Imperial Productions and the business of toy soldiers

by Sharon Stephenson / 27 August, 2017

David Cowe at his Greytown shop with daughter Lisa, who paints each piece by hand.

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Every year, Greytown craftsman David Cowe sends hundreds of soldiers into battle.

Six days a week, David Cowe crosses his garden and goes to war. His “battlefield” is a workshop tucked into the Greytown property he’s owned since 1982; his soldiers are 54mm high and made from solid lead.

Cowe, 74, has been designing, moulding and hand-painting toy soldiers for more years than he cares to remember (it takes some coaxing for him to admit he started in the mid-70s). His company, Imperial Productions, makes more than a thousand figurines a year. Some are on horseback, such as Winston Churchill at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898, while others feature the Coldstream Guards, rifles on their shoulders.

Closer to home, Cowe’s New Zealand series includes the Armed Constabulary from 1870, and Maori from around 1840, including a chieftain brandishing a greenstone mere.

The attention to detail is astonishing: all figures are anatomically correct and uniforms are painstakingly researched to ensure the style and colours are accurate. Although wars – from the Napoleonic to World War II – inspire the bulk of Cowe’s output, he also produces a series of figurines depicting Victorian life. “Men seem to like the war figurines while women prefer the Victorian series,” says Cowe, a mischievous smile rumpling his face.

There was, of course, a life before toy soldiers. Born in Lower Hutt, Cowe was the youngest of three boys and, given the hand-me-down ethos of the era, the recipient of his brothers’ cast-off toys. That included pre-WWII lead toy soldiers, which entertained him for hours.

When he was six, Cowe was stuck with the first of three bouts of rheumatic fever, which confined him to bed for months at a time. “I started reading a lot of military books and making my own war toys from Plasticine.”

Lead figurines ranging from toy soldiers to depictions of Victorian life are produced in painstaking detail.

He remembers those early efforts as “quite basic”, but they provided the launch pad for his design career. After completing a three-year graphic design diploma, he headed to London to study at the prestigious Saint Martin’s School of Art. “It was the 60s; mods and rockers ruled, and I remember all the girls hanging around because bands such as the Rolling Stones were recording across the street.”      

Cowe returned to New Zealand and freelance gigs illustrating school journals before he and John Barnett (later CEO of South Pacific Pictures) started a graphic design business, which they ran for seven years. He was living in Greytown, married with three daughters, when he saw an ad in a British magazine for toy soldiers. “They were asking a huge price and I thought I’d have a go at making my own.”      

So he did, making silicone moulds and casting them with molten lead. Back then, all orders were done by phone and mail; these days Cowe sells online to customers around the world. His own shop, which he opened in 1987, is still in business next to his home and workshop. “We don’t get a lot of foot traffic but it’s good to have a showroom.”

One of his daughters, Lisa, paints the figurines her father designs and makes by hand. Cowe says he’ll continue to do so as long as he’s able. “My reward is the joy these toys bring to people all over the world.”

This was published in the July 2017 issue of North & South.

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