Keith Newstead was born in Romford, Essex. He completed a diploma in graphic design at Barking College of Technology (1973-5). Subsequently he turned down a place at the Royal Academy Schools, as he could not see himself as part of the conventional art world. In the late 1980s he found inspiration in the work of the late automatist Sam Smith, having viewed a TV documentary about this art/craft. He began to make his own automata, attracting the attention of London's Cabaret Mechanical Theatre. His creations were included in the Theatre's permanent collection. This led to commissions, enabling him to pursue his passion full-time. Demand for Newstead's work soon grew, and he embarked on collaborations with other artists such as Ralph Steadman, Terry Gilliam and Sam Lanyon.
In 1995 Newstead moved from London to Falmouth, working from a studio with a large window looking onto the street, which fascinated passers-by, especially children. Not only did his work help to cement the town's reputation as the home of automata, but he became part of a British lineage in automata that included Rowland Emmet, Sam Smith and Paul Spooner.
He was commissioned to make two characters for the 2012 film 'Deception', and created a prototype design for the British Eccentric Garden at the 2016 Chelsea Flower Show. He developed a reputation across the world, from Japan to the USA.
His work was shown in the 'All Hands on Deck' exhibition at Falmouth Art Gallery in 1998, and he was commissioned by the Gallery to make the 'Eclipse Automata' in 1999, a part of their permanent collection. One of his most memorable pieces was his masterly depiction of Mervyn Peake's 'Gormenghast' (2018).
The UK's pre-eminent maker of automata, Keith approached his work with modesty. He was unconcerned with raising the status of automata as sculpture, instead hoping, as he put it, to 'bring enjoyment and entertainment to both young and old alike'. His assemblages were ingenious, irreverent, playful and accessible. Many of them were sold in huge numbers in kit form, one of the most popular being 'The Executioner', stocked in the Tower of London shop from 1993 onwards, which sold more than 100,000 copies. He taught regularly in schools, and also appeared on children's TV art programmes such as SMart.
Keith Newstead died of cancer in November 2020.
Graphic design, automata
works and access
Works incl: Eclipse (Falmouth AG); Angels (2000)
South Bank Centre, London
Vente Museum, Tokyo
The Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne
Munich, Germany; Copenhagen, Denmark
Exh Cat: 20 Years of Contemporary Art at Falmouth Art Gallery 1980-2000
Obituary, The Guardian (2 Dec 2020)