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.

Clive and David’s Big Adventure: Part 2

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Design for the Beauty and Beast ‘Tulip Tapestry’

With Olivia’s play script for the toy theatre delivered, it was time to consider who might write the music to accompany her lyrics for Beauty’s song ‘Time for a Change of Heart’, performed at the end of the play. Olivia approached her friend, musician Paul Sartin of the group Bellowhead, and to everyone’s delight, he agree to join the team.

Once his music was ready, it was time for graphic designer Laurence Beck to lay out Olivia’s play script, Paul’s arrangement for her lyrics, David’s instructions for constructing the model and my brief histories of toy theatre and the origins of Beauty and the Beast, into the booklet to accompany the model. The 10 construction-cards to cut out and make the toy theatre, scenery and characters of the production, together with the 24 page booklet, were designed to fit into a 23 x 25 cms folder where the scenery, puppets and script could be stored for safe keeping once the theatre was made. All that remained was for the many elements of the toy theatre to be printed and packed ready for sale.

The toy theatre constructed

To promote what was about to be published, with Joe’s agreement David and I set about producing an animation video for the Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre, to be shown at YouTube and on various social media platforms. The plan was to offer a condensed visual account of Olivia’s scenario set to music, and as he’d already played such a significant part in creating the toy theatre, David was perfectly placed for making the animated version of it. With the animation prepared, everything was set for launch. We would have our beautiful toy theatre out in good time for the Christmas market.

Still we weren’t through. David and I had been wondering how we might further promote the toy theatre, and what alternatives might be open to us if we weren’t able to have a pre-Christmas live event to which an audience could be invited.

A broadcast film of a performance might be the solution, but even that could be difficult to organise given the current circumstances. So we began to plan a film in which all the contributing creators could work at a distance from each other. The first and most urgent requirement was to find an actor to read Olivia’s play script, and moreover one who would seize the multiple opportunities afforded by it. Here were poetry, humour, menace and crackling atmosphere, and we needed an actor skilled on multiple levels to give a nuanced and mesmerising performance. Luckily I knew who would deliver all that for us in bucketloads, and Jennifer Castle became the final creative talent to join the Beauty & Beast team, alongside Ross Boyask, who undertook to both record the audio tracks of Jennifer’s performance and take the many portrait shots of her that we needed in order to incorporate her into the film.

Jennifer Castle and Beauty and Beast

The work is underway and further announcements will be forthcoming before too long. Here’s a toy theatre that is not just a desirable object, but one that comes with all the online creative encouragement and inspiration that anyone could wish for. I’m enormously proud of the team that made it. My thanks to:

Joe Pearson at Design for Today

Olivia McCannon

Paul Sartin

David W. Slack

Laurence Beck

Jennifer Castle

Ross Boyask

The Design for Today Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre is available

HERE

Clive and David’s Big Adventure: Part 1

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It all began earlier this year with the Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre I’d designed in 2017 for Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop. David W. Slack and I didn’t know each other, but exchanged a flurry of messages at Instagram about how he was planning to adapt his newly acquired Hansel & Gretel model to include a curved stage-front. Before we knew it we were in regular contact, fuelled by the fact we’re both painters and by our shared passion for Toy Theatre. I was working flat out on the illustrations for my next book with publisher Design for Today, Beauty & Beast, in collaboration with writer Olivia McCanon, and David and I talked about the evolving images for it. In photographs, his finished model of the Pollock’s theatre I’d designed was sharp and meticulous. The man really knew how to cut and construct a toy theatre.

I had a notion to make a very simple toy theatre as a promotion for Beauty & Beast. It would have to be simple because I had no spare time to work on it. Before I tried the idea out on my publisher, Joe, I confided in David about it, casually wondering whether if he had the time he might consider helping me out. As it was going to be a modest project and would hopefully not take up too much of his time, it could be fun. Beyond the sense of ease that made online conversations between us so relaxed, I had the strongest feeling that we needed to collaborate. It was almost an imperative. Luckily he felt the same way and enthusiastically leapt in.

Puppets for a toy theatre

The division of labour evolved with complete ease. I made roughs while David worked confidently to produce the optimum design for the model. Ideas flowed smoothly. We were so attuned that we developed a pattern allowing each of us creative freedom. Once the proscenium arch design had been settled on, David produced prototype toy stages at extraordinary speed, each version improving on the last. By this time he was leading with the design work, briefing me on what I needed to be making. He was drafting scenery, too, often using my completed illustrations made for the book as initial sources. I was having to fit all this between my daily schedule of illustrations for the main book, though things became simpler when David began sending me templates so all I had to do was fill in the shapes with drawing, knowing the ‘fit’ had already been worked out.

David’s prototype toy stages

David’s enthusiasm for the project meant that he was forever coming up with ideas to ‘improve’ outcomes, which meant the dawning realisation for both of us that it was a rather more complete production than we’d anticipated at the outset. Olivia McCannon was enlisted to write the script, a task she undertook with good grace even though it greatly added to her already overburdened work-load. It wasn’t to be a straight adaptation of her beautiful text for the book, but a clever reinvention of a nineteenth century toy theatre pantomime, ingenious and slightly mad. I broke the news to Joe Pearson with some trepidation that we’d gained more construction pages than originally estimated, and that moreover several of them required printing on both sides, which would require meticulous alignment by the printer. Joe took it all in his stride and began costing.

The script was still being written and so we had no idea how many pages it might fill. We began considering the matter of the binding for the toy theatre book, so as for it to be simple to take apart. I’m pretty certain it was David who first suggested we consider not binding, but offering loose construction sheets in a folder, and Joe who came up with the idea of something like an old-fashioned double-LP cover, with half-wallets inside. These were exciting developments because they meant the toy theatre would be unique in its presentation. Joe felt a separate ‘chapbook’ for the script and instructions would be the way forward, slipped into one of the pockets of the folder. The idea of a script in miniature for toy theatre performances was lovely, and mirrored the toy theatre scripts of the nineteenth century. Everyone was in a frenzy of invention and creativity.

Design for the gates to Beast’s Castle

Jennifer and the Toy Theatre

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Today I take pleasure in announcing that Jennifer Castle has joined the Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre team, and that we are working together to create a filmed performance of Olivia McCannon’s wonderful play-script with Jennifer giving life to all the roles, accompanied by the toy theatre in action. In a curtain-raiser to all that excitement, Jennifer and I have been in conversation.

Clive: Jennifer, for the past nine months the artwork, model construction, script and graphic design for the Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre have been gently evolving into the product we have today. You’ve come to the project only recently, but from our conversations I’m getting the distinct impression you’ve hit the ground running, and that in part must be to do with the script by Olivia McCannon. What were your feelings when you read it?


Jennifer: Right from the beginning, I suspected that Olivia McCannon and I might be close together in age. So many of what at first glance might seem to be ‘throwaway’ lines resonate deeply with me.
For example, Beauty herself, so often portrayed as the noble ingenue, in Olivia’s hands becomes a somewhat exasperated, fully formed young woman cognisant of the ridiculousness of her situation. Her brusque ‘we know why I’m here, let’s not waste time getting up to speed’ attitude, combined with the innocence, intricacy and beauty of the poetry itself delighted me.
Yet Beauty remains recognisably the same character we have all come across as children for 300 years. Thanks to Olivia’s writing, I feel free to explore the character of Beauty, all of her anger as well as her inherent goodness, without worrying that she will be unrecognisable to anyone.
From a technical point of view, in terms of the actual playscript; it is subtle and wicked, the work of a poet at the very top of her game, and I feel a keen sense of responsibility to do the rhythm of the work justice.

Clive: My friend Simon Callow, who has a fair number of one-man shows under his belt, once told me that the thing he missed most when performing alone, was the camaraderie of the team and the liveliness of a rehearsal room filled with people and ideas. How do you feel about the fact that you’ll be performing all of the roles in this short play?

Jennifer: I will be performing all the roles in the play. So I will play! As a child, I didn’t have any problems holding a doll in each hand and improvising full blown dramatic confrontations that would put a soap opera to shame. It’s been a while, I grant you, but if a toy theatre can’t help me back into the unselfconscious headspace of a child with a couple of Barbies, I think I may be in the wrong profession!
Joking aside, I am happy to say that I don’t consider this to be a ‘one-woman show’ at all. I’ll have the beautiful characters written by Olivia, drawn by you, and brought to stunning animated life by David W. Slack right alongside me.
When we first spoke on the telephone about this project, you told me that in a previous collaboration with Simon Armitage of Hansel & Gretel, what had impressed you most in a live reading of the piece by him was that he didn’t attempt to ‘do’ voices for each role, but simply read the lines in his own voice and let the characters speak for themselves. I found that really interesting.

Clive: The pandemic has changed the conditions of work for all of us. But because I live in a far- flung corner of west Wales, long before social distancing catapulted just about everyone into working through the mediums of email, messaging and ‘Zoom’, I’d been forging collaborative relationships via social media. My close collaboration with Dan Bugg of the Penfold Press has for the past five years been carried out almost entirely through Facebook and Insta messaging, and although David W. Slack and I have been in extensive daily contact as he designed the Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre model, we’ve never met. (A fact I find hard to believe because we feel very close.) The entertainment industry has been hard hit by Covid, and particularly live theatre which effectively closed down completely. How have things been for you as an actor? Have unexpected ways of working – and unexpected projects – emerged out of all this strangeness?

Jennifer: Can I tell you something? As an actor, the most unexpected thing for me was how I came to view NOT working.
When we think of actors, we naturally think of household names. But only 2% of professional actors make a living from the profession and 90% are out of work at any one time! So when the pandemic hit, I suddenly didn’t have to go through the exhausting ritual actors face every time we meet casual acquaintances or family: answering the question “So what are you acting in now?” with a self deprecating shrug and a “well….”
It was such a relief.
Of course I got fed up of sitting on the balcony reading comics within about 2 weeks, so I and my fellow actor friends soon found each other online and began planning for the moment lockdown ended! I wrote my first script, participated in Zoom script readings for friends and rediscovered a desire to get out there and just DO something that had been waning in the couple of years prior to 2020.
Though restrictions are now easing, I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that the future of film and tv castings is going to be ‘self-taped’ auditions, which may sound convenient but instead of getting to meet and connect with a casting director, getting a feel for the room and trying a scene out a few times with feedback, I now have to film myself in a bathroom and hope for the best, which can sometimes be a frustrating experience!
But on the whole? I was so happy when productions were allowed to start up again. Remote work can be valuable and productive, but as an actor, NOTHING beats human contact when it comes to creating.
What about you? As an artist, do you think that you would still live in ‘far-flung West Wales’ if you didn’t have the internet or would you need to live closer to an artistic hub?

Clive: Moving to Ty Isaf fifteen years ago coincided with the burgeoning of the Internet and the appearance of social media. Facebook was just taking off. Almost from the first week here our connections with the outside world began to grow. Of course the world managed to function perfectly well pre-Internet, but my re-location to a far-flung corner of Wales has been founded from the start on good, strong connections with my collaborators through social media messaging services, e-mails and much later, Zoom. How would I manage without these connections? I suspect not at all well. I love peace and quiet and even isolation in bite-size chunks. But I am collaborative by nature and I’m social by habit, so I need a balance. Before Covid Ty Isaf had been a bit of a creative hub, with my collaborators frequently spending time here so as to be able to work in close contact. We’ve held early brain-storming production meetings on performative works here, and I have a pretty good pop-up animation studio that I can fit into the dining-room when occasion demands.

Although you and I met just the once, several years ago in Cardiff at the home of a mutual friend, you’ve come to this project via a post you made at Facebook (social media, again) that caught my eye and got me thinking.

Jennifer: You have generously omitted the fact that my bad day was caused by my absolutely bombing in an audition that morning! I took to Facebook to admit as such and received a surprisingly sympathetic response. We actors rarely admit our failures because like sharks, theatre folk can smell blood in the water.

Clive: It must have been a slightly strange experience having someone coming at you out of the blue with a hard-to-describe and evolving project after you’d admitted on social media to having had a bad day.


Jennifer: If you were reading a novel, and the protagonist, dejected after yet another failed audition, received a message from a famous artist telling her that he’d like to offer her a chance at a challenging project because her honesty impressed him and she replied “Eh….nah”, how far across the room do you think you would throw the book?

Clive: I take your point. Nevertheless, you took a leap of faith and engaged with me where many would have balked, and I appreciate that.

Jennifer: Gosh that’s interesting that you would say that. Who would balk? Should I have balked? In all seriousness, you not only took a chance on me, you’ve shown nothing but faith in me from the start of this journey. I’m not taking that for granted.

Clive: Are you generally a cautious or adventurous person?

Jennifer: Yes, sometimes cautious and sometimes adventurous.

Clive: David W. Slack and I have a passion for the work of David Firmin and Oliver Postgate, who were the creators at Smallfilms of Clangers, Noggin the Nog and Bagpuss. When I described to you that Bagpuss was an inspiration for the low-tech way in which we hoped to make the film, you yelled with delight and enthusiasm. Did that cinch the deal for you?

Jennifer: I was already enthusiastic at the thought of a toy theatre, but the old stop motion beauty of Bagpuss is timeless and perfect and wonderful. It’s so very British – comforting and sometimes uncomfortable at the same time.
I can’t wait to see what we come up with together. I’m excited and nervous, comfortable and pushed beyond my comfort zone – I’m ready to be Bagpussed!

Clive Hicks-Jenkins and Jennifer Castle were in conversation. The top image is by David W. Slack, with special thanks to Ross Boyask for Jennifer Mullen’s portrait shot.

The Design for Today Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre is available:

HERE

Artwork by Clive Hicks-Jenkins, Model Design by David W. Slack, Script by Olivia McCannon and Music for the play by Paul Sartin. Graphic Design for the Playbook by Laurence Beck.

A Word From Our Sponsor

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This post was written by my friend and collaborator Gloria, who under the umbrella of her business Sussex Lustreware, has produced the Harlequinade range of lustre-embellished transferware for which I made drawings on the theme of Victorian Toy Theatre.

A post on the subject of theatrical swags – and collaborative sparks!

“With our first collection, the World of Wonders, Clive gave me his beautiful drawings and more or less carte blanche on the production and decoration of the pots, largely leaving me to get on with it as I thought best, a touching display of trust!

With Harlequinade he was creating the artwork especially for them, and greater collaboration on the overall design seemed in order to make the most of it. So over the summer we had some lengthy chats via Instagram, with pictures and ideas flying back and forth between us. And emojis of course! 😀😆👍

As an admirer of Laura Knight’s ‘Circus’ designs for Clarice Cliff in the 1930s I was keen at the chance to use plate rims in a similar way, with an audience and ruched swags suggestive of a night at the theatre.

Laura Knight Circus plate
Laura Knight Circus plate with the audience around the rim


Clive obliged with small groups of spectators, while I tried to work out how best to suggest draped velvet with lines of lustre.

Clive Hicks-Jenkins Post-It with suggestion for swag placement
Above and below: Harlequinade audience

Other influences and inspiration cropped up in conversation, from Hockney’s ‘Rake’s Progress’ Glyndebourne sets, through Rex Whistler interiors, to the trompe l’oeil Austrian curtain wallpaper in my aunt’s C20 Bethnal Green bathroom 🤩.

Rex Whistler ‘swag’
Hockney design for The Rake’s Progress


We decided that a single ellipse was too abstract, that three were too much, and so arrived at two. Plus the trio of embellishments, so that the glamour of the occasion – and our fluency as semioticians – should be in no doubt! 

From a 19th Century Toy Theatre Character Sheet
Reinterpretation + swags

I was so pleased with the results that the swags ended up not just on the plates but festoon the jugs and trinket box too ✨💖

Lustre swags before firing
Trinket-box with with swags


It was really fun working in this way, so I thought you might like to see a few snippets ‘behind the scenes’!”

The Harlequinade Teapot

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Behold the Harlequinade teapot. The wonderful Gloria at Sussex Lustreware has boldly decorated its Falstaffian belly with two scenes featuring Clown, Pantaloon, Harlequin, Columbine and some performing dogs. In addition the spout and lid swarm with vignettes of Cinderella’s slipper, stars, a jovial sun, oak leaves and a jaunty windmill! 

The Harlequinade range celebrates the great Victorian tradition of toy theatre and brims with the characters that would be found in nineteenth century theatre entertainments. Harlequin, Columbine, Clown and Pantaloon were adopted into British pantomime from the Italian Commedia dell’arte, leading a supporting cast of tradesmen and street-sellers forming the backgrounds to their adventures.

There were also assorted fairies, sprites, ogres and demons from the world of faery, together with a mix of gods and goddesses of the Ancient Worlds plus a spattering of historic characters.

Neptune in his shell chariot drawn by seahorses.

The London printmakers who created the toy theatres which became so popular, adapted their scenery and character sheets from live performances, and that’s why the 19th century toy theatres are such an excellent record of what was going on in the real theatres of the times.

Green’s Character sheet for Harlequin and the Giant Helmet.

The actors of Harelquinades were adept at all the performing arts, and we can tell from depictions of them in toy theatre sheets that they were acrobats, dancers and even equestrian performers. In my images for the range of china I’ve represented them in all their diversity of skills.

Below: My drawing of Harlequin, Columbine, Clown and Pantaloon in the ‘pyramid’ arrangement so common in toy theatre representations of the characters.

Harlequin as an equestrian performer.

The photographic record of Harlequinade is very thin, composed of costumed performers in photographers’ studios, because the art of photography at the time was not up to recording them in action on stage. Here in an undated but late-Victorian hand-coloured studio photograph, actors in the roles of Harlequin, Columbine, Clown and Pantaloon pose in all their Pantomime finery:

Toy theatres, by contrast, with their scenery showing all the elaborate transformations and spectacular stage tricks, as well as the wide range of characters, give us an excellent impression of how the live performances looked to an audience of Victorian theatre-goers.

Harlequin & Columbine plate from the Sussex Lustreware Harlequinade range.

Harlequinade Animations

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The past months have seen me pleasurably employed in a second collaboration with Sussex Lustreware designing imagery for their forthcoming range, Harlequinade. This has been a bit of a dream project for me, and one which I suggested to Gloria on the coat-tails of our collaboration earlier this year, when illustrations I’d made as the chapter headings for Marly Youman’s 2020 novel, Charis in the World of Wonders, were re-purposed as lustre-embellished decorations on the Sussex Lustreware World of Wonders range. Gloria and I got used to working around each other on World of Wonders, and on Harlequinade her glorious freehand lustre embellishments suggesting the swags of theatre curtains and the flashes and arabesques that conjure the glitter and tinsel of the stage, are perfect companions.

For the yet to be released Harlequinade range of plates, bowls, trinket-boxes, mugs, jugs and a teapot, I used my life-long love of Victorian Toy Theatre as inspiration, turning to my collection of toy theatre ephemera for inspiration.

Neptune

All design from historic sources requires adaptation, and in order to make images that fit the various available spaces on the china, and to ensure that the designs have consistency across the range, I’ve reworked – and occasionally reinvented – material from many diverse sources. Toy theatres were produced by a host of print publishers over hundreds of years, who all had their favourite artists. Although overall the toy theatre ‘style’ had something of a consistency, close examination shows many different hands at work, and those wrinkles needed to be ironed out for the purposes of re-presenting the characters here, for a new generation to appreciate. Here you will find the stock characters that were originally lifted from the Italian Commedia dell’arté, Harlequin, Columbine, Pantaloon and Clown, together with a handful of interlopers such as the god Neptune, in his shell chariot drawn by mer-horses – because Harlequinades loved to have a good spattering of the mythic/fantastic – and the fairies so essential to Victorian (and contemporary) pantomime.

There are the tradespeople who had their goods filched by Clown, and the performing dogs and circus horses so appreciated by 19th century theatre-goers. (In the age before motor cars, trained horses were so popular that specialised indoor arenas were devoted to equestrian spectacles, and to this day some theatres bear witness to their previous lives in the name, Hippodrome.)

Equestrian Harlequinade
Entrance of the Bower Fairy

My collaborator David W. Slack and I have been busy together making some animations to promote Harlequinade in the run-up to its launch. I draw and David animates, though we could as easily reverse that as David is a wonderful artist as well as an animator, and I too am an artist who also animates. It makes the collaboration particularly pleasurable, as we always understand what the other is doing, and the challenges of the work. Watch this space. There are more on the way.

Harlequinade

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I’ve worked over the past months on the designs for a new collection from Sussex Lustreware, which earlier this year produced the World of Wonders range of ceramics. World of Wonders charmingly utilised chapter-head drawings of animals I’d made for Mary Youmans’ novel Charis in the World of Wonders, published in 2020 by Ignatius.

A World of Wonders bowl from Sussex Lustreware, decorated with drawings made as vignettes for Charis in the World of Wonders

For Harlequinade I’ve made all the images specifically for Sussex Lustreware, inspired by the great tradition of Victorian Toy Theatre. In preparation for the launch of the collection, I’ve worked closely with my collaborator, animator David W. Slack, to produce a series of films to promote the range. Here’s the first:

The animations are made up almost entirely of drawings produced for the ceramics, brought to life on a stage which I designed specially for Harlequinade.

The Harlequinade collection is traditional black on white transfer-ware, embellished by hand with pink lustre and occasional splashes of gold. It will consist of plates, jugs, bowls, mugs, trinket-box and teapot. The Autumn launch date has yet to be announced. Watch this space.

The Allure of Toy Theatre

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Nineteenth century Redington backdrop for Charles II, professionally hand coloured

I first came across Toy Theatre sheets in the 1960s, when as a boy I was given a stack of them by the actor and playwright, Bill Meilen, who thought I might enjoy them. The sheets were a mix from a great many ‘plays’, the quaint titles of which printed along the top edges were all unknown to me. There were a gratifying variety of backdrops, cut cloths, headers, ground-rows and wings, few of which matched up, depicting rural idylls, dense pine forests, mountain passes ripe for bandit attacks, raging storms at sea and buildings that ranged from rustic hovels to fanciful palaces. There were no scripts, no theatre in which to hang the scenes, and no characters either, but I was a resourceful child and deft with my pencils and paints, so the omissions were just challenges I found stimulating. I built myself a toy theatre, and made the characters to fit the scenes.

Some time later, when I left my home in Wales to attend a school in London, I discovered Benjamin Pollock’s Museum and Toyshop, and thereafter I was lost. The toy theatre disease was in my blood, and it was incurable. All my pocket money was spent in the Pollock’s shop, and later theatre became my profession. As a theatre director and designer I was forever making model stages, because that’s how full-size sets are designed. And later, when I began to work as an artist, I returned to that early love of toy theatres, making them as a part of my practice, but also just for pleasure.

Title-page character sheet for Green’s Wapping Old Stairs

Toy theatres are much on my mind right now as I have two shortly-to-be-announced toy theatre-related projects nearing completion. (And I must first offer my apologies for having to hold back on revealing them for a little while longer.) But while clearing my desk in preparation for the next project, I came across a photocopied reference-set of all the characters and scenes for Green’s production of Wapping Old Stairs, published originally in 1845. Lingering over the loose sheets as I numerically ordered them ready to be put away, I had a sudden pang of the old joy and anticipation that came upon me all those decades ago, when first I held sheets of 19th century toy theatre scenery and tried to figure out exactly how to cut and colour and assemble it all into a three dimensional setting just waiting to be filled with the characters I planned to create.

Victorian toy theatre sheets didn’t come with instructions. The scripts, printed and gathered into chapbooks, gave the order of scenes, but the would-be toy theatre producer had to use imagination and ingenuity to get the stage into a performable state, and it’s a fact that for most, the visions in their heads of how the production would look, were infinitely more splendid before clumsiness and impatience had rendered the results disappointing. Colouring the sheets alone was a minefield, as the clarity of black and white became muddied with the inept application of watercolours. The dreams of how wonderful a scene would look when expertly painted and assembled, were what kept me going, the perfect example of optimism overriding past experiences.

The art of Toy Theatre reached magnificent heights in the 19th century. The sheets sold by the print shops and toy-sellers were so beautiful in their pristine states, that any child confronted with hundreds of them pegged out for inspection, must have been incoherent with the agonies of choice and the calculations of how far their pennies would stretch. Characters and scenery for entire plays, including scripts, could be had by those whose pockets were deep. There were even professionally hand-coloured sets available, for those with no skill with watercolours and brushes. For the rest, the productions had to be purchased in plain black and white, a sheet at a time, with each purchase carrying the producer a little closer to the goal of a full production.

Here, in a microcosm of the problems that have historically made toy theatres a challenge for their builders, I show the components of a single scene from Wapping Old Stairs that illustrates how bewilderingly complicated the matter of interpretation can be, and how any misjudgements would almost certainly result in disappointment. On the title-page character-sheet can be found a small vignette of how Scene 3 of the play might look on the stage. Here’s an enlargement of it:

Enlarged decorative vignette of Scene 3 from Wapping Old Stairs

Below, the backdrop itself. It’s different in many details from the vignette. Most notable at even a cursory glance, is that the buildings of the vignette are much more elegant, whereas they’re undeniably stolid and lumpen in the backdrop. Moreover the outside edges of the buildings are visible in the vignette, whereas they’ve been cropped in the backdrop. I wonder which came first, vignette or backdrop. Whichever the order, the sketch above is so sure, and so lively and fresh that I’m certain it’s not by the same hand as the backdrop. (I do have a warm affection for the rather foursquare, naive style of British toy theatre scenery, quite different in character to what was appearing in European toy theatres of the time, so it’s perhaps unfair to draw comparisons between the deftness of the above sketch – which would be a perfect illustration in a book – and the toy theatre backdrop below, which also serves the purpose for which it was made.)

A sheet of 4 x wing-pieces carries the information that they can be used for several of Green’s productions, including Wapping Old Stairs. Confusingly wing sheets didn’t offer the numbers of the scenes they were intended for. It was a question of trial and error and putting them where they best fitted.

So how can we be sure that the wings were meant to accompany this particular scene in Wapping Old Stairs? It’s because, helpfully, an illustration was included with the set of sheets that was intended to convey the full splendour of the scenery when set up on the toy theatre stage, complete with a tableau of the characters in the closing moments of the play, and two of the wings from the sheet of four are flanking the stage.

However the artist has stretched the scene well beyond the edges of the backdrop as provided, and indeed this ‘panorama’ format is not at all representative of the proportions of most British toy theatres, which offered a much more compressed image, side to side.

Enlargement of the ‘panoramic’ scene

In the illustration the wing pieces allow the audience to see the full width of the backdrop, whereas in reality on a stage of the proportions for which this play was designed, even one set of wings would substantially close down the audience’s view of the backdrop. So neither of the two images – not the vignette and not the panorama – may be relied upon as indicators of how the scene will look on the stage, though they’d almost certainly be regarded as reliable by anyone cutting and pasting away and hoping the result would look as good as it does in the illustrations.

So back in the nineteenth century making toy theatres from the sheets sold by print-shops was always a perilous activity, fraught with the anxieties that the results would be disappointing. These days we have the wonders of inkjet so we don’t have to cut up anything irreplaceable, but there is still the business of getting it right, and making something that matches, at least in part, the wonderful dream that we have in our heads of the perfect production.

Nineteenth century toy theatre sheet with original hand colouring

Publication Day, May 24th!

Video

After a year in the making, the published edition of Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes, is about to launch. It was a pleasure from beginning to end, made so by the commitment of the small team who worked tirelessly to realise it. We shared an ambition to make something lasting and fine, and I believe we did just that.

My heartfelt thanks to Simon Armitage, who entrusted the project to me, and to publisher Joe Pearson at Design for Today, who unhesitatingly took up the challenge and then didn’t stop until everything was perfect. Thanks and admiration for Laurence Beck at Design for Today, who so beautifully designed the book. Huge thanks too to my regular collaborator Pete Telfer, who has been present at all stages of the Hansel & Gretel adventure, and was my cameraman and editor on the animations and film sequences of the stage production, as well as the book-trailer shown here.

And finally my warmest appreciation to the team on the stage production, whose unfailing creativity and cheer buoyed me up when the waters got very choppy: Di Ford and Lizzie Wort, Jan Zalud, Oonagh Creighton-Griffiths, Jonathan Street, Peter Lloyd and Phil Cooper. Every one of you, a hero in my book!

 

Clive Hicks-Jenkins, May 2019