In 1975 he began restoring mechanical antiques. An encounter with the English collector and personality, Jack Donovan, introduced David to the world of artificial life. Jack had a shop at 93 Portobello Road in London selling music boxes and automata. Portobello at that time combined bohemian crowds there to see and be seen with market trader, collectors and connoisseurs involved in the rituals of hunting down their own particular treasure.
On Saturdays, the road was lined with antique and trinket dealers and other colourful characters. A regular fixture was the organ grinder with a parrot on his shoulder whose widow kept to the same spot into the 1990s, with the organ now balanced on the end of an old pram full of tiny Chihuahua dogs dressed in woolly jumpers.
The antiques shops had rickety wooden floors and steps – the first indication that one might find a bargain there. Bargains were a matter of chance but what was a certainty in the 1970s was that one group of the people gathered together on those smoggy mornings were those with the expertise and enthusiasm for mechanical music and automata.
Jack and David were part of a coterie of collectors and restorers such as the dollmaker and costumer, Margaret Glover, and disc musical box specialist Bob Kane Trender, with whom David shared a workshop for a time. All were frequent visitors to Jack’s shop and together they made the commercial world of automata not just glamorous, but magical and fantastic.
There was an edge to it, spiced with money and rare skill; a restorer like David was a man in demand. In an appreciative nod to the talents of Jack’s restorers, the Donovan collection eventually became part of the York Museum of Automata.
The restoration of classic clockwork automata gave David an insight into 19th century production techniques and inspired him to create his own mechanical sculptures, using his skill with fine woodworking to create a unique style for the period.
The first automaton I ever bought was by David, though Jack claimed it was German and from the 1930s. I saw it in the Portobello Road shop and I bought it because of its complexity. It possessed a multitude of cams and levers, a turntable, bellows and a carousel which animated two large wooden figures of a man and a lady. The man smoked a cigarette while the lady had other pleasures in mind as she watched the seated figure, averting her eyes only at the ‘punchline’ when a stream of smoke puffed out from an unlikely part of the man’s anatomy. It was a fine, if unlikely, example of David’s mechanical ingenuity and sense of humour.
It was only years later, when sitting and chatting with David off set at the BBC’s Christmas lecture on robots (where he had demonstrated his Archer), that he admitted to making this complex scene to win a bet with Jack during a raucous drinking session after a particularly good Saturday’s trading.
On moving to Diss in Norfolk in the 1980s, David carried on with the construction and restoration of automata, sometimes travelling to restore collections in the USA and Europe, as well as undertaking some significant commissions for one-off automata, all made with his trademark blend of fine woodwork and a traditional brass and steel mechanism.
I visited his Norfolk workshop on several occasions. On my final visit, the chaotically ordered workshop included the feathered carcass of a large goose on the workbench, a model for a beautifully sculptural and anatomically accurate version of Vaucanson’s Duck. Characteristically for David, he wanted to get it right in every detail.
David passed away on November 16, aged 80, leaving an inspiring legacy of beautiful and ambitious automata for makers and collectors around the world.
Michael Start, The House of Automata, Scotland