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We Few, We Happy Few
An insight into a large WWI commemorative diorama built by a group of friends and collectors in Australia
Toy soldier collectors are regularly reminded that they are in a niche or boutique hobby. There are even murmurs from some collectors that rising costs are slowly but surely returning the hobby to its aristocratic roots. This vision of a looming apocalypse for the hobby, where only the wealthy are able to indulge their passion for military miniatures, is thankfully exaggerated. Nevertheless, it is true that manufacturers will need to be increasingly creative in their efforts to balance the competing demands for affordable figures, improvements in quality and expanded ranges. King and Country s decision to market three tiers of figure quality (plastic, regular and P ranges) and the foray into wargaming by The Collector's Showcase are two initiatives which shows that manufacturers are not content to accept the status quo. This can only be good news for the collector.££££££
The challenge for the 'average' collector, however, is to explore ways to maximise their engagement in the hobby while still staying within their budget. A group of Australian collectors based in Brisbane have found a way to do just that. In doing so, they have expanded their involvement in the hobby far beyond what would have been possible as individuals. Working in collaboration with St Joseph s Nudgee College and The Military Workshop in Brisbane (owned and run by Brett and Gerelou Williams), they have constructed three large dioramas as part of the College s commemoration of the outbreak of WWI. Covering almost 15 square metres, Beersheba (King and Country), Dawn Patrol (John Jenkins, King and Country, Wingnuts) and Over the Top (Britains, King and Country, Thomas Gunn), offer three snapshots of the Australian experience of war. They are the central focus of a six month exhibition called For King and Country which was opened by Andy Neilson on July 8, 2014, at a Collectors Dinner held at the College.
As curator of the College museum, I was fortunate to meet a number of collectors and diorama specialists at Thursday night gatherings at The Military Workshop in Brisbane. People like Phil Charlwood, Robert (Bob) Crombie, John Kerby, Wayne Roberts, Marc Robertson, Glenn Smith, and Brett Williams have devoted hundreds of hours to constructing an exhibition that has no precedent in terms of school based commemorative projects. As these collectors offered open access to their private collections, grant money from the College Foundation and the Department of Veterans Affairs was sufficient to cover the purchase and construction of cabinets, perspex covers and diorama materials. In addition, Andy Neilson very generously sent a selection of K&C s wonderful Light Horse range for use in the diorama.
Bob Crombie, who came to the project from a wargaming and diorama background, observed that I have worked on many dioramas over many years. But I have never had the opportunity to work on so broad a canvas. A lot of it, however, was trial and error using inexpensive material available at any hardware store. We used 12 litres of PVA glue, 20 square metres of foam, eight kilograms of grout, two kilograms of plaster, many litres of spray paint and over 1000 Tamiya 1:35 scale sandbags. It was quite a learning experience .
For Wayne Roberts, it was about indulging his love for all things Great War. I collect anything Australian, but in particular I am fascinated by the experience of the AIF (Australian Imperial Force). Many of my relatives served during the war and four of them are buried or commemorated in France and Belgium .
Phil Charlwood sees the dioramas as an investment for the future. I have really enjoyed the experience but, as is the case with Bob, my main collecting focus is Napoleonics. With next year marking the bicentenary of Waterloo, I am already thinking seriously about a cavalry charge with over a hundred King and Country French cavalry smashing into the British squares in a diorama space measuring almost five square metres. It will need over 200 figures . For Glenn Smith, it introduced a part of the hobby he had not yet explored. Glenn acknowledges that he is a collector of figures rather than a diorama maker. My tastes are eclectic, so my collection is more an extended series of vignettes rather than dioramas as such.
John Kerby, who made a number of Wingnuts models for the airfield diorama, including a majestic 1:32 scale Gotha, remarked that it was never a matter of where to source figures and aircraft. Jenkins aircraft are beautiful, as are their figures. King and Country has an extraordinary range across many conflicts. The real challenge is where to put them after the diorama comes down!
The challenge was, however, much more than just making dioramas or where to store the figures. There was a philosophical challenge as well. In the early part of the twentieth century the College was belligerently Irish in its outlook, staffed as it was by Famine era Christian Brothers. In the insular, almost monastic environment of an Irish Catholic boarding school, the loss of almost one quarter of the 250 who enlisted was particularly traumatic and was commemorated with decidedly mixed feelings.
Other than the Honour Board memorial at the door of the chapel, there is still no permanent reminder on the Campus of the College s experience during the conflict. For the war had hardened prejudices rather than lessened them. The sectarian animosities fanned during the bitterly contested conscription referenda created an estrangement between Catholics and the new forms of national ceremony observed on the anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli. The Catholic Church did not participate in the post war commemoration of Anzac Day, nor did the College Annuals of the twenties and thirties make any reference to a yearly ceremony marking 25 April as a significant event at either a local or national level.
The question of how the College Museum might mark the centenary of the outbreak of the conflict was one that therefore could not be guided by precedent. Inspiration needed to come from further afield, and it was to the Australian War Memorial that the College looked. Counted among the greatest treasures of the Memorial are the First World War dioramas which were constructed in the 1920s under the guidance of Charles Bean, the Official Historian and one of the Memorial s founders. Bean s vision was for a series of dioramas that fused history and art as a means of offering to the Australian people an accurate and moving visual record of their men and women at war. In this same tradition, though perhaps on a more humble scale, the Brisbane collectors likewise sought to create works of both art and history as well as enjoy playing with their collections!
Though Andy Neilson did not use the word art in the foreword he wrote for the commemorative book published to mark the occasion, he described the results in a manner that Bean would have well understood.
They say a good picture is worth a thousand words I have been a toy soldier collector for more years than I care to remember and among the many things I have learned is this A few soldiers, on their own can look O.K. Put them next to a fighting vehicle or an artillery piece and they look even better. Place all of them into a diorama with buildings, landscaping and a healthy dose of imagination and they come alive!
Andy finished the foreword with the question of what s next? That depends Andy what s coming out??
Text by Dr Martin Kerby. Photographs by Marc Robertson
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