The 'Ben Hur'
Orton Waggon

by Perigwyn Tilston
November 2006

This is one of - or if not - the finest Kite style vardo in existence today.  Owned for 34 years by vardo artist John Pockett, the waggon was part of Paultons Park's unique vardo collection and Romany theme display until recently.

The 'Ben Hur' Orton was built in 1915 for show-madam Tilly Winters, who ran swingboats and coconuts shies at fairgrounds.  She paid the princely sum of £850 at a time when a craftsman would earn about £2 per week.

This waggon has had quite a colourful past, having once belonged to an elderly nurse - Miss Willerby - who used to look after Gypsy children.  She kept the vardo in a barn at a local wheelwright's yard, but in the summer it would be drawn out and she would "roll the drom" to the hop fields, spending time with the Gypsy hop-pickers and looking after their children whilst they gathered the crops. Another owner was the British film director Peter Rogers of Beaconsfield, Bucks, who used it as a private retreat.

The Queen Mother inspected the waggon in the 1960s whilst visiting a nearby exhibition for the Royal School of Nursing at Marlborough House.  Miss Willerby had taken the waggon for display at the event.  The Queen Mother found the Orton fascinating, and folktale has it that as she left the vardo she was given a pair of brightly polished copper and brass water jacks as a gift!  Wonder where she kept them? - in her secret vardo perhaps.

This Orton Gypsy caravan is adorned with stunning 24 carat gilt acanthus leaf and animal carvings.  It was last decorated in the early 1970s by renowned fairground artist Jimmy Williams, with touch-ups in later years by John Pockett.

Flamboyant light greens and flashes of red blush the edges of the gilt carving to a mesmerising effect.  The front door, like the rest of the vardo, displays etched glass panes with delicate floral designs, and the lower door panel along with the window shutters boast Prince of Wales feathers splendidly carved and flashing white.  Every rib shows off butterfly chamfers in red, green and gold, and the inter-rib carvings are plentiful and simply stunning to the eye.

The interior is even more unique!

There are ruby etched glass in the mollicroft roof lights, and just savour the Roman Period!

Julius Caesar would have been proud of these scenic ceilings: "Ben Hur" features running full length and the Roman chariots going round and round and upside down!  This is Vardo Art at its best.

The Roman theme was originally created by Orton after being inspired by the 1925 MGM silent b/w Ben Hur movie epic.  It became a surprise discovery for John when he first acquired the waggon.  One day whilst chatting with the well travelled Fred Walker he was told that underneath the current crusty paintwork might be the original Roman scenes.  So when John got the waggon back to his yard he carefully peeled back the layers to reveal the faded and sorry-looking old Ben Hur images!

John decided to commission Canadian scenic artist David Roberts, and when he was next over in the UK David set about replicating the original artwork to what you see today! The polished mahogany woodwork is traditionally lined out in gold leaf, giving an inlaid effect, with acanthus leaf carvings and decorations featuring in most panels.

Like "the cherry on a cake" an angel lamp sits at the mantel corner cradling a cranberry font, whilst below a hostess stove boils the copper kettle - that is of course if you'd like some tea!  If you close your eyes for few minutes perhaps the spirit folki of  yester-year would welcome you to a cup - if you're kushti that is.

This fireplace would look equally as good in Lord Penrhyn's castle.  Two ceramic "juvals" (Romani girls) curiously watch the flames flicker whilst standing above a well worked floral carving.  Also notice the beautifully detailed and coloured enamel stove panels behind the hostess range.



This striking mahogany wall cupboard, featuring double doors and etched floral glass panes, does not give away any ground either to the rest of the ornate vardo - even before the crown derby is fully displayed.

Orton and Spooner's waggons and fairground rides were famed for their carving and striking designs, but this actual waggon was built by Orton before Spooner joined his stable as a partner.  However, Spooner was producing carvings for Orton at this time.  Note the richly coloured flamboyant paintwork showing off the acanthus leaf carvings, and how the Prince of Wales feathers fittingly complete this beautiful Romani waggon.
Images with special thanks to
John Pockett and Paultons Park.












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