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The ‘Secret’ Life of Toy Soldiers

by Thor O. Johnson

Each figure placed in production by a soldier manufacturer has an individual history. For the purpose of this article, let’s call it a ‘life’. The life begins with the development of specifications, pictures and drawings prepared for an artist to make a sculpted master. The artist recruited to craft the sculpting then adds his or her particular artistic touch to the embryonic life. Once the sculpted master is available, molds are prepared; and with the arrival of castings from the molds, the figure’s personality begins to form. The next part of the process is painting the figure, boxing and distribution to customers. Like most beings, figures must go through life in the real world where it sometimes does not go smoothly. What if there are problems?

Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon Bonaparte Prototype Final Version of Napoleon Bonaparte

#5015 the first prototype of Napoleon standing at his table featured an ornate rug with a Russian pattern. This was changed in the production pieces with an inlaid wooden floor or a more French-patterned carpet. Additionally Napoleon’s uniform was changed from green to blue.

Some years ago we at The St. Petersburg Collection® released a figure of Napoleon planning his campaigns. The originally proposed figure called for the Emperor standing next to a large world globe pondering his next strategic initiative. The sculptor Andrey Bleskin was selected for this assignment. Pictures and drawings to aid Andrey in crafting the figure included the well-known painting by Frederick Roe The Path to Conquest which illustrated both Napoleon and his globe. Sculptor Bleskin managed an excellent likeness of Bonaparte; however the globe sphere became a manufacturing nightmare. Andrey Bleskin managed to salvage the project by creating a beautiful table and chair along with books and maps to replace the originally planned globe. The revised figure scene projected correctly the look and mood originally envisioned, and item #5015 Napoleon Planning His Campaigns began life in an altered state but with bright prospects for collector appeal.

Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra

Tsar and Tsarina prototypeTsar and Tsarina production version

The prototype of Nicholas II and Alexandra was originally sculpted with Empress Alexandra in a decidedly unladylike pose. Before this piece was allowed into production, this was remedied. In addition, Tsarina Alexandra’s dress was modified to make it more befitting of an empress. Sleeves were lengthened and a decorative fan was placed in her hand.

Another of our figures to have a secret pre-release life was our figure of Tsar Nicholas and Tsarina Alexandra with the Faberge Egg. In conversation with Jim Hillestad, the owner and head curator of the wonderful toy soldier museum in Cresco, Pennsylvania, he suggested that we produce a figure of Tsar Nicholas presenting a Faberge egg to the Tsarina Alexandra. Believing the idea had merit, we retained the sculptor Roman Ruchkin to bring the subject to life. Once again images of the royal couple in a variety of costumes were assembled. Form Ruchkin’s skilled hands, the Tsar emerged in a military uniform, and the Tsarina in a seated pose. Molds were made and a sample sent for approval prior to full production. Upon seeing the pose of the Tsarina, I immediately halted production of the figure! Alexandra was sitting on a small court bench in an undignified posture with her knees apart. Alexandra was a German Princess and Empress; she would always have been extremely conscious of grace and poise in a seated position, with knees primly together. Roman sculpted a revised Empress, knees together, with an even prettier ball gown and holding a fan. A new life for this figure was now ensured with the secret life over and no one aware of the earlier problem. The figure subsequently released as #130 displayed Nicholas in his famous blue uniform, presenting the fabled Faberge Easter egg to Alexandra with a beautiful coiffure and attired in her formal court ball gown.

Queen Cleopatra

Cleopatra Prototypes Final Version of Queen Cleopatra

The evolution from prototype to production was not limited to the redesign of the panther at Queen Cleopatra’s feet. The first prototype pictured at the top featured a dress of a relatively plain white linen design. After some consideration, we felt that Queen Cleopatra deserved ornate attire. The second prototype had her painted in a more decorative dress. At the right is the final evolution of the queen’s dress, which bore bright colors and details more intricate than previous incarnations.

Sometimes a secret life develops for a figure in a prolonged gestation period -- not because of the figure itself but due to ancillary elements. In the review of the next figure, the problem was not of casting difficulties, as was the situation with Napoleon’s globe, but the painted look of the figure and its surrounds. A figure of Queen Cleopatra seemed to be a natural selection for The St. Petersburg Collection®. Andrey Bleskin was once again selected to do the honors and a considerable amount of research material was supplied to him. All went well with this project until a painted prototype was received. The original concept was for Cleopatra to be in a standing pose, holding the leash of a reclining black panther. Somehow the effect created did a disservice to the Queen of the Nile. We next elected to have the reclining beast painted as a leopard, along with slight modifications to the Queen’s rather plain Egyptian costume. We were getting closer but Queen Cleopatra wasn’t quite perfect yet. The final incarnation of this extended development process was to change the leopard from reclining to an animated, seated cat in an aggressive posture. Additionally a new, larger base was utilized along with a decorated vase; and Cleopatra was clothed in a more colorful patterned dress.. Queen Cleopatra was now ready to meet Julius Caesar. Her secret life was over.

Hundred Years War Knights That Never Saw The Light of Day

A few years ago we produced a set of three Hundred Years War knights whose secret life never ended. They remain in secret. With considerable research, we determined to produce three figures with armor as close as possible in measurement to what the actual worn armor would have been. Many museum books were consulted as well as auction catalogs delineating actual armor measurements. The sculpting was well executed; however the hardy and robust knights of the 15th century looked frail. The measurements may have been accurate, but the figures did not pass the eye test. Many modifications were proposed, some tested, none successful. These three medieval warriors were ultimately shelved where they remain today in an extended secret life.

The birth of any figure is often a long and involved process. Some figures may require substantial revision before they are ready to make their debut. In the motion picture business, they call it re-takes. We have called it a secret life. In the end, no one ever plans to make a bad movie, or an imperfect figure. Often intelligent retakes can save a film. The right secret life can convert a figure’s fate from meltdown to medal-winner.

Knights that were never placed into full production

These knights never escaped their secret life. Going left to right these pieces are numbers 3705, 3708, and 3706. While the proportions where anatomically correct in theory, the waists were far too thin perceptually. As a result, only the prototypes are known to exist.


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