Catriona McAra

Micro-Spectacles: Tessa Farmer’s Childhood

Tessa Farmer, A Darker Shade of Grey (detail) 2010. Photograph by Clare Kendall.

Tessa Farmer, A Darker Shade of Grey (detail) 2010. Photograph by Clare Kendall.

The child continually enters here as a metaphor, perhaps not simply because the child is in some physical sense a miniature of the adult, but also because the world of childhood, limited in physical scope yet fantastic in its content, presents in some ways a miniature and fictive chapter in each life history (…). We imagine childhood as if it were at the other end of a tunnel – distanced, diminutive, and clearly framed.

– Susan Stewart, 1993 [1]

The origin of Tessa Farmer’s fairy species is often located in the late nineteenth century around a curious historical coincidence: 1. the development of the public natural history museum and; 2. the content of children’s illustrated books. Although much of Farmer’s practice does indeed reference and provoke nostalgia for such Victoriana, as demonstrated in a recent group exhibition of the same title at Guildhall Art Gallery (7 September – 8 December 2013), it is to the artist’s own childhood of the 1980s, particularly the pocket-sized domain of commercial children’s toys, that we should turn to if we are to understand her investment in the micro-spectacular.

In my interview with the artist March 2011, Farmer reminisced about her childhood and expressed her fondness for the microcosmic world of Sylvanian Families (or Calico Critters) in particular:

CM: How about The Borrowers? 

TF: Yes! But I don’t know if it was on TV when I was growing up, maybe just the books. I was always fascinated by the miniature as a child. I was always making small things, dioramas out of Fimo and creatures, lots of hamsters.

CM: I wonder what it is about the miniature world and childhood that are so appropriate for each other as spaces?

TF: It tends to be very much a girl-thing. But then having said that there is Lego… Did you have Sylvanian Families?

CM: Yes! I loved Sylvanian Families.

TF: Do you think it is about control? Not about being in control of the world but about immersing yourself? I was so obsessed with the Sylvanian Families.

CM: Yes (…) I completely bought into that world. Again they take us back to the woods – they are forest creatures, forest dwellers, and that seemed very attractive. Dollhouse Sylvanian Family furniture have become collector’s items. It offered a comforting vision of domesticity as well. The poet and theorist Susan Stewart talks about the domestic as something Victorian and treasure-like (1993). I wonder if this relates to your own work in some way?

TF: I just remember my sister and I had a house each – mine was bigger, so more of them lived in the house. All the babies were upstairs in those cots in rows – we had to squeeze them all in. It was very communal living! We used to feed them by mixing flour and water into a paste.

CM: Did you have a favourite creature? There are quite a few different families.

TF: Cats!

Sylvanian Families from the 1980s, collection of the artist

Sylvanian Families from the 1980s, collection of the artist

Much like her own work as an adult, Farmer’s childhood Sylvanian collection was an assortment of typical English wildlife: owlets, rabbits, mice, and felines as well as the more Americanised novelty of a beaver family, all with beady taxidermist’s eyes and the manners of Beatrix Potter characters. As their name suggests, Sylvanian Families mark the domestication (and commodification) of the woodland creature; garbed in anthropomorphic clothing and inhabitants of rustic windmills and deluxe dollhouse cottages. [2] Offspring are rocked sentimentally in cradles and feed from tiny plastic bottles while adults play piano and sew their own garments. They are the anachronistic manifestations of the nostalgia for quaintness associated with craft-based aura. [3] Sylvanians invite their collector to recreate the cosy (if costly) idyll one might find represented in the pages of House and Garden magazine. We are gifted a spectacular illusion of warming hearth complete with the mantelpiece charm of souvenir catalogues.

Farmer was born in England in 1978, and would have been the prime target market of nine years old when Sylvanian Families first appeared in 1987 marketed by Tomy UK. Farmer was born and raised just outside the urbanity of Birmingham, and, like many children, yearned for the rural arcadia appropriated by the manufacturers of Sylvanians. The miniature vistas of similar toys including Polly Pocket, My Little Pony, and Kinder Egg capsule contents were all designed to inspire the consumer-child of the 1980s and 90s to fervently collect individuals and reconstruct their habitats. Often one observes or remembers that during children’s games of make-believe processes of setting up, building and defining roles are as pleasurable as the actual spectacle of the game itself. Farmer’s practice of collecting natural found objects discreetly replicates this logic, and her resulting installations and swarming sculptural visual narratives require viewers to imaginatively manoeuver her fairies into action. As with mechanized toys, this process of narrativisation is assisted even more readily in her animations.

Sylvanian Families from the 1980s, collection of the author.

Sylvanian Families from the 1980s, collection of the author.

In some ways the scale of the Sylvanian toy pre-empts Farmer’s fairy and taxidermy installations. However, her fairies also seem to mimic a more destructive childhood urge to tear up before refabricating this reality. Think of such dioramas as Parade of the Captive Hedgehog (2006), Resurrection of the Rat (2008), the dissected mole in Den of Iniquity (2010), and the mummified cat for the ISAM: Control Over Nature installation (2011). Here the creatures themselves become architectural spectacles infested by the resourceful fairies. Nest of Skeletons (2008) seems to subvert the saccharine domain of Sylvania in a slightly different way with the fairies colonising the stuffed head of a kitchen garden scarecrow.

Tessa Farmer, ‘Kitty Cat’ (detail) for Amon Tobin ‘ISAM: Control Over Nature’, 2011. Photo by Pelle Crepin.

Tessa Farmer, ‘Kitty Cat’ (detail) for Amon Tobin ‘ISAM: Control Over Nature’, 2011. Photo by Pelle Crepin.

As with Mark Dion’s more explicit appropriation of a plush, mock-taxidermy in Survival of the Cutest (Who Gets on the Ark?) (1990), Farmer’s subtle reference to the aesthetics of the cute and to the minutiae of children’s toys, tell us something about the darker side of the child’s imagination during play. Farmer’s fairies are, therefore, the inhabitants of a Sylvania gone wrong, and may be marshalled to offer a social critique on the murkier side of consumer culture underlying the seemingly innocent world of childhood spectacles.


1 Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), 44.

2 For an excellent critique of Sylvanian Families reactionary marginalisation of gender and reliance on social class see Delphine Houlton and Brian Short, ‘Sylvanian Families: The Production and Consumption of a Rural Community,’ Journal of Rural Studies, 11:4 (1995), 367-385.

3 For more on this idea see Daniel Harris, Cute, Quaint, Hungry and Romantic: The Aesthetics of Consumerism (New York: Basic Books, 2000), 38. See also Walter Benjamin’s widely reprinted essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (1936).


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