Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Copper Queen Puzzle

For at least 10 years -- ever since I found out how to search eBay -- I've been looking, on and off, for this puzzle.  My relationship with this image goes back to childhood.  Imagine, then, my electrified, astonished delight when I discovered this lovely toy from the 1970s, in amazingly good shape, on Sept 9.  I hit Buy It Now very quickly, before I checked out the buyer or saved the images.  It's a wonder I even looked at my balance.  But you may guess that 10+-year obsessions can generate behaviour that instantly reaches critical mass.  Thank you, o thank you eBay!

When I was a kid, my grandparents contributed to my inevitable-equine-spoilage by getting me and my sister horse-themed toys and books.  Family legend has it a patient of my grandfather's (he was a doctor) named Claire Sittler started this.  But I think I added a good deal on my own.  Who can tell?  Is horse fever explainable?  My love of jigsaws was certainly started back then, with Springbok round and octagon puzzles, purchased in Tucson toy stores and worked in my grandparents' home in Tucson.  They weren't all horsey -- we have an Early Motor Cars one -- but my absolute favorites were the horse and carousel ones.  (Some day I'll do a post on how the carousel one influenced the TSII head logo.)  Today [2015] my collection of jigsaws numbers about 150.
My earliest memory of Copper Queen, the above Saddlebred, painted by Ruth Ray, is doing a puzzle of the image when I was about 10, circa 1970, in the basement of the family home (Fox Hills, Boulder, CO).   Copper Queen had a particularly difficult cut.  The pieces had almost no interlocking.  With the slightest bump or jostle, great cracks would appear, and everything had to be pushed back together again.  Exasperating for a ten year old, whose patience was still developing.  Yet the image itself, so compelling and supernatural, really burned into me.  It has stayed with me with astonishing power.  It is timeless.

In the early 80s, during college, somewhere in an art shop, I found (and instantly bought) 4 small studio cards carrying images of horses that Ruth Ray had painted.  Copper Queen had siblings!!  Other people have documented these Donald Art Prints; thank you so much, Paula.
Part of my story is that I somehow managed to lose track of those 4 cards for years.  I can only dimly guess when -- late 80s? early 90s? -- amd even dimmer as to when I rediscovered them -- sometime in the middle to late 2000s.  When I finally dug them out, I carefully made a scrapbook called Horse Images.  I started remembering the puzzle around then.
Madly, wholly without grounds, I began wondering if puzzles existed of all four.  Searching the Internet was now part of my life.  I'd used it to find horse stamps, not to mention model horses and tack!  I slipped into a pattern of occasionally searching eBay with 'horse jigsaw puzzles.'  This was not at all steady or committed, just whenever I felt like...  a drunken binge of eye candy.

In the fall of 2013 I hit pay dirt.
Another moment of instant recognition, of thank god for Buy It Now.  Gold Seal, a division of Whitman, had produced this puzzle.  It had 500 pieces.  "Handsome Witch," which I had remembered, incorrectly, as Night Witch.  It was in superb condition.  I put it together at Bay To Remember in New York, in January of 2014.
The cut, while poorly interlocking, was not quite as bad as my 10-year-old self had remembered.  The most revealing aspect, however, was the side of the box.  It listed other titles in the series:  Moulin Rouge,  Madeline,  After the Rain,  Sierra Morn,  Peaceful Vista.  None of these could remotely invoke the other 3 horses.  Was my memory wrong?  But I was immensely reassured.  The puzzle existed and I had found it; the sister horse was a reality.  I had a chance.  Back to the occasional search.

When Copper Queen arrived, I was amazed at its condition.  Only the bottom of the puzzle box revealed any ageing.
Still carrying traces of the original tape, by gar!
Whitman again, but a different line:  Crown.  The number of pieces was 713.  No date.
The side of the puzzle was disappointing.  No chance of Golden Ruler or Storm King, alas.   "French Provincial,  Quiet City,  Copper Queen,  Village Lane." 
When I opened it, I got a strong impression of long-preserved virginity.  Many of the pieces were still stuck together, always interlocked pairs.  Separating them was hard --  the factory, I thought, had failed at this job.  The cardstock was immensely thick; this is one of the thickest puzzles in my possession.  Only wooden ones were thicker.  The 60s and 70s overbuilt some things...
This shot shows the pieces after I had separated most of them, so the side-by-side alignments and parallelism, something that would happen over a very long period of storage, was not photographed by me.  But it was there.
Although at first I thought the puzzle was truly virgin and unworked, over the course of doing it I found evidence it had been, at least once.  I found hairs, one damaged piece and one bent piece with tape on the back.  But the tape was as old as the narrow tape on the box.
It took two days to do.
The beginnings were the small "moon-horse" and the moon itself.  Moons must have been important to Ruth Ray.  Next, overall arrangement, chestnut pieces going in the middle, darks at the bottom and blues towards the top.  The mane and tail are coming together, then the head.
Unlike my S.O. I do not necessarily do the edge first.  Working this brought back many fuzzy memories of how I had struggled with these pieces.  I could remember it!!  Eerie!!
 Words are not going to be able to capture the way handling these peices made me feel.  Handsome Witch's box calls them "scroll cut;"  Copper Queen's just says "machine cut."  What they evoked was an amazing sense of Art Deco, only in a wonky, nerdy 70s way.  Spaciousness is part of it; comfort, as of an old blanket;  so also is a smell, cardboard-y, almost fresh, like a beach.
 With Springbok, Ravenburger, Schmidt, Educa, Buffalo Games, and many other puzzle makers under my belt (not to mention recent additions such as SunsOut and Cobble Hill), I began to see why Copper Queen might have remained unworked for forty years.
Indeed it was worse than Handsome Witch.  The cut was very "untight," loose, slidey, not liftable one bit.  So many edges of pieces were nothing but gentle curves, no 'noses' or 'wings' at all.  Only the border pieces fully interlocked.  My husband suggested this would be easier for children to fit.  I had never thought of it that way.  Amazingly none of the curves got confused or tried to fit one another; they were all different, in subtle ways.  The Young family has a term for pieces that are so close to one another you get them confused: you've been "Ravensburgered."  This puzzle, Copper Queen, could not have been further from that particular fault.
You can see the one damaged piece near the left edge, one nose of torn paper.

Right about now, my own beloved model horse hobby caused me some discomfort.  It has trained me, for many years, to look critically at a horse, and judge its conformation.  How I wished, now, I had never been taught that -- for once!  Alas, it's true:  her head is too small.  In desperate defense, I note that her off foreleg is also too small.  In fact the whole horse seems to get bigger as you move from nose to hindmost hoof.

The pose is tremendously iconic.  It shouts breed.  Yet the setting is magical, mystical, haunting.  In fantasy the viewer may make of images what they wish.  I will justify the small head on grounds of Victorian fashion; old masters portrayed horses like this in the 1800s, laying the groundwork for the Arabian.
But that's another story.


  1. what an incredibly small world it is! Congradulations on finding the puzzles of Copper Queen and Handsome Witch - now I need to search and find them myself!!! Many years ago Paula O'Keefe introduced me to these beautiful surreal paintings by Ruth Ray that she loved as a child and I was absolutely mesmerized. I found some nice prints of her 4 popular horse paintings (Copper Queen, Handsome Witch, Golden Ruler and Storm King) and then in 2008 I found an auction house on ebay selling Ruth Ray's original painting "Handsome Witch" and a few weeks later the same auction house had "Golden Ruler". I bought them both and was frustrated to see I had just missed the listing for Copper Queen which had sold the day before I found Handsome Witch! A weird little voice in my head told me to keep searching and that it would surface again…. then in February of this year the Copper Queen painting popped up again on ebay as the antiques dealer who had bought it at the previous auction decided to sell it - this time it came here to join the other two and I was so thrilled to find it after searching for 7 years! Now I will keeping searching for the original of "Storm King", I thought it odd it had not been with the other 3 so who knows where that one is now.

    I love her work, I have always loved the surrealists so her beautiful stylized horses in Salvador Dali-esque landscapes really struck a chord with me. I hope some time you can come visit us at our apartment and "meet" the original paintings!!!

    I have a pinterest board for Ruth Ray and have photos of these and many other pieces of her work that I have found here -

    1. Wow Liz, as I said on FBk, I never dreamed you were the one to actually own her! Congratulations! If I ever see Storm King -- ! Your Ruth Ray link is on Paula's page. What an intriguing artist.

  2. That is a beautiful puzzle, I'm glad you were able to find it again! I love doing puzzles too, but I never know what to do with them once they are done. Do you mount them to hang on the wall or anything like that? I've thought about it, but - aside from one that I did for a friend - I always just take them apart and put them back in the box. I have a few favorite puzzles that I've done a few times over the years. ;)

  3. Hi Bobbie, Thanks! Personally I never mount puzzles. Nowadays we leave them up for 3 days minimum, to enjoy, and I take pictures. Then it's back in the box, bagged against mold. Puzzles are like books for me; I redo, reread, my favorites a lot.

  4. How wonderful to reconnect with a memory from childhood.