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Tim Hunkin, Cartoonist & Engineer

February 6, 2015
by the gentle author

Tim Hunkin

I know I cannot be the only one who still has a cardboard file of copies of Tim Hunkin’s genius cartoon strip, ‘The Rudiments of Wisdom,’ clipped weekly from the Observer and cherished through all these years. So I hope you will appreciate my excitement when Tim invited me over to Bloomsbury last Sunday to photograph the arrival of his automata and slot machines, prior to next week’s opening of Novelty Automation, his personal amusement arcade.

I can now reveal that there were a few anxious moments as Tim’s nuclear reactor lurched violently while being manhandled from the van. But you will be relieved to learn that all the machines fitted through the door and are safely installed inside his tiny premises in Princeton St off Red Lion Sq, where – for a small fee – Londoners will be able to practice money-laundering, witness a total eclipse, lose weight, get frisked, get divorced, get chiropody and – of course – operate a nuclear reactor.

Yesterday I went back to admire Tim’s machines, illuminated and humming with life in their new home, which gave me the opportunity to have a chat with the engineer while he tinkered with the works, making his final adjustments and ironing out a few last minute snags. “I started making things as a child and the cartoons were a distraction at university when I couldn’t have a workshop,” he revealed modestly, his hands deep inside a machine, “I started drawing for a student magazine and that led me to the Observer.”

Leaning in close with a puzzled frown, Tim tilted his gold spectacles upon his brow and narrowed his eyes in thought, peering into the forest of cogs and levers. I hope he will forgive me if I admit could not ignore the startling resemblance at that moment, in his posture and countenance, to Heath Robinson’s illustrations for Norman Hunter’s Professor Branestawm stories.

“It’s much easier to make a living by drawing than by making things, and it’s harder to make things that work,” he confessed, turning to catch my eye, “I often say, I spent the first half of my life making things badly.”

“I just like being in my workshop, I get itchy feet sitting at a desk. But if my body gives out before my mind, I plan to write a huge book about Electricity,” he continued, growing excited as the thought struck him.

I plan to hang on as long as I can,” he reassured me, returning his concentration to the machine.

“The ingredient you need when you make things is to know it’s worthwhile,” Tim said, half to himself, “There needs to be a point to it – sometimes I leave my workshop and go down to the arcade in Southwold and I see people laughing at my machines there. You can’t imagine how addictive that is for me.” Casting my eyes around the room at Tim’s array of ingenious and playful machines, each conceived with a sharp edge of satirical humour, I could easily imagine it. “I’m quite a loner, so it’s my connection to the world and it gives me great pleasure,” he confided without taking his gaze from the work in hand.

“People underestimate slot machines,” he informed me, almost defensively, “Once they have paid, they pay attention, read the instructions and concentrate because they have invested and they want to get their money’s worth. So you’ve really captured your audience.”

“In the eighties, I had a brush with the Art world, but I prefer the notion that, rather than buy your work, people buy an experience,” he concluded, adding “and you don’t have to be sophisticated to enjoy it.”

All this time, Tim had been fiddling with an hydraulic system which caused the eyes to shoot out of a bust of Sigmund Freud but – at that moment – was failing to pull them back in again afterwards. Constructed of old timber, the device comprised an automated bedroom with dream figures popping up from inside the wardrobe and outside the window.

“The machines are the stars not me,” Tim declared when I exclaimed in wonder to see the mechanism spring into life, “I’m looking forward to when I can get back to my workshop.” I left him there playing with the dream machine and I rather envied him.

Tim Hunkin and his team deliver their Nuclear Reactor in Bloomsbury

Tim Hunkin and the Dream Machine

NOVELTY AUTOMATION at 1a Princeton St, Bloomsbury, WC1R 4 AX,  from Wednesday 11th February . Wednesdays 11am – 6pm, Thursdays 11am – 7pm, Fridays 11am – 6pm & Saturdays 11am – 6pm

19 Responses leave one →
  1. ROBERT GREEN permalink
    February 6, 2015

    I remember Tim, he use to have a weekly program on TV year’s ago I think it was called “The Secret Life” of , and he would pick a different subject for the program every week, I use to love watching it, in fact I still have most of the episodes on VHS tape (don’t tell the authorities ! ! ) he is a GENIUS, he knows so much about machine’s and electronics, and how everyday items like washing machines and fridges TV’s etc work, he is VERY clever at making things, I am definitely going to make a point of visiting this place, I’m pleased to see that he is still continuing with his unique work, of course I only know him from his programs on TV but apart from looking like a classic “boffin” he always seemed to come across as a very nice man, in his programs he appeared to have a great sense of humour too, I like him.

  2. February 6, 2015

    Mr Hunkin, I have loved you from afar for a very long time.
    Can’t wait to visit xxx

  3. joan permalink
    February 6, 2015

    Some of our best family holidays have been at Blaxhall Youth Hostel which allows lots of visit to Southwold pier. Like many people we have photos of our kids at various ages taken in Tim’s Expressive Photo Booth. We were delighted when we found out about this London outpost of Tim’s empire.

    Back in 2013 I attended a talk given by Tim at the V&A (there is video of it here: Alongside all the 50 somethings with memories of the cartoon strips and tv programmes were lots of 20 something designer/makers. We were all thrilled to be in the presence of such a genial genius.

    I shall be gathering together lots of loose change and heading up to Princeton Street in the near future.

    Best wishes,


  4. February 6, 2015

    I hope the show goes well! I often visit Southwold and Tim’s machines alway bring a smile to holidaymakers on the pier.

  5. Ken permalink
    February 6, 2015

    Visit Southwold Pier for a brilliant Hunkin experience!

  6. February 6, 2015

    The Rudiments of Wisdom were eagerly anticipated in our household too. When I first left art college I worked for a while at the wonderful Cabaret, Museum of Automata in Covent Garden (polishing the exhibit cases etc) in which were some of Tim’s very amusing works (he also had work in Neals’ Yard). I remember one day seeing a rather scruffy looking man tying up his bicycle by the railings near Cabaret. He stood out amongst all the trendy folk milling about the place. He had an air of other worldly distraction about him. I wondered who he was and of course it was Tim delivering work, if I remember correctly, to Cabaret. How wonderful this new project, I can’t wait to visit.

  7. February 6, 2015

    Just seeing the photographs of the machines had me laughing out loud already! Such ingenuity and sense of humour. I’d love to go on a microbreak.

  8. John Cranston permalink
    February 6, 2015

    PLEASE tell me….. these wonderful machines aren’t leaving Southwold Pier permanently, are they? The resort simply wouldn’t be the same without Mr Hunkin’s wonderful Under The Pier Show. It seems as though he’s removed some of my very favourites (including The Chiropodist, which I have tried in vain over the years to persuade him to sell to me…). It will be Bloomsbury’s gain but Southwold’s tragic loss. His is the only amusement arcade in the world which one can leave feeling utterly uplifted and not ripped off.

  9. February 6, 2015

    Madness — but a convincing one!

    Love & Peace

  10. Ros permalink
    February 6, 2015

    Lovely post! And lovely photos conveying Tim’s humour and the anxious moments involved in manhandling all those machines.

  11. Miriam Pope permalink
    February 6, 2015

    Cheers Tim, and Gentle Author,
    I began this day with your site in sight, and the New York Times. How Life imitates Art, your Art. But there is more honesty to your presentation. You cut to the chase, as they say.
    You distill with a wallop!
    How I enjoyed this viewing.
    Many Brooklyn thanks,

  12. the gentle author permalink*
    February 6, 2015

    Be assured, JOHN! The Under the Pier Show in Southwold remains open.

  13. Katya permalink
    February 6, 2015

    Brilliantly, wonderfully, inspiringly funny… absolutely WORTHWHILE!

  14. Annie S permalink
    February 6, 2015

    That’s brilliant!
    His name rang an imediate bell, I have seen his work somewhere in the past, will definitely pay a visit to the exhibition.

  15. Annie Medcalf permalink
    February 6, 2015

    I’m booking a ticket to London immediately to see Tim’s museum! We fell in love with his inventions on Southwold Pier last year, and tried them all out – what fun that there are more to experience. Can’t wait for the Sigmund Freud Experience! Thank you GA for discovering Tim so closeby.

  16. Shawdiane permalink
    February 6, 2015

    Did not know this; Tim thank you for sharing. Nice to see the slot machines instead of the usual computerised flash flash flash 🙂

  17. Olly Laz permalink
    February 11, 2015

    tim Hunkin is my idol, in a still unhealthy teenage obsessive way. I used to have Rudiments of Wisdom wallpapered on my wall and I used to camp on the doorstep of the Caberet Mechanical Theatre in Covent Garden and hoping this new location will bring a similar magical space to Central London.
    A true hero, artist, commentator and great Brriton.

  18. Steve Morris permalink
    February 13, 2015

    I still remember the ‘Test your Nerve’ at the Cabaret Mechanical Theatre and the thought of it still makes me laugh. I love Mr Hunkin’s amusing statements about the world and appreciate just how hard it is to make something actually work and do it reliably. I am pencilling in a school inset day so I can take my son up to London to see the new exhibition and wish Mr H all the success he deserves from this.

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