The King of Toys
Words Jim Butler
Photographs Laurence Ellis
Ron Fuller 1936 – 2017.
Spending time in the avuncular, no-nonsense company of wooden toy and automaton maker Ron Fuller was one of those wonderful, life affirming experiences. Always ahead of his time, Ron Fuller, together with his wife Moss, was spearheading the craft revival 40 years ago. Colourful, ebullient and armed with an arsenal of knowledge that he was eager to share (a former teacher, he despaired of those in his former profession who ‘cannot – or will not – impart any information’), Fuller talked about a range of subjects in his warm but pleasingly droll conversational style. So it was very fortunate for us when SCP founder Sheridan Coakley nominated Fuller as his unlikely ‘one to watch’…
Sheridan Coakley on Ron
‘He’s a character,’ says Coakley. ‘He’s an interesting guy. There’s a slightly rebellious sense of humour that he has. He did this automaton for the Children’s Ward at Norwich Hospital. Being him, he made this sort of operating theatre, with people sawing people open and pulling out livers and what have you – and they didn’t want it, they said it would upset the patients. But I don’t think it would; I think kids love all that stuff .’ After meeting Fuller and his wife, Moss, while on holiday in Suffolk, Coakley struck up a friendship with the two of them. ‘He told me his background, which is really interesting – he was the son of a carpenter in Falmouth, crap at school; then one of the teachers said to him, “Why don’t you try woodwork?” and the next thing he knew he was at the Royal College in the same year as Hockney – and so was Moss.’
While Ron made his name as a maker of wooden toys and automatons, Moss earned her own reputation as a painter and printmaker, and as part of the Suffolk Group. ‘Moss is a very good artist,’ says Coakley. ‘She was one of several noted landscape artists who moved up to Suffolk in that first wave in the 1970s, when property was really cheap.’ Together, the Fullers helped to set up Craftco (aka the Great Eastern Craft Co-operative) in 1987 in Southwold, which has become a focal point for the thriving Suffolk art community. ‘It’s of the moment isn’t it?’ says Coakley. ‘That whole revival of craft that’s happening right now; but Ron takes it beyond craft. I just liked what he was doing and that he hadn’t stopped making automatons and wooden toys since he’d left college.
He’s got a very straightforward outlook, which I think sometimes comes with confidence and age – probably by being belligerent about what he wants to do, but always with that humour.’ Coakley has since broached the subject of setting up a show in London with Fuller, something they hope to confirm for 2015. ‘I haven’t rediscovered him,’ Coakley is keen to point out, ‘but when things come full circle and people suddenly become interested again where the interest has waned, then I think you should grab the opportunity – which I think he has.’
Ron on life
‘I’m not one of those romantic blokes that talk a load of rubbish about the meaning of life. I’m just a pretty ordinary bloke really,’ says Ron Fuller. But we reckoned he could still tell us a thing or two about it. So here it is: life according Ron Fuller…
‘I kind of became the chief armourer – toy armourer – for the whole town. I come from a big family of mechanics: one of my uncles was a radio ham, my other uncle had a garage. On my mother’s side they were all miners – Cornish miners – and my dad was a wheelwright. He had two workshops and the one at home he would let me go in and play around with. He wasn’t too precious about his tools. I made a lot of toys in there from about the age of seven onwards. This was the wartime, so obviously most of the toys I made were guns, because it was very easy to get a bit of pipe and put a handle on it, a trigger and all that sort of business. We used to play British and Germans all the time.
‘All civilisations had their toymakers. There were toys in the earliest toys…’
‘I went to art school. I stayed there for five years and got all my qualifications. I was still making toys for people; if there was a birthday coming up, I’d make a toy as a present. After that I had to do my National Service. That was two years. A completely different way of life in the army – I then became a trained killer with a real gun. From a toy soldier with a wooden one! I enjoyed marching up and down and shooting things, it was great. I went all over England. It was marvellous.
‘I thought about staying on, but while I was at art school I got a place at the Royal College of Art, so I went there instead. I continued my art studies in the Fine Art department. I also managed to get on the editorial side of Ark, the Royal College of Art magazine. One issue was devoted to toymakers because there were probably a good dozen toymakers making a living in London at the time and I met most of them. That gave me an inkling that when I left the college I could possibly do it as a job; which I eventually did.
‘It’s actually quite a big subject, toys. It’s a kind of subculture. A bit like pottery. It’s a craft really, it’s classed as a craft. All civilisations had their toymakers. There were toys in the earliest tombs; they were buried as ritual objects – as play objects – for the next world. The Germans were the main drivers of the modern toy industry; it’s to do with the German metal industry really. Krupp had a big factory in Essen – the Germans became very famous for their tin plate and metal toys; very expensive collectors’ pieces now. They still have the big toy fairs every year.
‘There’s still a toy industry of course, but it’s dwindling a bit. Kids these days play games on computers as opposed to actually playing with toys. That’s the way things go. There’s an awful lot of flying toys around these days. They are so well made and they’ve all got gyroscopes on them. A kid of six can fl y one! Especially these ones with cameras on them; you can spy on your neighbours, like American spy planes. Drones. That’s all the rage with kids. In fact, something might have to be done about them soon, because in some cases it’s an invasion of privacy. You can be sunbathing in the nude and then the next thing you know, there’ll be pictures of you in the paper!
‘It’s actually quite a big subject, toys. It’s kind of a subculture. A bit like pottery.
It’s classed as a craft…’
‘I mostly like to make in wood. I used to make a lot of toys on machines, but these days I mostly make dolls, which are actually carved. There are other materials you could use, like glass fibre, but I generally stick to wood. I make a lot of tin-plate toys too, just like the Germans did in the 1900s. ‘I’m very influenced by German toymakers. I make a lot of toys that are based on those principles. I make one called ‘The Sausage Maker’; a little man turns a handle and out come endless streams of sausages – it’s all made of tin plate, apart from the sausages. They’re made of wood. It’s quite an amusing piece – people laugh when they see it. You couldn’t really call it a toy as such, it’s more of a collectors’ piece now. That side of toymaking has changed.
‘I make a big range of toys – 40 or 50 different types. The tin-plate toys tend to sell to grown-ups and they put them on a shelf. They’re nice and shiny and they can take them down and show them to their friends. The toys that I make for kids are usually based on folk toys – it’s a very big industry, based on toys from all over the world. They’re very simple little toys that are very nice to play with. They have odd names like “Flipperdinger” and “Whimmydiddle”.
‘When I first started, I mass-produced toys. I had a small range of five or six toys, which were done on machine tools and then sprayed and assembled. I still do that, but back then I used to make hundreds at a time. Now I probably make two at a time, because my range is so diverse. What I did when I first started was reproduce the toys I used to play with. I had a horse-racing game – all these horses were on strings and you pulled them out from the starting gate and as you wound the handle they all came in at different speeds, so different horses would win each time. I started to make that when I first became a toymaker and that sold like hot cakes. A very enjoyable toy – you could bet on it!
‘The other toy that I used to make was a ship and submarine. You assemble the ship, which contains a mousetrap-like mechanism, and put a torpedo in the submarine. Put both on the floor, about six to eight feet apart, and you press the button on the submarine that fires the torpedo. If you hit the little button on the ship it activates the mousetrap and the ship explodes. I’ve made thousands of them.
The horse-racing game, you can bet on it. The shipping submarine is a target toy – and kids love target toys. Even though it’s a war toy, I always used to say it was a target toy. It used to sell better that way.
‘I think the realisation that you can work for yourself was a very important thing, because if you work for a master you’re so tied down. When I was teaching I was always anxious to get back to my own work. It’s been an OK life! Earlier on we had three children and then we fostered four girls, so in our early life we spent an awful lot of time bringing up kids. It was quite hard work actually. We’re in the middle of building a bloody house at the moment! I’m looking forward to a time – hopefully in a few months – when it’s all done and we can all concentrate on being happy again!
‘I’ve always been a bit of a plagiarist. Sometimes you see a new technique; I’ve copied quite a lot of work from other people. I’m not that precious about keeping things to myself. If someone wants to pinch one of my ideas, that’s perfectly fine as I’ve pinched hundreds of other people’s ideas! I think that’s the best way to learn really. If you’re interested in someone’s work, just copy it or do your version of it. I think it was Stravinsky that was accused of copying someone else’s music and he said, “I didn’t copy it, I stole it.” That’s a bit like me.’