Wednesday 24 July 2019

Why size does matter: our fascination with tiny things

Non-fiction: In Miniature, Simon Garfield Canongate, hardback, 304 pages, €18

The world's biggest model railway: Miniatur Wunderland in Hamburg, Germany. Photo by Joern Pollex
The world's biggest model railway: Miniatur Wunderland in Hamburg, Germany. Photo by Joern Pollex
In Miniature by Simon Garfield

Lewis Jones

'A small thing," wrote Lucretius, "may give an analogy of great things, and show the tracks of knowledge." Lucretius had in mind atoms, rather than model villages, but his observation might have served as an epigraph for Simon Garfield's new book, which argues that the miniature "shows us how to see, learn and appreciate more with less".

He begins with the opening of the Eiffel Tower in 1889, which effectively showed the city of Paris in miniature - his book is about scale, he explains, not size - and prompted the first factory-made scale models in cast iron; it was also available in pastry and chocolate. And it looms over his narrative.

In the 1920s an American dental student followed suit, building a model of the Tower using 11,000 toothpicks, and in the 1950s a French family made one from half a million matchsticks. There is a substantial one in Las Vegas, and a Siberian has made a 3.2mm-tall metal midge with a micro-miniature Eiffel Tower on its proboscis.

Micro-miniatures may be appreciated only through a microscope. Ralph Rugoff of the Hayward Gallery thinks that while the miniature offers a world "more precise and more brilliantly elucidated than our own", the micro-miniature evokes "a shadowless order of reality". Taking us back to Lucretius, he wonders if there can "be truth in the musings of mystics who speculate that every atom comprises a universe unto itself, containing a thousand suns?"

Willard Wigan, a leading micro-miniaturist, often works within the eye of a needle, between heartbeats, while holding his breath. Having depicted Michelangelo's The Last Supper, the main characters of Star Wars, and a Mad Hatter's Tea Party, from which he accidentally inhaled Alice, he thinks he may end up in a lunatic asylum.

The childhood desire for the miniature is "usually jettisoned as adulthood approaches", writes Garfield. Usually, but not always. HG Wells was a devotee of what he called Floor Games, and an illustration shows him solemnly at play with a couple of besuited chums, deploying tin soldiers and artillery against spear-throwing natives in defence of the British Empire. It was, Garfield tells us, "a time before irony". Has he read Oscar Wilde or Max Beerbohm?

Model railways appeal to many adults, such as the old rockers Rod Stewart, Roger Daltrey and Neil Young. The world's biggest, Miniatur Wunderland in Hamburg, has about 10 miles of track, and includes a model airport, a road network and a waterway, mountain ranges, castles, a truly miniature golf course, and a theatre playing Romeo and Juliet. Garfield's visit leaves him unable to decide if it was "stupefyingly impressive or stupefyingly deranged, but of course it was both".

He admires a "magnificent formation of matchstick battleships" made by Philip Warren from Dorset in England, and a monumental Temple of Jerusalem created over 30 years ago by Alec Garrard in a barn in the east of England. Garrard features, as Thomas Abrams, in The Rings of Saturn, by the lugubrious German novelist W G Sebald, which also mentions the edible model of the Ottoman siege of Esztergom in 1543, "created by a confectioner to the Viennese court, which Empress Maria Theresa, so it is said, devoured in one of her recurrent bouts of melancholy".

Tiny Town, the first model village, was built by the schoolchildren of Springfield, Missouri, in 1925. Bekonscot, built 90 years ago in Buckinghamshire was much admired by Enid Blyton, who moved close by with her family in 1938. Garfield's response to it is disconcertingly odd ("could we possibly intervene before a bride married a man with red lips and a cold, pinched stare?"), and he rather strains for topicality: "At the moment Bekonscot looks like the full English Brexit: idyllic in its imagination, disillusioned it its present, unfathomable to the outside world."

In Belgium, fittingly, there is Mini-Europe. "One reason for not going to Mini-Europe," Garfield advises, "is because Mini-Europe is terrible, and you must avoid it even if you have absolutely nothing else to do."

At Dismaland, Banksy's anti-theme park in the English resort of Weston-super-Mare, Jimmy Cauty created The Aftermath Dislocation Principle, featuring ruined scrubland and about 5,000 police, one of them attacking another with a pitchfork. Still more dystopian are the art installations of Jake and Dinos Chapman, with their "wilful corruption of the joy of miniature modelling". Such "hellscapes" as Disasters of War (1993) and Arbeit McFries (2001) abound in beheadings, impalings and crucified Ronald McDonalds.

In the same vein the Polish artist Zbigniew Libera has constructed a model concentration camp from Lego bricks. Garfield dislikes Lego, because "it doesn't make me feel warm and healthy, but compulsive and snappy", and his fascination with his subject is quite often tinged with queasiness.

Garfield has made his reputation with similar books - on philately, cartography and typography - and this is not his best. He calls In Miniature "a brief history of the model village commonly known as the world", which is pitching it too high, but it has its moments.

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