Taking Robert Race’s Automata short course at West Dean College

Last weekend I took a long-planned break from work and family to go to West Dean College in West Sussex for a four day course with Robert Race learning how to make simple automata. I’d been there for an Association of Contemporary Jewellery conference in July 2010 and fell in love with the place. I took this photograph then.

West Dean is a wonderful place to go not just for the courses they put on or even the fantastic food, but for the quiet – there’s no tv (unless you take advantage of the WiFi in the magnificent Oak Room and have remembered to bring headphones) and it’s just so calm and peaceful when you’re not in class.

I decided to travel down by train. As I got close to Chichester I realised that I’d forgotten to pack my linen threads, needles and crochet hook. This would mean that I wouldn’t be able to do the things I had planned in the evenings after the course had finished each day.

Feeling anxious about this omission, I switched on my ipad, enabled the 3G and quickly found a shop near Chichester Station where I could buy some essentials. The Eternal Maker is a wonderful place to visit if you’re ever in the area where you can find almost everything you would need (though it didn’t have any crochet hooks). It shares it’s space with The Button Company which stocks thousands of buttons. It is just a great place to wander around.

In a huge old suitcase I found some scraps of felt for sale by weight and elsewhere some lovely heavy duty cotton threads that could be used for embroidery. I carefully selected colours that would complement each other working mainly with a grey base and a green palette with a bit of red and yellow thrown in for good measure. The choices I made were to work well for me when it came to the course the next day.

Materials for automata

When we all gathered for the start of the course we were confronted with a room full of tools both mechanical and electrical that I had never used before but also box upon box of wood and other materials that we could use when it came to making automata.

Robert had also put out lots of books for ideas and many many examples of both his own automata and items from his personal collection which he had amassed from around the world (see opening photograph above).

Robert was a wonderful tutor and very patient with us all.

I didn’t want to simply replicate the great pieces that he had made – if I wanted those pieces then I could buy them from him, so I set  about finding my own take on the medium. Having a bag full of scraps of felt, I quickly settled into my comfort zone of sewing. As it turned out the colours and the felt itself sat comfortably with the pieces of drift wood and scraps that were provided and so I think the pieces I ended up with were harmonious and I was happy with most of them. I particularly liked the bumble bee balancing toy which took inspiration from the distressed yellow paintwork on a piece of weathered wood I found in the boxes Robert provided….

…. and the rabbit in a hat which had the most complicated mechanism I attempted (though it is a relatively simple one). I was pleased because it turned out pretty much as I envisaged it.

Other students (there were nine of us in total) included a potter, a web designer, a retired music teacher and a gallery owner. All produced wonderful pieces, some reproductions of Robert’s work, but most their own interpretations of the tasks we were given. Unfortunately I didn’t manage to photograph everyone’s work, but here are some of the pieces that were made over the course of the three days we were there. (I should mention that days at West Dean can last up to 10pm as workshops remain open until then. This is wonderful because none of us really wanted to stop at teatime and it meant we could make the most of our time there.)


I would thoroughly recommend any course with Robert, but also any opportunity you can get to visit and study at West Dean. Well worth the fee!