at the gate so will sign off and thank you for reading this far.   See you again very soon....