What is it that’s so appealing about these slightly tacky miniature worlds?
Every Open House Weekend for the past four years, the Art Workers’ Guild in London has organised a wonderful event: the Table Top Museums. As many readers will already know, the Guild exists to promote unity between architecture, craftsmanship and the decorative arts. Any opportunity to poke around its home, on Queen Square in Holborn, is to be welcomed, and the Table Top Museums are an unpredictable smorgasbord of human eclecticism and enthusiasm.
The Museums are a collection of collections. Typically they are unexpected, showcasing collections of spherical stones of different sizes, or ephemera related to Anthony Hope’s 1894 novel The Prisoner of Zenda, or photographs of dachshunds. Here you can find a selection from Prue Cooper’s Museum of Blank Paper, 1720-1920, which is precisely as it sounds: a selection of sheets of unused writing paper of different ages and stocks, in varying shades of off-white. Peter Quinnell displayed his collection of plastic clothes pegs, a whole term of design school on a wooden box, demonstrating the faintly absurd human ingenuity that had gone into refining a single, basic, unimprovable typology. Naturally he had a favourite, the only one moulded as a single piece. Similar in distinctly finite variety was a collection of different kinds of model tree and sheep, including a suspected llama. Some exhibits were splendid monuments to obsession, such as the meticulous records and photo albums made by a mid-20th-century planespotter. Others had a more disturbing air of unfinished business, such as a found group of unfinished Airfix ships.
Entire yet forever inaccessible, they have the fascination of the miniaturised city of Kandor from the Superman comics
Having ooh-ed and ahh-ed and huh?-ed my way around the Guild’s hall, I came at last to a table which bore the Kit Jennings Museum of Scintillating Snow Globes. This I greeted with particular enthusiasm. What is it that makes a snow globe so satisfying? Perhaps it’s the enclosure offered by the dome, which gives a sense of microcosmic completeness not afforded by, say, a fridge magnet or decorative spoon. Entire yet forever inaccessible, they have the fascination of the miniaturised city of Kandor from the Superman comics.
The fact that the curved dome is brim-full of clear liquid, slowing the movement of the snowflakes, helps the illusion, refracting the light and slightly lensing the image of what’s within. The slight distortion or magnification adds to the sense of a telescoped peek at another dimension. It summons to mind the HG Wells short story ‘The Crystal Egg’ in which the titular artefact, provided it catches the light just right, affords a glimpse of an avian civilisation on Mars. This fracture from one world to another proves fatal for the egg’s obsessive owner, but it is at least a contented end.
The quality of the architectural model within a snowglobe – sometimes a single important building, sometimes a selection of landmarks suggesting the skyline of a world city – is rarely very high, or even accurate. But it is enlivened by the swirling cloud of flakes that can be generated with a simple shake, providing a momentary tiny drama of storm and settlement. It’s telling that the illusion is completely satisfying even for cities that rarely or never see a flake of real snow, suggesting that the swimming particles are something more than a recreation of a weather event – a symbolic animation providing the difference between a still image and an active, living one, like the grain of old cinema film stock.
Mass-produced and essentially rather tacky, a snowglobe might at first seem to be a great distance from the Art Workers’ Guild’s mission of craftsmanship and decoration. But it is a tiny, complete unity between architecture and art, a perfect object in its own way – and, like the work of a collector, its own way is the only way that matters to it.
Kit Jennings is nine, and was elsewhere when I inspected his collection so I talked to his mother. We shared in a mystery. They might be sold all over the world, but where are snowglobes made? China, of course, in many cases – but is there a centralised design and manufacturing centre, where a basic template is adapted to represent Vancouver, Caracas, Istanbul, Bangkok …? It could be a good setting for a novel.