FEMbruary – à la Mode

Finishing off my group of FEMbruary Wrens that I’ve been painting up, I peeled one off a bottle top and realised that although one of the figures I checked had no clear markings on its base, the others certainly did! So, suitably embarrassed, I can now declare that my ladies are products of M.J. Mode of Leicester. Which is where I live. In fact, it turns out that the man who made them – Jim Johnston – did so in the exact same village as mine! Indeed, his first figures, Douglas Miniatures, were:

“… quite literally a “cottage industry”, with Johnston sculpting the figures in his own kitchen in Glenfield…” (Vintage 20mil website)

Curiously, a kitchen in Glenfield is exactly where, many decades later, I’ve been painting his Wrens figures! Posted from an eBay seller in Margate, these ladies have made their way home.

Much information on M.J. Mode I discovered over on the excellent Vintage 20Mil website which features an fabuous piece written about the history of Douglas Miniatures.

Douglas Miniatures logo

According to Vintage 20mil;

Insurance salesman John D “Jim” Johnston began making 54mm model soldiers for his own pleasure around 1965. In 1967 he met wargame enthusiast and rule writer Trevor Halsall in the Apex Craft Shop in Leicester. Together the two men founded the Leicester Wargame and Model Soldier Society.

One of my M.J. Mode Wrens, gloss varnished and awaiting something to stand on.

By 1977, MJ Mode (the M stood for Marie, the name of Johnston’s French wife)… concentrated on producing 54mm figures and “traditional” toy soldiers — some of the latter painted by Marie. The company also made a range of larger 25mm figures. Mounted on rectangular bases these were roughly the same build as modern Garrison figures. We believe the range was confined to Napoleonics…

This Wren appears to be glancing distractedly off to the side.

…As well as making his own figures, Johnston also cast figures for a number of other manufacturers in scales from 1/300th to 120mm and made replacement parts for Dinky toys for a local company. One customer was John Tunstill, owner of the famous Soldiers shop in Kennington, south London, whose range of “traditional” toy soldiers was cast by Johnston and transported to London by Sean Wenlock once a week in a pair of old ammunition boxes…

…”Jim was a lovely man,” Tunstill recalls, “but whenever we asked him to make a new figure for us he would always hum and hah about how difficult it was going to be. He had a strong northern accent and we used to try and arrange things so that at some point he’d say, “I’ll haf ta cast a plaster master” then we’d all cheer!”

MJ Mode thrived until 1986 when Johnston was struck by another heart attack and died. He was just 48.

This Wren is a real blonde bombshell – well, at any rate she loads torpedo bombshells on to submarines.

Jim was not very much older than I am now when he died, which is a sobering thought. Hopefully, he (if not his painter wife Marie) would have approved of my amateurish paint-job. It’s not my usual painting style, (I’ve painted – not shaded – the faces for example) and I’ve been adjusting, repainting and playing about with the results as I’ve gone along. But I’m cutting myself some considerable slack in this attempt and think they look pleasing enough painted in their glossy varnish – from a distance!

I’ve added very subtle shading and highlighting to their uniforms and the “HMS” in the centre of their caps are simply three gold dots. I particularly enjoyed how my shabby painting of the faces led to individual personalities. One looks suspiciously to her left, another has Mick Jagger-like lips (something she’d probably thank me for). Different coloured hair further adds to their individuality.

I suppose this FEMbruary submission has become also a Jim Johnston tribute. Thanks to Vintage 20mil, I now feel a real connection with these lovely old figures, unidentified as they initially were and bought on a whim from eBay. I’m not quite done with them as I’d like to base them too, an idea that I’m working on and hopefully will share in a future post.

M.J. Mode; made – and painted – in Glenfield, UK!


The FEMbruary Challenge 2019

Realistically proportioned, proud and smartly dressed, I think these ladies make a worthy addition to the FEMbruary challenge but already, Imperial Rebel Ork has smashed the ball out of the park with this incredible submission – (warning – not for those with a fear of chainsaws, zombies or Volkswagon Beetles).

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12 thoughts on “FEMbruary – à la Mode

  1. Wow!!!!! What a story. Love it mate. How cool that he was in the same village as you. It’s a funny old world and only 48??? Sheesh that is, as you say, a very sobering thought. Let’s make the most of life hey and paint more minis. Great wrens mate and a really, really nice tribute. Thanks for the shout out too and I really hope that someone out there is scared of VWs because that would tickle me pink hehe.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks mate – glad you like them. I really warmed to these figures even before I knew their origin. Reading about how Jim Johnston made his figures from a kitchen in Glenfield just as I’m painting them in a kitchen in Glenfield was a bit surreal. 🙂

      And I agree – while we’re here we should concentrate on the most important stuff in life. Family and figures!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Yeah mate nice story just love the figures,I like the bit about all that painting going on in Glenfield If I rember correctly all I did when I was in Glenfield in 2014 was drink a few pints !!!🤪.Thats if i’s the same Glenfield as in Leicester city ,we stayed in a premier inn .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks – glad you like them. Sounds like the same Glenfield! Drinking a few pints is about the only thing to do in Glenfield, actually, if you’re not painting figures, that is. Occasionally, both are done at the same time… 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Quick work, Marvin. These WRNs look very well together.
    Interesting detective work back to your own Leicester doorstep – I thought they looked New Toy Soldier. I have a few stray battered MJ Mode to repair, acquired in odd job lots of other bashed figures.
    In Stuart Asquith’s book Collectors Guide to New Toy Soldiers 1973 – 1991 there is only a brief mention of M J Mode and a Mr S Murray of Doncaster had then taken over after Jim Johnson’s death in 1986 (book Published 1991).

    More about the MJ Mode link to John Tunstill http://www.soldierssoldiers.com/arcania.php

    Trevor Halsall crops up in the Donald Featherstone War Games (originally 1962 no wragames clubs) but in the later (for example the 5th edition 1970) reprints there he is – Leicester Wargames Club run by T J Halsall then at 8 Westleigh Road Leicester. I remember his name from many Wargames and Military Modelling magazine articles in the 1980s.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Meant to add that they were really quick to do! Navy jackets, skirts and hats with just a few gold embellishments – much quicker than Napoleonic cavalry. The faces were the only thing that absorbed lots of time.

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