Russian Bird: the constant muse

The Russian Bird is a marvel of clockwork ingenuity. Though a little faded from too much sunlight in her youth (we’re more careful with her now) her mechanisms are still strong.


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When fully wound she turns her head from side to side, her beak opens and closes, her wings flap, her tail bobs and she sings with considerable brio. Her voice, powered by bellows in her chest, while not the sweetest nonetheless has an impressive vibrato. I always think her more a music-hall artiste than a concert-platform diva. More Vesta Tilley than Dame Kiri te Kanawa!

There’s certainly no point in anyone talking while she’s performing because she drowns out all competition, which is pretty impressive for a lady of her small size and considerable years.

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She moved audiences when projected onto a screen during performances of Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes, beautifully accompanying the music that conjured a forest full of birds. Here’s the sequence, though alas without the live music accompaniment. (She was not best pleased that the composer eschewed her voice, but stepped up to the challenge of conveying her role through the medium of mime like a born silent movie star!)

When the poem by Simon Armitage that had been the libretto of the production was published in an illustrated edition by Design for Today, the Russian Bird was awarded a double page spread, and in it she’s quite the Queen of the Forest surrounded by her retinue of smaller birds, all pecking away at Hansel’s path of scattered crumbs.

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Deeply conscientious about her duties as artist’s muse, she’s a tireless model and will go to any lengths to facilitate whatever’s required of her in the studio. For her forthcoming appearance on the cover of the picture book Bird House for Design for Today, she carried a Byzantine palace knapsack-style on her back, standing unflinchingly for an entire afternoon while I drew her.


She’s made guest appearances in several galleries and museums. Here at MoMA Machynlleth she takes centre stage on the Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre that toured the country in the stage production of Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes in 2018.



You can see in these snapshots that she loves demonstrating to an adoring public that she’s the inspiration behind what is clearly – in her opinion – the most important illustration in the book of Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes.





She’s never slow to be my messenger, and friends are always won over by her bright eyes and sprightly demeanour.


Below: in a tiny theatre of her own, produced in a small edition for members of the Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop Harlequinade Club.



When not making public appearances, Russian Bird is tirelessly creative in the studio, always game to collaborate with other toys on making scenarios she thinks may offer me new pathways to paintings and illustrations. Here she is in a stunning tableau vivant interpretation of Death and the Maiden.


Here we catch her giving one of her renowned masterclasses to an eager young student.


None of us at Ty Isaf knows where we’d be without her.




10 thoughts on “Russian Bird: the constant muse

  1. Dear Sir, as the agent, acting on behalf of Русская птица Diva we have yet to receive the contract back from Ty Isaf, complete with the customary, shall we say, 30%?
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  2. How wonderfully you have portrayed your tin-feathered muse. This little essay is like watching an avian production of ‘The good old days‘. Her singing is beautiful and needs no accompaniment. The sunshine and spotlight will never truly fade her!

    Thanks for sharing her!

    • It never crossed my mind back when I acquired Russian Bird – long before I became an artist – that a novelty purchased because I thought it a charming toy would become something I’d grow so attached to and creatively inspired by. It’s a shame her tinplate has faded because of my inattention in placing her in direct sunlight, and so the illustration with the building strapped to her back has been an act of imaginative restoration to what she still is in my head.

      For the filmed segments and animation sequences projected onto the stage in performances of Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes back in 2018, there was simply too little time and insufficient budget to make everything required by the script. Wherever I could, I improvised from what I already had. All the sequences were filmed by Pete Telfer of Culture Colony in a pop-up studio in my dining-room. If memory serves there were originally only three days of filming allowed for by the producer in the shedule/budget, which given the number of model and animation set-ups planned was insanely optimistic. Even working around the clock to prepare, there were still gaps in my list of required props on the morning we began. For the sequence in which the music suggested a forest full of birdsong, the words ‘Make Birds’ were still ominously un-ticked on my ‘to do’ list. By the afternoon of the third intense day of filming I was getting clumsy from tiredness, and still had no idea about what to shoot for the bird sequence. In breaks from filming I’d walk around the house looking for items that might be requisitioned as stand-ins for what there hadn’t been time to make. With just minutes to getting the last set-up of the day underway, I wandered into the tiny room at the back of our hallway called ‘the cabinet of curiosities’. It’s a repository of modest treasures, among them my collections of fossils and vintage tin-toys. I saw and seized upon the Russian Bird, and in minutes had arranged her in a forest of wooden trees in front of the camera. It was completely unplanned and it couldn’t have worked had her ageing mechanisms let us down. But they didn’t and she performed like the star she is. In the ensuing performances, as the music powered up to suggest morning light and song, the sequence flickered and glimmered above the musicians, perfectly accompanying the mood conjured by Matt Kaner’s music. Not all creativity can be planned or organised. There have to be allowances: for chaos, indecision, improvisation that may or may not work, inspired hunches and the capturing of lightning in a bottle.

  3. Oooh, hadn’t seen the palace-backed version! Lovely birdie, so adaptable…

    Showed Michael her photo because I thought he might have one in his collection, and he said, no, that’s Russian. (He doesn’t have any Russian windups, as it turns out.)

    • She’s from Saint Petersburg. As Mike will know, a very few surviving tinplate manufacturers continue to produce clockwork figures from their back catalogues to supply the collector market. If the Saint Petersburg bird was still being produced I’m sure we’d be seeing her turning up on sales sites, but she’s absent from them. There’s a handsome Chinese singing bird available, which I ordered online, but when it arrived could be persuaded to neither move or sing, so I wasn’t impressed by it. By contrast the Russian Bird has been flapping and bobbing and singing for the thirty years I’ve had her, so I mightily impressed by the robustness of her mechanics.

    • Thank you, Lizzie. The illustration of her with a Byzantine palace is for my forthcoming little book with Design for Today, ‘Bird House’, now almost complete and ready to go to the designer. Love to you and G from Ty Isaf in the Spring. We’re enjoying it while it lasts. Our postman assures us there’s rain on the way!

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