Monday, 14 October 2019

1066 Otto Gottstein diorama discovered

On a recent visit to Hastings, land of Jack in the Green, Bonfire Boys, Grey Owl and all things 1066, I happened to mention to Mrs C that when I was a boy I regularly holidayed here with my parents and one year discovered a museum up on the cliffs which had a diorama of the Battle of Hastings. I could remember it clearly in my minds eye, it was massive, built on a table which filled the room and composed of tiny Airfix figures, the whole thing covered in a glass case.  But on subsequent visits I could never find that museum again, had I just imagined the whole thing?

And thus dear reader began the Quest!

We set off from the Pier, scaled the cliffs and with the aid of a map (a map! why didn't I think of using one of those before?) the museum was quickly found, smaller and less imposing than I remembered but it was in the right location, that was a start.  Inside.....no diorama, in fact hardly any mention of the Battle at all! (instead whole rooms devoted to Grey Owl and conservation).  As we gathered up our disappointment and made to leave I noticed a few figures behind glass, 30mm flats, not what we had come in search of and so poorly lit that you could barely make them out.

Descending the cliffs we returned to the Old Town and resumed our holiday, sampling local ales and poking around in the myriad junk shops until we entered what appeared to be a second hand book shop and in a corner at the back we found this:

In a large glass case but looking rather dull and dusty was this diorama of the Battle of Hastings, much smaller than I remembered and comprising 30mm German tin flats not 20mm plastic Airfix figures, sadly this couldn't be the diorama from my childhood.

But it was!  I enquired about it's origin from an elderly gentleman who seemed to be in charge of the shop (sadly I didn't get his name) and he told me that it was indeed the diorama which had originally been housed in Hastings Museum up on the hill, the local borough Council had revamped the museum to make it a more interactive educational resource (oh, and also a venue for weddings and social events) for the community.  In this bright new vision there was no place for a big old box full of tiny tin soldiers so the diorama was broken up and put into storage, in due course the storage area was to be cleared out and the gentleman I was talking to had saved what was left from going in the skip. 

What remains is less than half, probably about a third of the original model, and without the centrepiece vignette of King Harold being shot in the eye by an arrow, which was retained by the museum and was the group of figures mentioned above that I had seen there.  Okay I can see that an old careworn exhibit isn't going to fit in with the needs of the modern world but I still felt it was an act of institutional vandalism, similar to what's been done at the National Army Museum (don't get me started on that)

I went back to take a longer look at the diorama to see how my memory could have been so misplaced, and then in the corner I noticed a small plastic plaque simply engraved D Stokes, London WC1 and I realised I was looking at one of the fifteen famous dioramas commissioned by the legendary collector, Otto Gottstein, for display in 1937 at the Royal United Services Museum in Whitehall.

 I didn't get a photo of the death of King Harold when I was at Hastings Museum, the display was just too dark, fortunately there is a monochrome pic of it in the 1937 catalogue for the RUSI museum exhibition.  And here it is, Harold is centre stage about to throw a spear and with a rather overscale arrow in the eye.

Above, the catalogue for the 1937 exhibition at the Royal United Services Museum in Whitehall together with the biography of Otto Gottstein and his collection (published by edition Krannich 2000, ISBN 3-933124-06-9, text mostly in German) well worth a read, Gottstein was the President of the British Model Soldier Society and also financed Roy Selwyn-Smiths first venture, Selwyn Miniatures, which went on to become the Britains Knights of Agincourt series.

If you happen to be in Hastings do pop into Hastings History House at 21 Courthouse Street, it's the current home of this venerable old diorama as well as the HQ of Old Hastings Preservation Society.  I started to write this post some time ago then realised that as today is the anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, I really ought to get it posted.

Postscript.
After the RUSI Museum exhibition was broken up, the 15 dioramas were distributed to new homes far and wide, mostly military museums in the UK, one went to the Royal Military School of Music at Kneller Hall and has subsequently been lost, while no less than four went to the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Canada - someone in Canada please tell us that they are still there!

33 comments:

  1. What a fascinating post . How awful it had been discarded but how glorious it had been saved. Modern museums just don’t know the treasures they have and discard them willy nilly. I really enjoyed the photos and information.

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    1. In fairness the curatorial staff at the museum probably wouldn't have been aware of the history and significance of the piece, which, after all, is only of interest to us toy and model soldier enthusiasts, and we are a very minority body, whatever we might like to think! I first became aware of the Gottstein dioramas from the books by John Garrett and Henry Harris, which were my bibles as a child so this was a very exciting discovery for me.

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  2. Fascinating post, and I'm glad you accomplished your quest. There was a diorama of Waterloo in Bath back in the early 1980s, conveniently opposite my school, and it was a sad day when that exhibition closed. Happily I believe the diorama was kept intact and is now in Winchester.

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    1. I have always found dioramas to be an endless source of fascination, whether they be just a few figures displayed with buildings and accessories on a collectors shelf or serious historical studies made by professionals for public display. Glad to hear your Waterloo diorama found a safe home.

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    2. I also visited the Waterloo diorama in Bath in 1983 when I was a teenager and kept the postcard and the flyer of how it was made. I looked for it in vain on subsequent visits to the city without any success. However, on a trip to Winchester a few years ago we went to the Royal Green Jackets museum and I recognised their diorama instantly as the one that had previously been housed in Bath. It is now in an excellent positon for viewing (unlike the Siborne model at the NAM) and much better lit than the original gloomy surroundings.

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    3. Thanks for the heads up Andy, good to know that it's been saved for posterity (and also where it is!)

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  3. I read that this was THE original 1966 commemoration diorama created by Donald Featherstone and Tony Bath. Apparently the local authorities weren’t impressed by the flats and replaced it with the Airfix bods. Shame. I like these and can’t imagine how anyone would throw them out!

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    1. Gottstein commissioned the (then) famous diorama builder Denny C Stokes to make 9 of the 15 exhibits for the RUSI Museum display in 1937, his name plaque on the model and the photograph in the 1937 catalogue provide the provenance for this being earlier than 1966. It's interesting that you mention a diorama made with Arfix figures, could it be that this later one was made by Featherstone and Bath? 1966 would fit with the date that I would have originally visited the museum and I have always been convinced that I saw Airfix figures. Thanks for this new lead, I'll have to do some more digging!

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    2. I remember now that Bath and Featherstone fought a battle but didn’t make a diorama, although DF mentions this in one of his books. I know he wasn’t impressed with the Airfix tableau so I doubt he had anything to do with that.

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    3. I'm begining to wonder if there wasn't a second diorama made to replace this earlier version, and that's what I originally remember seeing.

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  4. I'm afraid dioramas and similar displays are not au courant with current museum theology these days. Pity really.

    Still, good story and good diorama. I have vague memories of some brilliant dioramas at the old fort on Ile Ste Helene in Montreal when I was a youngling. Unfortunately when I grew to young adult head and had a chance to revisit they had dwindled to rather plain dusty things which didn't tell nearly as exciting a tale as they once had.

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    1. Yes, you're right if a display isn't interactive or at least have moving parts it won't cut the mustard these days. When we were younger dioramas were magical and exercised our imaginations, I still get that feeling looking at the pictures on many of the wargaming blogs these days, just swopped one media for another!

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  5. Brian, what a great story-you're an excellent researcher! Best wishes, Anthony.

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    1. Thanks Anthony, fortunately I have a massive archive of material on toy soldiers.

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  6. Wonderful discovery Brian! I had a similar experience here in upstate New York. There was a wonderful diorama of the 1777 Battle of Oriskany at our local historical society. I had seen it on a field trip in First Grade and fell in love with it! Fast forward 50 years and as I was walking through a local antique shop, there it was in a dark, dusty corner in an awful state of disrepair! Very sad, but time marches on and so must we! Thanks for another great post Brian!

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    1. Were you tempted to buy and restore it? I know I would have been, even though I'd never have the room to display it!

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    2. Sadly no, an outlandish price and most everything broken beyond repair.

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  7. Great post Brian, nice to see this survive all these years. I saw the Sedgemoor diorama in the Admiral Blake Museum in Bridgewater about 15 years ago, I wonder if that also survives? It was starting to look a bit tired, but I still managed to stare at it till my kids managed to drag me away..

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    1. Thanks for the heads up Eric, I've just taken a look at the Blake Museum website and they have a PDF on the battle which shows a small part of the diorama here:

      https://www.bridgwatermuseum.org.uk/index_htm_files/Battle%20of%20sedgemoor%20trifold.pdf

      I don't think they know the background to the diorama but at least they still have it.

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  8. What a fabulous post and 'find' on your behalf. Great that your efforts were so well rewarded.
    Nearly ended up in a skip... oh my, 'one man's meat' and all that, but you'd have thought some sense of local and history and pride would have prevailed. Thank goodness for the gent in the Hastings History House!

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    1. So often it seems that only the efforts of individual enthusiasts prevents so much of the past from being lost forever.

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  9. A marvellous post. Thank you for sharing.

    Regards, Chris.

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  10. There are two photos of the diorama in Baldet, Marcel 1961 Lead Soldiers and Figurines: The World in Miniatures. New York: Crown Publishers. pp. 62-63. The diorama was created by Otto Gottstein for the RUSM. It measured 75 cm.- 120 cm. The images in the book have fascinated me since childhood. I feel so lucky to get a glimpse of what the original looked like. Thank you! The flats still come up on German Ebay and go for quite a lot of money because of the memory of this diorama and Gottstein's extraordinary knowledge of costume details and ability to capture the action.

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    1. Thanks for this, I have the Baldet book but don't recall the photos, I'll go and take another look! The Gottstein flats do have a certain quality of their own that sets them apart, it doesn't surprise me that they fetch high prices.

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  11. With a magnifying glass and you can see Harold in the photo on p. 62 just as he appears above. Thanks for the detail. It looks like Bishop Odo survived in the current model riding a white horse in the center of the battlefield. Apparently the diorama was intended to capture a particular moment when the Normans feigned a retreat and drew the Anglo-Saxons out of their shield wall. William then directed his archers to fire and the cavalry turned back around and charged. Now I wonder about Stokes's model of Galipolli that appeared on the cover of Alan Moorhead's 1956 book. I know the Glenbow and may contact a friend up there. I'm a museum specialist and seen technologies come and go but never give way to real objects. Its too bad these have been broken up because they could easily be cleaned and refreshed with dramatic lighting and podcast narration of the action.

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    1. The story of the Norman cavalry's feigned retreat to draw out the Saxon shield wall was how the battle was explained to all British schoolboys of my generation, so I guess it would be the natural choice of subject to portray the event. Interesting comment about the Galipolli diorama, keep us posted on what you discover.

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  12. Hi! There are 5 Gottstein dioramas in the Glenbow Museum: Crecy, Waterloo, Balaklava, Blenheim and the Roman invasion of Britain. Crecy, Waterloo and Balaklava are on display, Blenheim & Roman invasion are awaiting restoration. The museum is undergoing renovations and I was concerned about the dioramas but I was reassured by their staff that they are very popular and won't be going away!

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    1. Many thanks for this update Startled Rat, it's a great comfort to know that they're still safe and even more reassuring to hear that the museum are investing in restoring them. You've quite made my day!

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    2. On 5th December Startled Rat left this message:

      My pleasure! But I don't want to give the impression that Blenheim and Roman Britain will be restored anytime soon. I did get a chance to go "backstage" and take some not-so-great photos of them a few years ago.

      I have deleted the original because it included his email address, he also kindly offered to send me some of the pictures if he can find them and I have sent a message to say that I would very much like to see them.

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  13. The entire set of the battle is now offered by Berliner Zinnfiguren. Smart move to acquire the moulds.

    https://www.zinnfigur.com/en/Flat-Figures/Blank-Figures/Military-History/Middle-Ages/Special-Series/Battle-of-Hastings-1066.html

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  14. Brian, I am a volunteer at the Hastings History House. Today someone enquired about the diorama, which determined me to search for more information. Dennis Collins, to whom you spoke, has not been well enough to attend here for some time and I had got his tale tangles up with other stories, which your blog has certainly helped me sort out. Thank you so much.
    Marilyn

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    1. Glad to be able to help Marilyn, and so sorry to hear that Mr Collins has been less active recently. Hopefully the current Covid restrictions will end sometime and I'll be able to get down to Hastings for another visit to HHH, it was quite a "Holy Grail" moment for me when I realised the significance of the diorama I was looking at.

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