February 24 , 2006 — As a young boy, University of Virginia alumnus Charles J. Brown was given a gift that led to a life-long passion for collecting lead toy soldiers.
More than 3,000 miniature lead figures from his collection that depict the military and the evolution of warfare, weapons and uniforms from ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome through World War I comprise the University of Virginia Art Museum special exhibit “A Soldier’s Life: Selections from the Charles J. Brown Historic Military Figures Trust.” The exhibit opens March 11 and will remain on view through May 21.
Manufactured primarily by CBG Mignot, a French company that produced exquisitely crafted and hand-painted figures of great accuracy, these lead figures originally served as toys for the young children of affluent families in Europe. Boys replicated battles using their lead soldiers and companion figures that depicted the chariots, cannon, tents, caissons, forges, water wagons, boats, field kitchens and other necessities that supported any military movements and encampments. Today, these finely crafted objects have become an important means of exploring central aspects of political, economic and social history.
The exhibit will be enhanced by period prints, historical maps and documents such as the 1957 Treaty of Rome, which provided the foundation of the European Union. The exhibit will include treaty architect Jean Monnet’s personal copy of this important document. Actual objects used in 19th and early 20th century military campaigns will also be displayed.
The figures in “A Soldier’s Life” are drawn from the Charles J. Brown Historic Military Figures Trust,a collection of nearly 8,000 meticulously hand-crafted and hand-painted lead figures produced in Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The color, detail, and historical accuracy of these figures, created primarily by Mignot, demonstrate why they are avidly collected and traded through leading international auction houses today.
Brown, a 1949 graduate of the University of Virginia, has been collecting these rare figures for more than 70 years. As a young child, he was given a Mignot stagecoach. Since then, he has searched out sources of these prized figures all over Europe. His interest in history also inspired him to acquire maps, prints and other period memorabilia.
“A Soldier’s Life” begins in ancient Egypt, followed by classical Greece and Rome. Then, Crusaders, 13th-century archers, knights and musketeers lead the viewer to the French Revolution and the First Empire.
A central focus of the exhibition will be on one of the defining military campaigns in modern European history, the Battle of Waterloo. Napoleon and his army opposing the allies, led by Lord Wellington, will be displayed with a full compliment of cavalry and infantry figures, artillery, medical wagons, regimental bands and other authentic support elements.
United States history will be reflected in scenes from the Revolutionary and Civil wars as well as the role of the army in the development of the American West. Military figures representing Asia, the Near East and Africa will also be exhibited.
The U.S. portion of the story ends with World War I. The first modern global conflict, the Great War introduced the airplane as an important weapon, changed the way the military approached warfare and ushered in active U.S. involvement in the international community. Although Mignot’s production continued until the 1960s, the figures themselves ended with World War I.
The museum is open to the public free of charge Tuesday through Sunday, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. For details about the exhibit or information about the museum, call (434) 924-3592, or visit the museum’s Web site.