About Me

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No Fixed Abode, Home Counties, United Kingdom
I’m a 51-year-old Aspergic CAD-Monkey. Sardonic, cynical and with the political leanings of a social reformer, I’m also a toy and model figure collector, particularly interested in the history of plastics and plastic toys. Other interests are history, current affairs, modern art, and architecture, gardening and natural history. I love plain chocolate, fireworks and trees but I don’t hug them, I do hug kittens. I hate ignorance, when it can be avoided, so I hate the 'educational' establishment and pity the millions they’ve failed with teaching-to-test and rote 'learning' and I hate the short-sighted stupidity of the entire ruling/industrial elite, with their planet destroying fascism and added “buy-one-get-one-free”. I also have no time for fools and little time for the false crap we're all supposed to pretend we haven't noticed, or the games we're supposed to play. I will 'bite the hand that feeds' to remind it why it feeds.

Monday, June 5, 2017

F is for Fontanini - Part 1 - Introduction

A surprisingly unsung company given that I would rate them with Britains, Elastolin, Marx or Airfix for their importance to the history of toy figures (in composition, plastic and resin); for the variety of their output, their connections to other companies with premium licenses, sculpt-swaps and shared output through the farming-out of their chief [and other] sculptor [/s] and through the wide range of their products blatantly pirated (as Garratt puts it) in Hong Kong in the 1960's and 1970's.

They pretty well got everywhere, tourist traps; breakfast cereals and coffee, washing-powders and cake decorations; high-end collectables and Hong Kong carded rack-toys, yet because they were never really a dedicated 'toy soldier' maker, you may have crossed their path without even knowing it.

Still-going; in the hills to the North of Florence and Pisa famous for the production of Presepi Artistici or nativity (Crèche, Krip[pen]) figures, they share the location with Marchi & Figli (Marchi and Sons) who (about the same time Fontanini were opening the Fonplast works) set up ISAS for their toy production, the four sites as good as filling the valley with figure production - both on the four main sites; and in all the little villages around the region where the (mostly female) out-workers completed the painting and finishing of orders.

Marchi came second (1930's) and are now (having re-absorbed ISAS and stopped the rack-toy production) known as Euromarchi while Fontanini set-up in 1908 and are now mostly making poured resin models for their main partner (and marketing guru's) in the US, Roman Inc; who have generated a whole fan-base of bible-belt and suburban 'soccer-mom' collectors with their own web-sites and forums, like Bradford Exchange, Danbury or Franklin Mint collectors!

Both companies are also now run by the forth generations of their families, and it was under the third generation of Fontanini's that Fonplast was set-up in 1963 to manufacture plastic figures in volume as the older ranges were phased-out.

Now: to the English-speaker it's probably easier to say that those older ranges were composition; however, some sources (including the current Fontanini) translate some of the early production as being papier mâché, others as 'plaster' or plaster-covered papier mâché, while in 1951/2 they were registering groups of figurine designs (from 6 to 13 inches high) with the US Library of Congress as 'ceramic', so the picture is not entirely clear.

Certainly though; we know they made composition figurines of the Elastolin/Lineol type between the wars and through to the 1960's until the switch to plastic.

Away from the Nativity ranges and limited dips in the toy market, Fontanini are best known (or instantly recognised - once you know what you're looking at) for their larger mouldings, supplied in various finishes to the tourist trade in Carrara and the surrounding regions, where they are affixed to a block or tile of 'sample' marble, for sale as mementos of a trip to the region, Fontanini's own plastic-based statuettes being sold more widely around/elsewhere in Italy in the same vein.

It is sure that Elio Simonetti (who joined the company after the second World War, and not Emilo!) and the other sculptors at Fontanini worked with the tourist trade to produce figurines they thought would sell, and that they also worked with the Val Pelro (valley of lead, or 'lead valley') metal foundry where much cross-over or cross-pollination existed, while his work with Cané ('canine' or dog) between 1971 and 1975 was almost certainly with the blessing of the Fontanini's and probably to the financial gain of Fontanini/Fonplast.

As can be seen on the map these firms were all relatively near each other, and Ferrero who would produce small-scale, die-cast copies of many of the Fontanini, Cane and/or and Peltro sculpts (along with the much pirated Lone Star 'Metallion' sculpts - also Simonetti's work) in their chocolate Kinder Eggs, set-up in the 1970's in the same Northern-Italian 'neighbourhood'.

The fact that the Cowboys and Indians of all the above named resemble the Marx sets is probably because Simonetti designed them too, and I wouldn't mind betting (this was all happening in the late 1960's/early 1970's) that he got the gig through Roman in the US who were on the scene by then, but A) I'm getting ahead of myself, and B) it's my own thoughts - so treat it with a pinch of salt.

Markings are many and varied with Fontanini and can lead to confusion, some of the older members of the hobby will tell apocryphal stories of people coming up to them at shows and announcing that they've "...found a new company; Depose!", while the logo is itself problematical, or at least: it was; it's now been replaced with a graphic of a fountain.

On the left we see an image of a typical base mark on one of the larger statuettes with the Depose Italy (registered [in] Italy) a mould-tool/stock number and the logo, along with the standard Carrara marble's self-adhesive, chrome-metallised, paper (later: vinyl-plastic) label.

On the right - a close up of 'That Mark'. Now - the company themselves tell a tale of papier mâché toy spiders, most people - now - refer to it as a spider -despite the lack of legs being present in the correct number, Garratt thought it was representing a crab, for which job it is lacking the prerequisite claws while I think it looks more like a sheep-keg or blood-sucking, burrowing tick before it's fed (although they have eight legs too!), and on some toys it (the logo) looks to have only four legs and two antennae!

I suspect it was originally meant to be a beetle; clockwork, hand-powered or spring-loaded automata of walking beetles (usually painted-up as ladybirds/ladybugs) were common, popular playthings between the wars in wood, tin-plate or composition and if they were making spiders, they were probably making more beetles, spiders being less popular?

Whatever the truth, it is considered to be a spider now, was present (usually on the base underside) from the early composition figures through to the mid-1980's or even early-1990's and has now been replaced, yet without a full explanation as to why - why would you replace a logo which was over 70 years old and instantly recognisable?

On the left - a late vinyl cow from the 1980's onwards (it could be quite recent, I don't follow the Roman Inc. era stuff closely) with a cloudy blob for the fountain, a full 'Fontanini', a copyright ©-mark and 'Italy'.

On the right - the plain 'Italy' mark of the Fonplast figures from a short lived attempt at a slice of the 'Toy Soldier' market. Someone (guess who!) has been trying to pass these off as being from a company called err . . . Italy, quite vociferously, in recent months, in various grubby corners of the internet, but he tends to make stuff up as he goes along and is best ignored in his pontificating.

Other marks (along with any cavity/stock numbers and/or 'spider') can include any combination of the above and/or including:

  • 'Dep. ITALY'
  • 'DEPOSE'
  • 'Depose Italy'
  • 'Depositato Italy'
  • 'Fontanini'
  • 'ITALY'

Variations in base/plinth attachment with an all-hard polystyrene plastic combination on the left and a vinyl (PCV) figure to polyethylene plinth pairing on the right.

There was a limited use of both styrene and ethylene from time to time or with certain sets (possibly from the old Fontanini facility up the road at Bagni de Lucca?), but most of the 'classic' Fontanini/Fonplast production circa 1965-1985 was in a very dense PVC which takes a lot of punishment some (softer batches) coming across as ethylene on casual inspection, some cured so hard it can be mistaken for styrene - this would have been from the Chifenti Fonplast works - down the road!

The flexibility and 'give' of PVC also takes an old-fashioned, slotted wood-screw far better than either polystyrene or polyethylene would have, which made the fixing of a plastic figure to a chunk of the planet's harder surface material a lot less problematical!

Spirit-based glue was also applied to the join between the figure's integral-base and the additional plinth; to prevent the figure coming loose easily under the scrutiny of small, inquisitive, juvenile fingers back in the tourist's home location.

"Ah-Harrrh Jim-ladd ! Oi's bee wiseerrh noww! . . .
. . . Oi's bee Farnt'aaan'innii!"

Next - we'll look at the figure types using my rather small sample - no internet images here and I'm not copying it all out of someone-else's book!

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