Small Talk Tag: William R. Robertson

A Game of Perfection

miniature chippendale furniture

In 18th century America, games and gambling were all the rage. This miniature game table, based off a c. 1770s Philadelphia Chippendale table, would have been perfect for tiny card games! Less than four inches tall, the table’s base was hand-carved by Wm. R. Robertson. The base, shaped from Swiss pear wood, features delicately curving ball-and-claw legs that support the functioning tilt-top surface.

Robertson’s mother, Esther Robertson, created the petit point stitched surface. Based on an Italian tapestry design, the tabletop consists of 33,000 stitches in 41 colors of silk thread. It took her three months to complete the design; when it was finished, she gave it to her son, who painstakingly attached it to the table. Esther Robertson was so nervous something would go wrong during the attachment process that she had to leave the house! Of course, the finished piece turned out beautifully, and the miniature game table is a testament to the amazing design and craftsmanship that goes into making a miniature.

A Magnificent Miniature Microscope

william r robertson miniatures

If you had tiny little eyes, you could use this microscope to see even tinier little objects! Barely over two inches tall, the microscope is fully functional. The microscope was made by artist William. R. Robertson, who crafted it after a full-scale microscope in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The full-scale piece was made by Claude-Simeon Passemant in 1760, likely for the science-loving King Louis XV; it’s obvious this is a microscope fit for a king!

To make the miniature microscope, Robertson visited the Met, where he was able to measure and photograph the full-scale piece. Next, Robertson had to match the golden hue of the microscope’s gilt bronze. He tested several different types of gold before discovering that melted Canadian maple leaf gold coins produced the correct shade! The gold is normally burnished with wolf teeth; luckily, Robertson had saved his dog’s puppy teeth after she lost them—a  fine substitute! Another challenge was the microscope’s barrel. The full-scale barrel is covered in a unique material: shagreen, the skin of sharks or stingrays. Often dyed green, shagreen was popular in 18th century France. Robertson had to find a material that would replicate the pattern of shagreen in miniature. While shopping in France, he stumbled upon a decades-old piece of shagreen from a baby shark—the perfect find! In total, the finished microscope contains 125 parts. Now that’s what we call magnificent! See the microscope and other T/m miniatures on view now until February 22 at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

Toy or Miniature?

toy vs miniature

So, what is the difference between a toy and a fine-scale miniature? This is perhaps one of the most frequently asked questions we hear at the museum. Let’s take a quick look at a few pieces from the collection to illustrate the answer!

William Robertson’s miniature Hewitt “gentleman’s” chest and the American Manufacturing Concern’s (AMC) Elite Tool Chest for Boys are similar tool chests featuring dovetail joints. The most apparent difference is probably their size; the Elite Tool Chest measures a child-size 17 5/8” long, while Robertson’s 1-inch scale miniature measures a just a wee 2” long. Both chests are “real” tool chests in that they feature a full set of functioning tools which could be used to complete any number of carpentry projects. In fact, Robertson’s miniature includes all the same tools as the full-size Hewitt chest currently located at Colonial Williamsburg—the saw even has 160 teeth to the inch!

It probably goes without saying that these two tool chests are meant for two very different audiences. AMC mass produced the Elite Tool Chest to offer children— well, apparently only boys— size-appropriate tools for practicing their carpentry skills. Robertson’s Hewitt chest was created with no intention to actually use the tools, but rather to understand and study the skills traditional craftsmen used to handcraft everyday objects. You could probably say that both pieces were created to educate, but as very different teaching tools—pun intended!

When a House is Not a Home

frank matter miniatures

Even the Lilliputians from Gulliver’s Travels would have a difficult time trying to live in this tiny masterpiece. Created in the quarter scale (that’s 1 inch for every 48 inches, or 4 feet!) by miniature artist Frank Matter, the Boston Beacon Hill House was a collaborative effort between Matter and Claire Bagley Hammons, who commissioned the piece. Hammons enlisted Matter’s talents to bring to life her vision: a house featuring the outstanding architecture of beautiful old New England mansions. Completed in 1958, the forty-eighth scale model, stands at a stately 13 inches high, 12 inches across, and 9 inches deep!

The house was added to the T/m collection in 2008, but like all old homes, it needed a renovation before going on exhibit. Miniature artist William R. Robertson completed the renovation, uncovering more astonishing craftsmanship then we thought a house smaller than a microwave could hold! The house is fully furnished with functioning pieces right down to the china in the breakfront and the reading material in the magazine rack. And like a real home of that era, Robertson even found himself treating for asbestos during the renovation! Robertson also uncovered some mind-boggling, functioning pieces that we’ll explore in future posts. Stay tuned!