walter wilkinson and the peep-show revival

Walter Wilkinson

Walter Wilkinson

In the comment boxes of yesterday’s post I wrote about the puppeteer Walter Wilkinson, who in the first half of the twentieth century spent his holidays tramping the byways of rural Britain, wheeling his cart loaded with a collapsible booth and a cast of glove-puppets. Wilkinson camped out in fields and set up his puppet booth wherever he thought he might find an audience for his performances. He chronicled his adventures in a series of charming books that went by the titles of the countries and counties he travelled, and copies of them may be found in second-hand bookshops and online at Abebooks. Wilkinson’s goal was to revive interest in the traditions of the ‘peep-show’, though the days when travelling showmen could wheel their puppet-booths unmolested by motorists were already numbered as the car became increasingly popular, and not even the back lanes Wilkinson elected to use as his highways were safe from vehicles as he trundled his bulky hand-cart. But he was undaunted and made journeys through Wales, Scotland and a good many counties of England, including Sussex, Yorkshire and Lancashire, each adventure recorded in a book to celebrate the event. He even ventured a tour of America, and his account of his progress, Puppets Through America (1938) is a delight from beginning to end.

Wilkinson with his travelling showman cart.

Walter Wilkinson ‘Pearly King’ glove puppet at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford.

Wilkinson’s glove-puppets are of the old ‘peepshow’ type, with weighty carved and painted wooden heads. They’re much larger in scale than the children’s glove-puppets many of us are more familiar with. Those travelling ‘Punch Professors’ must have been strong fellows, as the old puppets are enormously heavy to operate at arm’s stretch above the head. Frequently two puppets were in play at any time, and so the strain would have been considerable for the duration of a performance. Some of Wilkinson’s glove-puppets are on show at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, and pretty splendid they are.

Wilkinson was a marvellously expressive wood-carver, and the faces of his puppets are always enlivened by character.

Another Wilkinson glove-puppet in the collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum.

This cow at the Pitt Rivers was once among Wilkinson’s repertory company of characters, and in the photograph below you can see her captured in a long-ago performance. (I love her dainty legs!)

Of course it’s vital that puppets such as these are treasured in our institutions where they can be kept safe and shown to the public. Nevertheless, for me there is something infinitely sad about Wilkinson’s puppets when splayed motionless behind glass, with no chance of them being coaxed into life by the hands of a skilled puppeteer. They once lifted spirits, provoked laughter and conjured all the lively drama of the puppet-shows they were fashioned to populate. Without the showman’s spirit to animate them, they simply can’t demonstrate what they were intended for. I can almost hear the gales of laughter of long-vanished audiences, and I wonder whether the puppets can too, and pine for them.

My small collection of Wilkinson books.

41 responses to “walter wilkinson and the peep-show revival

  1. I found Wilkinson through this blog and now have a collection of his writings that I am enjoying immensely. Thanks for the information that I would never have otherwise seen. I hope that the Australian connection can be made more secure soon. O’d love to read what he said about us.
    Peter

    • Peter

      I am the missing link when it comes to Walter I spent a good number of years researching his life and have all the manuscripts belonging to his books along with unpublished items.
      He did travel in Australia and again have the manuscript
      Only to happy to share information

      Steve

      • Hi Steve Walker,
        Just read ‘…through America’ while in France. I think he would have appreciated the irony. Have always felt there may be a Quaker influence there because of particular sympathy with the landscape and the way it has the capacity integrate people into its bosom. Could not help myself and had to have a day in Lyon meditating on WW, Guignol and hand puppets in general. In fact my public performances began when I was about 12 but there was an hiatus of many years until recently when I began to re-collect a puppet library that I disposed of some 20 years ago – that’s when WW came to light because I only had technical books previously, but now have many other aspects in the collection. It would be a delight to see the Australian manuscript in print, and it could be managed if you wanted such to happen.
        Regards
        Peter Bindon

  2. I’ve created a Wikipedia page for Walter Wilkinson. I am just a fan having read his books, so is based from information contained within his books and readily available internet sourced information. If anyone can add further detail, please do not be afraid to edit/add.

  3. Pingback: Puppet Catch-up: Clive’s Posts | Clive Hicks-Jenkins' Artlog:

  4. What became of Mr. Wilkinson?
    After his U.S.A. journey, he seemed to have vanished.
    Did he get lost in the Second World War somehow?
    I undestand, he wrote a `last´ book, that was not published,.. Australia.
    Did he spend his last days there?
    Any ideas?
    Any `Facts´?
    Any `Family´ or relatives?
    …maybe through his brother,.. early partner?

    being dangled by a small string,
    Gallagher Hayes

    • Hello Gallagher Hayes. Thank you for dropping by the Artlog.

      This site is principally about my own work as a painter, but because I have a history of puppetry stemming from my early career as a puppeteer in a large company, puppetry has always been the tap-root of my creativity. As a result I occasionally make posts here that reflect my connections with the art of puppet-making and performance.

      Walter Wilkinson was known to me by his books… found in second-hand bookshops… and by the puppets he made that are in public collections. It’s hard to piece together much about him beyond what was published in his lifetime, and you’re right, he does rather slide out of the picture after his last book. But I’ve a deal of admiration for him due to his brave attempts to revive the British tradition of peep-shows, and so bit by bit I’ve compiled tiny snippets about him. They don’t add up to a great deal, but I intend to do further posts about him here, so tune in from time to time to see what’s new at the Artlog

      But for now I shall just say that he didn’t get ‘lost’ in the Second World War, though he was imprisoned as a conscientious objector together with his equally famous brother, Arthur, who with his wife formed the Gair-Wilkinson Marionettes. Walter’s dates were 1888 – 1970, and there is a plaque commemorating the first of his peep-show wanderings at Selworthy in Somerset.

      Is your interest in the subject casual, or are you studying Walter Wilkinson?

      • Hello Clive,
        gosh, please don´t take this personally…
        I just went through your Website…
        I didn´t know who you were…
        it blew me away!

        Your work is fantastic!

        Wow, it´s an honour.

        I…
        … I´m a Street Performer, with my wife… since… uhh… a good 30 years. Along the way, we crossed paths with the Walter Wilkinson legacy/philosophy.

        I´m not an ‘apple cider drinking car kicker´, but we believe in playing the small towns, giving the Show away, letting what comes back, come back.

        Actually, I´m a Canadian, if that matters, and Monika is German. Wwe play mostly Germany, France, Switzerland… again, the small towns. Few festivals and we avoid tourist.

        I believe… try to believe,… REALLY believe:
        art is in the ‘banal’… the day-to-day… the everyday.
        This is what I strive for.

        Walter Wilkinson.
        As you´re in Great Britain, you might try to check this out:

        “…Walter Wilkinson assisted by Winnifred W was engaged by the Australian Children’s Theatre run by Joan and Betty Rayner in 1954. (see CLARK “Strolling Players” 1972 Lansdowne Press). I have an advertising leaflet in the archive here for that tour. The last I heard of the manuscript for Puppets Through Australia, was that it was in a tea-chest full of photos and his other writings in the village of Braunton in Devon close to Selworthy, where W.W. may have lived at one time. The owner was not interested in doing anything with it and at that time had a rather ‘dog in the manger attitude’.
        Hope that helps a little.

        Richard Bradshaw may be able to give you more information about the Australian tour.
        Best wishes
        Ray DaSilva….”

        I haven´t been able to follw it up,.. yet.

        Clive, I´ve got to go.
        Thanks for the moment,..
        http://www.bestimmtverstimmt.de

        Friends in the moment,
        Gallagher.

        • Gallagher, just to let you know that I’ve received this, deeply appreciate it and will respond at greater length later. (Thanks for your contact e-mail.)

          I know Ray of old, having purchased many books from him, though we haven’t been in touch recently. He is the fount of much knowledge.

          More soon.

          Very Best
          C

  5. Hello, again!
    Your blog is like a little treasure island!:)
    If you want to see some of my works on stage and when you have time, click on the label “puppet theatre”! You are welcome!

    • Went on a little foray into your website to see your puppet work. Wonderful things there. I love the images of your Hemulen and Snufkin puppets, and also the beautiful work you did on The Steadfast Tin Soldier and The Ugly Duckling. Rapunzel too looks ravishing. You clearly have a wonderful affinity to the world of puppets.

  6. Gorgeous post. And, yes, tinged with a certain sadness – all those wonderful characters alas, no longer whinnying.
    Lovely to hear that yours get the chance to dance to life when eager hands allow.

    • A surprise success for my little Wilkinson post, for which I’m much gratified. It doesn’t always happen that one’s secret enthusiasms meet with widespread recognition or approval. I felt I hadn’t traced down enough photographs of W. W.’s puppets to make a post of sufficient interest, and yet despite that paucity, his story seems to have struck a chord with quite a few of my visitors. I’m hugely pleased about that, and I shall try to track down more pictures.

      My puppets never languish for too long under glass. All our little visitors like to get their hands on them, and so I’m forever giving marionette lessons!

  7. Just wondering if you have been to the puppet theatre in Rhos-on-Sea in north Wales. I haven’t been myself but it is said to be one of the few remaining proper miniature theatres with marionettes in Britain.

    Wilkinson’s puppets story is fascinating and I did not know anything about it until now, also yesterday the Brussels puppet theatre link was very interesting, thanks Clive.

    • I know the Harlequin Theatre of old, though it’s been a long time since I visited. It’s wonderful that such a venerable institution has survived, and moreover is the repository of the many puppets that have played on the stage there over the decades since it opened in 1958. It was founded by the puppeteer Eric Bramall. Eric died in 1996, and since then the theatre has been run by his partner Christopher Somerville.

      You can read more about the history of the Harlequin HERE.

  8. Wonderful! Handcarts and puppets are just so my cup of tea :)

    It’s lovely to see you back Clive :)

    A splendid new year to you and Peter from us down here on the edge of Dartmoor
    Rima x

    • Hello Rima. All good wishes for the New Year to you and Tom. May it be full of the good stuff.

      Glad you like the puppet post. Wilkinson was a fascinating man and clearly a traveller at heart, spinning magic with his puppet players as he strolled the countryside. I’m so pleased that visitors to the Artlog have found his story to be an interesting one.

    • Hello Mary. Happy New Year to you and Andrew.

      Yes, the Pitt Rivers is a wonderfully evocative museum. It’s good that this example of how collections used to be displayed has survived into the twenty-first century. In a world where so many museums are pretty minimal in presentation, with fewer objects on show and more space given over to digital representation, it’s good to be reminded how potent ‘objects’ remain in terms of understanding the past, and to remember there’s nothing to equal seeing something with your own eyes.

  9. Hello! I was so excited to read this interesting post! I’m a puppet theatre director from Bulgaria, that’s why it’s a real pleasure to learn about that remarkable puppeteer!

    Oh, the puppets behind the glass… I suspect they are glad when someone stops there! And although motionless, they are still full of life… And they will ever be!

    • I’m delighted you called by here to read about W. W. He was indeed remarkable, and his life and work deserve to be celebrated.

      I’d be so interested to hear more about your work as a puppet director, and so please consider pointing me in any direction where I can see something of it. Later this year I’ll be directing a music theatre production in which I’ll be using puppets to create the significant dramatic moments. You can read a little about it HERE.

  10. I did a workshop years ago with puppeteers, breathing life into inanimate objects – it was fascinating. I made my first visit to Oxford this holiday but I didn’t make it to Pitt Rivers. I barely scratched the surface of the Ashmolean. It’s a must and soon.

    Clive I am so looking forward to seeing what you do this year. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and enthusiasm, as ever.

    • After leaving the Italia Conti Stage School aged fifteen-and-a-half, my first job was as a puppeteer with the Cardiff-based Caricature Theatre. My time with the company instilled in me a passionate enthusiasm for all things puppety, and later I began to use puppets of all types in many of the productions I worked on as both a choreographer and director.

      Breathing life into inanimate objects has been a part of my life for almost as long as I can remember. I can barely pick up a cup with my tea in it without wanting to manipulate the vessel into a semblance of life! I’m greatly looking forward to diving into the world of puppets again this year with the ‘Mare’s Tale’ project for the Mid Wales Chamber Orchestra, and you can be sure that I’ll be sharing progress on my work on it here at the Artlog. Thank you, Patricia, for your support.

  11. What talent, what character he carved. I’m delighted to hear all about Walter Wilkinson of whom I had previously never heard. I don’t think I’m going to be able to stop myself from re-blogging this post. Bless you for sharing. Happy New Year! (And I agree with Zoe completely.)

    • So pleased that this post hit the spot for you. Wilkinson deserves to be better known, but somehow he’s slipped below the radar. He made such beautiful puppets and from all accounts was a most skilled performer.

  12. After reading the post last night I found a copy of Puppets in Wales on Ebay and it’s currently mine for the exorbitant sum of 99p. That seems such a pittance to pay for the charm I think that awaits me. The Pearly King certainly does has a wonderful expression and thanks for fleshing out Walter’s story Clive. I’m looking forward to getting know him through the pages of his travels.

    • That’s a cheap read, Lesley. Puppets in Wales is a little harder to come by, so you did well. Wilkinson writes about parts of Wales close to my heart, including Crickhowell, which is just down the road from my beloved Tretower.

  13. ohhhh! they’re fantastic! they should be taken out at least once a year for a show, why not? that way, they can be dusted and polished, etc, at least once a year as well.

    You’re right about their strength, too-i was thinking –he *walked* all over the country with that cart??

    • Yes, walked, set up shows, performed in village squares and camped out under the stars. He was an adventurer, and his books convey a wonderful freedom of spirit as he goes about the countryside. I would have loved to have met him.

  14. Love this post Clive. Puppets through America is a favourite book of mine (and my mothers). BBC radio also read it as a story about 6 years or so ago. I couldn’t agree more, all puppets need to be used and loved.

    • I checked out the BBC website, but the series isn’t available for ‘Listen Again’.

      I have puppets in cases here at Ty Isaf, as I’ve collected quite a few over the years. However they come out whenever we have visiting children who want to play with them. Some are old and quite rare, but they’re always available for careful pairs of hands. Puppets need to come to life, and that can’t happen without a little help!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s