A Matter of Preference: Notes on the Style of Our Soldiers


There are today many styles of toy soldier - we have the main division into matte-finished connoisseur figures, which are really lifelike models, and true "toy" soldiers, which are intended to appear unrealistic, to emphasize their folk-art character. Even within this second category, there are many different styles. The dominant style is, of course, that of hollowcast Britains, but there are several other important influences. Lucotte and Mignot produce soldiers which are not like Britains - even being finished in matte - but which are distinctly toys themselves. Heyde and other German manufacturers have their own style of "traditional" toy soldiers, which is also distinct from Britains and others. Many new toy soldier manufacturers attempt to produce toy soldiers which have more detail and animation that Britains, but which are painted in a similar style and given a glossy finish. This is sometimes described as a "hybrid" of connoisseur and traditional toy soldier styles, and some companies will offer you a choice of matte or gloss finish for these types of figures.

Every collector must determine how he or she feels about the style of the soldiers in a collection. Money will be spent, and time and effort expended amassing the soldiers and organizing them around some idea or theme, and - because a toy soldier collection is a reflection of its owner's taste - it is a serious choice. What style do you prefer? Do you want to mix styles? Every collector has their own opinions.

When you set about designing a range of toy soldiers, and are going to not just collect but produce them, this choice becomes even more important, and even more difficult. In determining the style of the soldiers to be released under the Legions of Empire label, a very definite decision was made, which extends to the sculpting and painting both.

My own collection features only traditional toy soldiers. As someone who owns many thousands of "realistic" wargaming miniatures, I felt I wanted to do something different with my toy soldier collection. (OK - a part of my collection is devoted to wargaming with toy soldiers, but even here I wanted to emphasize the difference between my normal 15mm and 25mm "realistic" wargaming miniatures, and my 40mm and 54mm wargaming toy soldiers.)

I decided I wanted to produce traditional, glossy toy soldiers. I love Britains hollowcast figures, as well as many new toy soldier lines which imitate them, and I also like Mignot, Heyde, and similar lines. Soldiers of these traditional styles make up the majority of my collection. However, I am fascinated with the new toy soldier phenomenon, and I love to see what variations on these styles have been produced. Both Tradition and Beau Geste (as examples) make traditional toy soldiers which are very distinctive - they have more sculpted-on detail than old Britains and the others, even though they retain many features of their antecedents. I consider all of these "traditional", to one degree or another, and I collect them all.

When the new toy soldier phenomenon started, the soldiers tended to be very much like Britains in style - many companies deliberately copied Britains as closely as they could, and some wonderful soldiers were produced. Other makers decided to strike out on their own, and create compatible soldiers, but with a unique style. Today, it seems that the latter choice is more common. At Legions of Empire, we are attempting to find a blend of traditional influences which we hope will be distinct from all other soldiers available today.

How do you charaterize the styles of traditional toy soldiers, and select a combination of them that is unique? It is, in a sense, a dialogue between the designer of a new range and every style of soldier which is found in his collection.

We wanted Legions of Empire soldiers to be less-detailed than many other new toy soldier lines, such as Beau Geste, Fusilier, and Tradition. Buttons and pockets would not be sculpted on, and most figures would feature light equipment - just enough to capture the flavor of the subject. These are aspects of Britians, Mignot, and Heyde which we have always admired - much of the detail is in the paint-work.

The poses, too, needed to be traditional. Part of the charm of a toy soldier stems from the rigidity of its pose. In a connoisseur figure, animation is an absolute requirement. In a traditional toy soldier, almost the opposite is true. There is a traditional range of poses, and these in some sense represent a barrier which we have chosen not to violate. It is just a matter of preference, but soldiers at ease, at slope arms, at attention, presenting arms, firing, and so on give plenty of latitude for the sculptor, while still very much conveying a sense of tradition.

Another factor also affected our thinking when considering the sculpting - compatibility with other ranges. Personally, I like to collect many different new toy soldier lines' sets on a single theme, so that their treatments of a subject can be viewed side-by-side, and compared. We did not want to work entirely in the Britain's style, if only because it has been done so well by others that there is, in some sense, nothing more to say.

Toy soldier collecting is a rich man's hobby, true enough, but if we are to encourage new collectors, we must make the hobby accessible to them. The major barrier for collecting metal soldiers is price. There are some ranges, such as Bleu, Blanc, Rouge, which offer sets of inexpensive soldiers, but typically an infantry figure costs $15 or more. It is possible, of course, to paint recasts at home, and also to cast your own toy soldiers for painting. The most common approach is to use the molds produced by Prince August. Those who wish to produce a large collection on a limited budget will probably end up casting and painting for themselves. This is especially true of those who wish to produce sizeable armies of toy soldiers for the purposes of wargaming.

Thus, the sculpting style of Prince August's traditional toy soldier molds was selected as a good candidate for compatibility. It fits well alongside other new toy soldier lines, while not including too much detail, nor slavishly imitating Britains. The figures are a bit thicker of limb than Britains, but they are less massive than Beau Geste. We decided this compatibility was desirable, although we have opted for a bit less cast-on detail, to more closely resemble Britains.

The painting style is yet another thing to consider. Britains was famous for its rosy-cheeked soldiers, but this seemed to us to be too much. It looks good on the Britains sculpting, and also on that of many other lines of new toy soldiers, including some which are quite distinct from Britains, such as the American Revolutionary War figures of Hampton Miniatures. But a less-imitative style was chosen for the faces of our soldiers - one which is more like that of Tradition or Beau Geste than hollowcast Britains.

Another aspect of the painting is color. Many collectors admire the depth and translucency of Britain's painting. Others prefer the opacity and solidity of Mignot. At Legions of Empire, we have tried to capture something of both styles. While wanting a high-gloss finish, and a high degree of depth, we use techniques which provide a solid, opaque base of color underneath the gloss. We see no inherent value in trying to utilize the same painting techniques which were employed for the old Britains figures - it is a question of style, and there are many techniques today which can provide a lasting, attractive paint job that were not available to painters in the early 20th century.

In the final analysis, it is a matter of taste. Every new line of toy soldiers has something to add to the on-going dialogue which is our hobby: each is a statement of preference. Tastes differ, it is true, but many collectors enjoy the variety which new lines offer, not restricting themselves to a single style. The design of Legions of Empire's figures is exactly that - a statement of our own preferences and tastes. It is not a comment on any of the other lines, which we collect and enjoy ourselves. It is merely an attempt to take all of the traditional elements which go into the aesthetics of toy soldiers, and to offer something which is a unique blend, and - we hope - worth adding to the ranks of your collection.

Arofan Gregory
Sculptor and Proprietor