Frederick Rowland Emett was a British draughtsman, inventor, artist, cartoonist, and builder of whimsical mechanical moving sculpture. He established himself as a cartoonist working for Punch magazine during the late 1930s. Emett’s comical and complex illustrations of machines were very popular. He soon began turning his drawings into large three-dimensional machines. He designed a rocket for Shell Oil, the “Forget-Me-Not” computer for Honeywell Computers and the car and inventions that appeared in the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968). It has been said, that their joyful nature helped cheer up the nation.
Emett was born in London, England in 1906. He was the eldest son of an advertising businessman and amateur inventor. From a young age, he excelled at drawing and showed the same enthusiasm as his father for inventing. At the age of fourteen, he registered his first patent for a gramophone volume control. Emett had dreams of becoming a landscape painter and studied at Birmingham School of Arts and Crafts. However, his combination of artistic and scientific skill led him to work as an engineering draughtsman.
While working as a draughtsman, Emett regularly contributed to magazines Punch and Lilliput, among other. Quickly becoming a popular artist he was chosen to illustrate Bells and Grass, a collection of rhymes by poet Walter de la Mare. It was published in 1941 by Faber and Faber. The author was so delighted with Emett’s work that he immediately asked him to illustrate a new edition of his famous book, Peacock Pie, which was originally published in 1913.
Also in 1941, Emett married Elsie May Evans (known as Mary Emett). The two started work on a children’s book, Anthony and Antimacassar, which was later published in 1943. From 1943 until 1949 Faber and Faber published a collection of his Punch cartoons into multiple volumes.
By the mid-1950s, Emett’s eyesight was faltering so he started to illustrate less and concentrate more on his sculptures. He constructed them at a blacksmith’s forge near his home. He worked with a team of assistance to bring to life Caractacus Potts weird machines in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. He and his team created eight of the inventions for the film and a further 37 for international promotional purposes.
Emett’s eccentricity and hard work was acknowledged in 1978, when he was awarded the Order of the British Empire. In 1988, Chris Beetles Gallery held the Rowland Emett: From “Punch” to “Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang” and beyond exhibition, which was welcomed with an overwhelmingly positive response.
In 2012, Tim Griffiths founded the Rowland Emett Society, with the aim to reinvigorate interest in the cartoonist. In 2014, Griffiths approached The Birmingham Museum to host the largest exhibition devoted to Emett, Marvellous Machines: The Wonderful World of Rowland Emett.
Today his work can be seen in The Cartoon Museum, Tate, the V&A, and his sculptures can be seen across England and the world. You can find out much more on the Rowland Emett Society website and blog. Follow the Society on Twitter. See more of Rowland Emett’s work on Chris Beetles, and even pick up the 1988 exhibition catalogue.