About Clive Hicks-Jenkins

I am a painter and illustrator, born and living in Wales. I show with Martin Tinney in Cardiff and my work can always be found at his gallery. (Click on second link)

Madam Rathbone and the Elocution Lessons

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I’ve had this card for most of my life. Say hello to Ethel Marion Foreman, born in 1887 and died in 1976. Marion was an actress and the first wife of actor Basil Rathbone. While performing with Frank Benson’s Shakespeare company, Rathbone met and fell in love with her. He wrote:

“Marion Foreman had been on the stage for some time before I met her at Stratford on Avon in August 1913. She was an excellent actress with a beautiful speaking and singing voice. Both on and off the stage we saw much of each other for many months.”

The couple were married at the church of St. Luke, Battersea, London, on October 3, 1914. The following July their son Rodion was born. The Rathbones divorced in 1926. Marion believed they would come together again, though that was not to be. Much later the Hollywood ‘press’ presented their marriage as an indiscretion of ardent youth, and she’s barely mentioned in Rathbone’s autobiography. Rathbone was reunited with his grown son Rodrion when the young man tried his hand as an actor in Hollywood, and indeed lived for a time with Rathbone and his wife, Ouida. The evident warmth between father, son and stepmother as expressed in the movie magazines was not to last, and the three were estranged after Rodion and his wife felt that their wedding had been hijacked by Ouida as a Hollywood ‘society event’. (Ouida was her husband’s manager, and by all accounts was a very busy networker.) Rathbone’s Hollywood career placed him on a high pedestal of achievement and success, but his staginess was not to everyone’s taste. The renowned stage actor and wit, Mrs Patrick Campbell, described him in her autobiography as “an umbrella taking elocution lessons.”

Around or about 1956 in Newport, Monmouthshire, my mother Dorothy was getting anxious, believing that I should speak with no trace of the accent she was convinced would hold me back in life. I was five when she delivered me to ‘Madam Rathbone’ for elocution lessons. I recall very little of the lessons beyond the room in her house in which they took place, whch was airy though dark with heavy furniture and the glimmer of silver frames containing photographs on many polished surfaces, including the piano. Madam R would have been in her late sixties at the time, which to me seemed incredibly old, and she wore black. What her connections to Newport may have been or why she lived there, I have no idea. Her address has survived and bears the name ‘Rathbone House’ in Serpentine Road, not far from Newport Civic Centre. (My thanks to Stephen Lyons for that information.)

I was an obedient student and a quick learn. I could imitate with skill. By the time Madam Rathbone was through with me my speaking voice had changed forever. What you hear today is how I spoke when I emerged from her tutelage. Later, as a young actor in my early teens, already I sounded like something out of my time, forever cast as toffs.

I look at Marion Foreman in the photograph, in her teens or twenties, from an earlier age of the performing arts that seems almost inconceivable to us in the first quarter of the 21st century. Marion was born a Victorian, and she bequeathed me the speaking voice I have today.

Obituary of Marion Foreman

1887 – 1976

“Miss Marion Foreman, the Shakesperean actress, died at Denville Hall, Northwood, on September 8. She was 89. One of the oldest surviving members of Frank Benson’s company at its meridian, she played in many Stratford upon Avon festivals. Benson held that she was the best Viola in his experience.

Born on June 2, 1887, Ethel Marion Foreman went on the stage when she was 15. At Stratford before the First World War she was in those famous seasons remembered as idyllic and intimate, that were led by a dedicated visionary. With Benson, too, she toured North America during 1930 – 40, acting Jessica, Gertrude and Ann Page for a company that included, beside her husband the young Basil Rathbone, such celebrated classical players as Randle Ayrton, Dorothy Green and Murray Carrington. A ready and endearing actress (in her day applauded as Juliet and Ophelia), she was also an expert fencer.

During the summer of 1919 she and her husband – who would become as well known in the cinema as he was in the theatre – returned to Stratford for the first festival directed by W. Bridges-Adams. Between wars she acted a great deal in the United States. When finally she retired to settle at Newport, she directed, for charity, performances of Macbeth (1939), playing opposite Donald Wolfit at Caerphilly Castle before the Princess Royal. She also directed at two other castles: a Macbeth at Chepstow and Hamlet at Usk. Respected as a teacher, lecturer and adjudicator, she put on many Shakespearian and modern plays among the Welsh miners with whom her association was always understanding and affectionate.

Her marriage to Basil Rathbone (by whom she had a son) was dissolved.”

UPDATE: I am most grateful to Stephen Lyons for the following information about Ethel Marion Foreman:

Ethel Marion Foreman was born in Stepney, London. Her father Edward was a Superintendent of Baths and Gymnastics Director. Sometime between 1891 and 1895 he moved his family to Wales, where he took up a job with Newport Corporation. In 1939 Marion was living at 1 Serpentine road, and was a Drama Lecturer, Producer and Actress. She was also volunteering as an Ambulance Driver.

The Poet Thief

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I lift the latch of a blue-painted iron gate under the trellis archway laden with the Rambling Rector rose that was the gift of my sister, and enter the garden past the reading-bench tucked to my left under the umbrella canopy of a weeping crab-apple.

Pausing only briefly to admire the unlikely olive tree that has survived in the shelter of this place, I skirt the trimmed box-bushes now grown to the size of large sea-boulders and the myrtle propagated from a sprig stolen by a Scottish poet from a shrub in the grounds of a royal residence, grown from a sprig pulled from a nosegay given to Queen Victoria in 1845 by Prince Albert’s grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Saxe Gotha.

The olive tree in the circular bed, with the myrtle grown from a stolen sprig to the right beyond it.

I ascend a grassy bank springy with tussocks and clustered with primroses to the ruins of the myrtle thief’s chair, still at the uppermost part of the garden, where in her last evenings with us she sat in the dusk among the flicker of hunting pipistrelle bats, the glimmer of the illicit Gauloises betraying her secret vice as I anxiously watched for her while washing the supper things.

My beloved friend Catriona Urquhart died early on May Day 2005, at home in Caerleon with her partner Ian, her mother and siblings and nephew and niece around her. I was sitting in the chair at the top of the garden in Aberporth thinking about her when the call came with the news. I’d spent time with her the previous week, squeezed her hand and whispered my goodbyes to her closed, peaceful face. 

Seventeen years have passed, and still she is with me. Here at Ty Isaf the stick-in-a-pot she gave us is now a walnut tree nearly thirty feet high. Her collection of poems with Old Stile Press, The Mares Tale – still available from OSP – continues with its power to make me weep, because I feel as raw and bereft as I did on the day of her departure. But I laugh, too, whenever I see the myrtle, because Catriona was emphatically not a Royalist, and she would positively crow with delight to see the fruit of her thieving doing so well in this west Wales cottage garden.

The Mare’s Tale

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In a World of My Own Making

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Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre for Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop, Covent Garden, 2017.
Above: artwork for the Benjamin Pollock’s Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre.

I should say up front that I never set out to be a designer or maker of toy theatres. I love the whole idea of toy theatre and I’m an aficionado of the form. I collect toy theatre ephemera and have from earliest memory. My discovery of 19th century toy theatre sheets as a child was a significant influence on getting me to stage school as a young teenager for the training I’d need for a life of theatre, and while there I found my way, of course, to Benjamin Pollock’s Museum and Toyshop in Fitzrovia, which place still thrills over fifty years on.

Above: Benjamin Pollock at his Hoxton shop.
Above: design of a toy theatre proscenium for the Sussex Lustreware range of Harlequinade tableware.
Design for a joint-Penfold Press/Hicks-Jenkins Christmas card. (Well who doesn’t love a pair of birds in top-hats sitting on windmills or a duck on wheels pulling a cart?)

So all of those things link up for me: love of toy theatre, love of theatre and love of Pollock’s. But what I didn’t see coming was that I would occasionally find myself designing toy theatres. That, was a surprise.

Above: Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre, designed in collaboration with David W. Slack for Design for Today. (Photograph of Jennifer Castle courtesy of Ross Boyask.)

As a stage designer in my thirties, my background of toy theatre undoubtedly influenced the way I thought about stages and the way pictures on them were presented to audiences. Always the sense of a frame and what’s seen through it, which is not so very far from looking at a painting in a frame on a wall.

Above: commissioned Toy Theatre for an as-yet-unreleased horror film.
Above: large toy theatre made as a studio aid.
Above: two of my toy theatres at Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop, Covent Garden.
Above: illustration of a toy theatre in Simon Armitage’s Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes for Design for Today, 2019.
Above: backdrop for the Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre.

Reference and Adaptation in ‘Harlequinade’ for Sussex Lustreware

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When Susan Williams-Ellis of the Portmeirion Pottery designed her Pantomime range in the 1960s, the records indicate she found the images in a book published by Pollock’s. Mention is made of the engravings being too faint to successfully reproduce on china, which may well be true, though by re-drawing them she will also have sidestepped photographic copyright issues. Whatever the full truth of the matter, her ink drawings were dark and sharp, and they reproduced with clarity.

Portmeirion ‘Pantomime’ ware designed by Susan Williams-Ellis

All the reference material for the Sussex Lustreware Harlequinade range of ceramics has come from my own collection of 19th century toy theatre sheets. Because there were so many printmakers producing these – Green, Skelt, Redington, Pollock etc – I did quite a lot of adaptation so that Harlequinade would have the unity of a single visual aesthetic. Some of my drawings stayed fairly close to the original material, but occasionally I ‘improved’ the designs so as to be what I needed to work for the collection, while always staying firmly within the bounds of the toy theatre ‘style’. My collaborator at Sussex Lustreware, Gloria, came up with the idea of using freehand lustre swags to link the transfer-ware vignettes of the audience around the edges of plates.

Susan Williams-Ellis had rendered her ‘Pantomime’ designs in pen and ink. I drew mine in soft black pencil scanned in greyscale to make transfers ready for applying and firing to the earthenware. Neither Susan’s ink drawings made in the 1960s or my pencil drawings made last year mimic the engravings that were our inspirations, but each of us made what we knew would reproduce well on white ceramic. My pencil drawings have the same silvery tone as some of the old engravings, and the results look particularly good when combined with the soft gleam of pink lustre.

The Golden Beehive Inn is a backdrop from Whittington and his Cat or Harlequin Lord Mayor of London, re-printed by Benjamin Pollock from the play originally produced by Green and then Redington. (The origins of plays can be tangled as toy theatre printmakers frequently re-engraved earlier plates, replacing the original makers’ names with their own.) The Whittington engravings are quite crude, though have a pleasing naive boldness and vigour, and the scene of the inn on a harbour is one I liked so much that I kept returning to it. I combined it on a mug with ‘street’ characters from Green’s The Castle of Otranto or Harlequin and the Giant Helmet, including a ‘Postman’ and an ‘Egg-seller’.

The Golden Beehive from Whittington and his Cat
Postman from The Castle of Otranto
Egg Woman from The Castle of Otranto

Occasionally an original engraving required quite a bit of ‘adaptation’ to produce the image I required for Harlequinade. Clown Riding a Donkey was one such, as I wanted an illustration with much cleaner lines and a better definition of the subject matter than provided in the engraving.

Popular poses and groupings of characters from Harlequinades appear repeatedly in 19th century sheets, drawn by different artists for various publishers. Sometimes I adapted from more than one version of a particular design, as in this drawing for Clown and Pantaloon having a tea-party, reproduced on the Sussex Lustreware Harlequinade teapot.

Groupings of Harlequin characters in a pyramid are enormously popular on toy theatre character sheets, usually with Columbine at the apex.

Above, my drawing for a pyramid of Harlequinade performers, and below, the reference on a sheet by the publisher Skelt. I replaced the two ‘Imps’ with performing dogs.
Sussex Lustreware Teapot with a Harlequinade ‘pyramid’

Pieces from the Harlequinade range may be purchased direct from Sussex Lustreware

HERE

If you can’t see what you want in the shop, then you may order any piece by leaving a request at the contact button.

Woman in a Bunker

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In 2016 Random Spectacular published a picture-book of my dark re-working of the fairy tale Hansel & Gretel. There was no text, save what I hand-lettered into the illustrations.

The following year Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop in Covent Garden commissioned a toy theatre kit from me, based on the book.

In response to the two publications, Goldfield Productions engaged me to direct and design a stage production. Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes with music by Matthew Kaner and a libretto by Simon Armitage, was created for a chamber consort, a narrator/singer and two puppeteers, and it premiered at the 2018 Cheltenham Music Festival followed by a five month tour.

Simon Armitage meets Gretel for the first time at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama.

A matinee at the Barbican was recorded and broadcast by BBC Radio 3 Christmas week 2018.

The following year Design for Today published a hardback edition of Simon Armitage’s libretto that I illustrated, and in 2020 it won me the V&A Illustrated Book Award. 

Bombs destroy the children’s formally idyllic world.

In 2023 there’s to be a major exhibition of my work on the theme of Hansel & Gretel at Oriel Myrddin in Carmarthen. The exhibition is to include original artworks made for the several publications, my project books, maquettes and preparatory works.

Auditions for puppeteers at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama.
Lay-out for an illustration from my project book.

There will be many items from the stage production, including shadow puppets created by Peter Lloyd, set models built by Phil Cooper, vintage toys that I loaned to the production and a huge doll’s house, the inside of which I decorated and filmed to represent the interior of the Witch’s lair.

Peter Lloyd’s shadow puppet for the Witch being animated by me. Photograph by permission of Phil Cooper, who was my wonderful design assistant on the production.

Designer Phillip Cooper animating Lebkuchen he’d made for the production.

One of several animations from the production used to illustrate Hansel and Gretel’s imaginative worlds of play.

My little Russian clockwork singing bird (she was made in St Petersburg) appeared in the stage production, and then in the book published by Design for Today.

Permission for a loan to the gallery of the puppets of Hansel and Gretel designed by me for the production, has been turned down by Goldfield’s Artistic Director, Kate Romano. She gave dislike of me as her reason. Given that the costs of designing and making the puppets had been paid for out of an Arts Council grant, and given the budget was so tight that I personally paid a costume designer to create a wardrobe for them, her decision seems at best ill-judged. As the director of a charitable trust which has been extensively funded from philanthropic organisations, anyone might expect better from her than this. The exhibition will be especially appealing to children, and for a registered charity to deny a ‘museums accredited’ gallery the opportunity to inspire young minds with such beautiful examples of the art of puppet-making, is not merely perplexing, but frankly shameful.

I approached the Chair of the Goldfield Trust, Caroline Clegg, hoping that she might persuade Kate to change her mind and save the company from public scrutiny into a matter that looks very bad for both of them. It would be hard to tell from Caroline’s e-mail that she and I know each other, having both worked on the production for months when she was appointed by Kate as dramaturg to it. Weirdly, both her e-mails to me make it sound as though we’ve never met before. This has added another layer of the surreal to what has frequently felt decidedly strange when dealing with Kate Romano and Caroline Clegg. Here’s Caroline’s second e-mail to me:

Dear Mr Hicks-Jenkins,

In response to your recent request the Trustees of Goldfield Productions support Ms Romano’s decision not to loan the Hansel and Gretel puppets.

Kind regards

Ms Caroline Clegg

as Chair of Goldfield Productions

Why am I writing about all this now, so long after the event? Certainly not to persuade Kate Romano to change her mind about loaning the puppets. Over four years I’ve several times held out a hand of reconciliation in the hope of encouraging her to set aside resentments so we may together protect the legacy of what we made. I was and remain proud of my work on the stage production of Hansel & Gretel, and want to be able to share what was achieved in the exhibition. However everything I’ve written to Kate has gone unacknowledged and unanswered. There’s been not one e-mail reply to any of my attempts to lower the temperature of her antagonism. She is down a bunker in this matter, refusing to engage, and such behaviour in the world the way it is right now, is not a good look for anyone, let alone an arts administrator. Today I’m writing this because many are beginning to ask whether the puppets are going to be in the exhibition. Luckily because we have an ample record of the puppets in drawings, photographs and videos, they will be seen, though not be present.

It would be easier in many ways just to make a simple excuse for their absences which skates around what’s happened, but I see no reason to do that when Kate Romano and Caroline Clegg should clearly be the ones to explain why they’ve made the decision to hide the puppets from public view.

Puppeteers Di Ford and Lizzie Wort, who brilliantly brought Hansel and Gretel to life.

Simon’s reinvention of the fairy tale, is eerily prescient of what we’re seeing now in Ukraine. The puppets would have meant a great deal to many visitors had Kate Romano found it in her heart to lend them to the gallery, but she did not. The puppets were conceptualised and designed by me, their making supervised by me, in part funded by me and their performances on stage, shaped by me together with puppeteers Di and Lizzie. Kate’s reason for refusing the gallery loan appears to be all about personal enmity, which is troubling in a CEO in the performing arts. Anyone who feels that she made a decision that requires explanation, might take it up with her.

Kate Romano, CEO and Artistic Director of Goldfield Productions (Registered charity: 1173427) and CEO of Stapleford Granary Arts Centre.

Beauty & Beast: a play with music for toy theatre

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The completed film of the Design for Today Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre that David W. Slack and I have been working on over the past several months, is now available for viewing at YouTube:

HERE

The film was made and originally released in five one-act instalments at Instagram. We’d intended it to be a promotion for the just published toy theatre and an encouragement for would-be performers, to show them what might be achieved with the model. However it swiftly evolved into something that was a creative project in its own right, and as David and I planned and worked, our ambitions for the film became greater.

Even though we elaborated on the presentation in ways that were clearly only possible in the realms of digital animation, we felt that the overall effect would be to encourage anyone performing the toy play to be inventive and give creativity a free hand.

I’d asked Olivia to give me a play-script that incorporated all the traditions I associate with nineteenth century toy theatre productions: actors directly addressing the audience, rhyming verses, jokes, songs, political references, allegorical characters and opportunities for sumptuous stage effects. But it was important too to have that sense of the slightly bonkers that I see in just about every historic toy theatre play script. Fairy tale is the right material to be allowed its head in matters of strangeness. Too much sanitising and it loses character. Beauty and the Beast as a narrative can be so much more than is usually allowed. Olivia has followed the threads of earlier iterations, but has reinvigorated the tale by making climate change and pollution the culprits for Beast’s condition, rather than a dark fairy’s curse. Moreover Beast is allowed to be more thoroughly himself than when the storyline moves toward a princely restoration. (When Jean Cocteau gave a first showing of his film La Belle et la Bête (1946) to its cast and technicians, he invited his friend Marlene Dietrich as his guest. As the end credits rolled she could be heard in the darkened viewing-room loudly wailing:

“Ou est ma Bête?”

Most audiences ever since have agreed with her.

The Beauty & Beast Team:

Animated Film: David Slack & Clive Hicks-Jenkins

Script: Olivia McCannon

Original Music for Time for a Change of Heart: Paul Sartin

Narrator: Jennifer Castle

Jennifer Castle’s Portrait Photography: Ross Boyask

Accompaniment for Time for a Change of Heart: Tricia Kerr Mullen

Adapted from the Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre published by Joe Pearson at Design for Today

The Design for Today Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre (see above) may purchased online, direct from the publisher:

HERE

All toy theatre is an abbreviation, by reason of the medium. Fifteen minutes is about the maximum length a toy theatre performance can sustain. However the complete fairy tale as retold by Olivia McCannon in Beauty & Beast, illustrated by me throughout, is to be published by Design for Today in Spring this year.

The Owl and the Nightingale at the Royal Court

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The Owl and the Nightingale will be performed as a reading at the Royal Court Theatre, Jerwood Theatre Downstairs.

In a new translation by the Poet Laureate Simon Armitage, this witty and enchanting edition of the medieval debate poem will be directed by John Tiffany and read by Maxine Peake and Meera Syal with Simon Armitage.

Maxine Peake
Meera Syal
Portrait of Simon Armitage by Clive Hicks-Jenkins

Following his acclaimed translations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and PearlSimon Armitage shines a light on another jewel of Middle English verse. The disputed issues within the piece still resonate – concerning identity, cultural attitudes, class distinctions and the right to be heard.

Following the performance there will be a book signing in the Balcony Bar.

The Owl and the Nightingale reading is supported by The Institute of Digital Archaeology.

The Book That Ran Away To Join the Circus

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Well, not quite to join the circus, but certainly to have an adventure!

Before the World of Wonders range emerged from Sussex Lustreware, Gloria sent the above photograph of herself with the sheets of the drawings-reproduced-as-transfers, ready to start work in her studio. It was an exciting moment as the precursor to what came later.

None of this would have come about without the novel that started the whole journey, Marly Youmans’ Charis in the World of Wonders, for which I was commissioned by the US publisher Ignatius to make a cover and chapter headings.

So the novel first, then the illustrations for the novel, then the publishing of the novel with its illustrations and after that, the collaboration with Sussex Lustreware to produce the World of Wonders range using the drawings made as chapter headings.

Finally, the still-life paintings I’m currently making of the World of Wonders lustreware. Everything tumbling along merrily. Literature begetting art begetting ceramics begetting art. What a delight it’s been, in the company of people I both admire and love.

The Dead Mother

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All life is light and shadow and the struggle to hold those two in balance. I know that at the extremes, my preoccupations can seem hard to make sense of. One moment artworks I know viewers can find hard to look at, and the next, animations in which the characters of Victorian Harlequinade spring to joyful life.  Night versus day, dusk versus dawn, grief versus joy.

At the private view of my Autumn 2021 Martin Tinney Gallery exhibition, a man I barely knew began quizzing me. Gesturing to the walls teeming with illustrations for Simon Armitage’s about-to-be-published The Owl & the Nightingale, he said “So you don’t paint anymore.” (Note the statement, not a question.) I’m always taken aback when someone is challenging almost from the first sentence. I didn’t want to defend myself to a man putting words into my mouth, so I replied simply, “I paint every day.” He carried on regardless, again gesturing to the walls. “Yeah but not REAL paintings any more, you know…” and here he grappled for words … “… the BIG ones!”  Me, fixing his eye. ”I paint the things that I care about, and I always have. And now you’ll excuse me.”

 
The first subject matter that brought me serious attention as an artist was The Mare’s Tale in 2001. As an exploration of a nightmarish experience in my father’s childhood he carried with him for more than eighty years, the work has often been described by others as  ‘the son’s exploration of the father’s trauma’. It was partially that, but it was also grief, not only for my dad, but for the many of my family and friends who had gone.


In Simon Armitage’s extraordinary reworking of Hansel & Gretel, the children’s parents are not the malign mother and weak father of the Grimm Brothers’ original tale. Simon sets the story in an unnamed war-torn country, and the children are not abandoned but in an act of parental desperation, directed away from home and bombings. They’re migrant children. At the end of the story they return home to find their father broken, their home in ruins and their mother, dead and buried in a coffin made from their bomb-splintered beds. When making the illustrations for the book (Design for Today, 2019) I researched, made hundreds of studies and drew on memories that are always with me.

My mother’s health had been catastrophically compromised by childhood meningitis. I think she can only have been in her thirties when she had her first heart attack, and though she lived another three decades, the steady advance of heart and organ failure was unstoppable. She was courageous and fought to be well, and there were times of respite when illness didn’t shadow her so heavily.

But in the end, it got her. In those days visiting hours in hospital were strict. No matter how ill the patient, there were no exceptions to the rules. My mother died alone in a public ward without anyone she loved to hold her hand. It was the end she feared most, and not a damned thing that we could do to stop it. We were called at the crack of dawn and raced to the hospital. It would have been kinder of the nurse to tell us the truth in the phone call. Instead we drove like maniacs only to find my mother icy-cold in her bed, having died hours earlier. My father retreated to a corridor, buried his face in an alcove and howled like a dog. I held my mother’s hand and studied her face, careworn with illness but still beautiful. 

All life gets poured into my art. Here she is, recalled in the illustration in Hansel & Gretel of the dead mother in her unlined coffin, tenderly garlanded with flowers.

The Pollock’s Legacy

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Ralph Richardson added by photographic trickery to a Pollock’s toy theatre stage

It’s largely forgotten these days that the actor Ralph Richardson was significant in the preservation of the toy theatre tradition. Benjamin Pollock, the last of the print-making toy theatre sellers, died in 1937. Thereafter his daughters ran the shop in Hoxton Street until damage sustained during the Blitz forced its closure.

Benjamin Pollock in his Hoxton shop

Alan Keen, a local bookseller, together with Richardson, picked up the threads of Benjamin Pollock’s business and remaining stock, and together carried forward the tradition, enlisting practitioners of the art of toy theatre, famous artists and renowned actors to assist them. George Speaight was an historian, enthusiast and collector of toy theatre ephemera, who in 1946 published the still unsurpassed textbook of the toy theatre tradition, Toy Theatre, and he was among those Keen and Richardson worked with.


Richardson’s celebrity ensured the added lustre of luminaries such as Laurence Olivier and playwright J. B. Priestly stepping forward to promote the art of toy theatre. Olivier agreed to a toy theatre adaptation of the 1948 film of Hamlet, which he’d directed and starred in. Published by what was now being called ‘Benjamin Pollock Ltd’, the Hamlet toy theatre is a curious thing, quite wan in many ways because the ‘puppets’ are all tinted photographs of the actors from the film, while the sets are sketchy if atmospheric black and white drawings by the film’s production designer Roger Furse.

A far more lavish and full colour affair was The High Toby, with a script by J. B. Priestly and scenery and characters painted by the prominent artist, Doris Zinkeisen.

Ralph Richardson with artist Doris Zinkeisen and a Pollock’s toy theatre

The growing cost of the book outstripped Alan Keen’s available funds, and it was done as a Puffin Cut-Out Book ‘in association’ with Benjamin Pollock Ltd. But even with these celebrity contributors, while the book is very pretty, anyone who has tried to offer a performance will know that it’s less satisfactory as a play than one might imagine given who wrote it, and though Zinkeisen’s settings and characters are lavishly detailed, she took no account of how difficult the puppets would be to cut out, massively compromised by fine details like whips, walking-canes, feathers on hats and the slenderest of wrists.

Moreover even when those hurdles had been clambered over, the characters don’t register particularly well against the backdrops, their drawing-room elegance and soft colours legislating against them. Toy theatre needs a robustness not present here, and The High Toby is toy theatre play that looks far better in the imagination, and on its pages, before scissors, paste and card have been brought into play.

Toy theatre is an art, and not just a physical reduction. A long and complex script isn’t the best accompaniment to a toy theatre performance, and scenery cannot simply be a version of what might be seen in a live theatre. There’s something like alchemy in the process of making a successful adaptation of a story to the reduced script and the reduced stage of a toy theatre. The same rules of drama don’t apply, nor do the rules of perspective used on a full-scale stage with breathing actors. The toy theatre requires its own, unique aesthetic. It’s so much better when allowed to be itself, rather than when trying too hard to ape its origins in the live theatre.

When all the components are in place and a toy theatre can be made to work, it works magnificently. But it’s a form fraught with perils, and more get it wrong than right, and always have. English toy theatre – for it was almost uniquely an English form, practiced most successfully in London, that city of many theatres and printmakers – had a period of unrivalled brilliance. When not made overly sophisticated, and when drawing on the lively tradition of the English printmakers’ ‘Actor Portraits’ of the Regency and nineteenth century, toy theatre was at its best, graphically bold and slightly bonkers. Later it became displaced largely because the far more sophisticated toy theatre imports from France and Europe were catching the eye of the public, and the meteoric rise of native toy theatre faltered when comparisons were being made to the enormously elaborate foreign imports. English Toy theatres were not subtle. They had the character of folk art, and were the perfect vehicles for barnstorming melodramas and that most unique theatrical tradition of these islands, the pantomime. (Harlequinade was a hugely popular entertainment of the English stage, and the characters of Clown, Harlequin and Columbine were endlessly reproduced in toy theatre character sheets.)

Marguerite Fawdry acquired the Pollock’s business in the 1960s, afterwards transferring it from Covent Garden to its current address in Fitzrovia, where there was room for a toy museum over the shop and a basement where the Pollock printing press and stock of engraved plates could be stored. The business has continued as a family affair, now helmed by Marguerite’s great grandson, Jack, in whom the toy theatre tradition is still alive and flourishing. There’s a Pollock’s Trust, too, to lend support to the Museum, led by Chairman Alan Powers.

I was commissioned in 2016 by Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop to design the Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre, which was published in 2017 and is still available from the shop. The project led to others, most significantly a commission to develop a new stage production of Hansel & Gretel, and in 2018 Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes, a stage production for music ensemble, actors and puppets with a score by Matthew Kaner and a poetic text by Simon Armitage, directed by me, premiered at the Cheltenham Festival of Music before embarking on a tour. A performance of the work before an audience was recorded by BBC Radio 3 and broadcast Christmas week 2018.

In 2019 the text of Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes was published by Design for Today in an edition illustrated by me. In 2020 I won the V&A Illustrated Book Award for my work on it.

In November 2021 Design for Today published my new toy theatre, Beauty & Beast, made in collaboration with Olivia McCannon, who wrote the script, and David W. Slack, who assisted me and designed the model.

The Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre is available from Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop in Covent Garden and Pollock’s Museum and Toyshop in Fitzrovia, and also online from:

Design for Today

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David W. Slack and I are currently making an animated film of Olivia’s play script, with actor Jennifer Castle performing the text.