The Allure of Toy Theatre

Featured

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

Interview on winning the V&A illustrated Book Award

Featured

Jayne Paddington of Southampton Solent University interviews me:

 

JP: Tell us about the book illustrations you created.

DSC00107 (1)

 

The book had an unusual beginning. As an artist with a background in theatre, in 2017 I’d been commissioned by a music ensemble to helm a new production of Hansel & Gretel. The producer had seen and been impressed by the Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre I’d designed for Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop (see above) and wanted to capitalise on the success of that. She’d begun talking with the composer she had in mind for the project, and as I was already collaborating with Simon Armitage on the revised and illustrated edition of his Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Faber & Faber, 2018), I suggested he join us as the librettist/writer.

 

Simon titled his re-working of the fairy tale, Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes, and it previewed at the Cheltenham Music Festival in 2018 before a national tour and a London premiere at the Barbican. A recording of the piece was broadcast by BBC Radio 3 during Christmas week, 2018.

 

52348504_10157080294578436_4550672834006876160_n

 

At some point during the pre-production of the show Simon suggested we might work together to produce an illustrated book of his libretto/poem. We discussed the options for publishing and  I recommended we speak with Joe Pearson at Design for Today. When Joe agreed to undertake publication, work on the book began in earnest.

 

PastedGraphic-1 (14)

 

Set in a war zone, Simon’s version of the fairy tale took a completely different tone to the original by the Grimm Brothers by changing the impetus for Hansel and Gretel’s journey from that of abandonment by feckless parents, to an agonised decision by a loving father and mother to send their children away from the bombings.

 

PastedGraphic-1

 

By this simple change the story became one of love and sacrifice, rather than of duplicity and abandonment. He was very clever too at conveying the degrees to which children mis-hear and misconstrue, and his text is full of moments when the siblings’ actions are based on their misunderstanding of events.

 

PastedGraphic-1 (1)

 

With regard to how the images were made, the overall intention was to capture something of the golden age of lithography printing that both Joe Pearson and I greatly admire. One of the hallmarks of the process is that the images are reproduced on uncoated paper and have a matt finish.

 

IMG_5927

 

Above: work underway on an illustration, and below: as it appears in the book.

 

PastedGraphic-2 (1)

 

I made the drawings in black pencil, some on paper and some on granular lithography film, with occasional use of collaged textures that I produced myself by various means. I made separate ‘stencils’ in crayons and paints on lithography film for the colours. The layers of drawings and stencils were assembled digitally by the book’s designer, Laurence Beck, which was the point at which the colour was added.

 

IMG_5889

 

Below: detail of the image as it appears in the book.

 

IMG_1010

 

Another attractive hallmark of old-school lithography can be the slight mis-registration of the various colours. This is something I’d intentionally cultivated in my artwork for the book, and Laurence was very careful to reproduce the effect in the finished images.

 

JP: How did it feel to win? What will happen now as a result of winning?

 

It’s been a strange time to receive my V&A Illustration Award in a summer when the building has been closed. The event was originally to have taken place at the museum in June, but was indefinitely postponed at the time of lockdown. There was to have been an exhibition of the artwork at the V&A, and that too was cancelled.  I heard about the announcement not from the museum, but from a press release they put out. While it’s very exciting to have been honoured in this way, it can’t be denied that reading about it in an unexpected online press release has not had the excitement factor that an event would have brought to it. I’m guessing they will either hold a smaller event later in the year, or failing that I guess the trophy will be delivered in the post.

JP: Where do you find inspiration for your illustrations?

 

PastedGraphic-12

 

When you’re working to a text by the poet laureate, you don’t have to look any further than the words. I knew Hansel & Gretel inside out because I’d already designed and directed it for the stage, so I had a very good starting point for the project. Nonetheless, the moment the stage tour was over I began from scratch again with the text, dividing it up and making a very rough dummy copy that set out lines-per-page and earmarked where the images might go. And because the publisher and I had considered that first dummy very carefully, though the details sometimes changed over the period of illustrating, the overall shape and number of pages remained pretty much as we set out at the beginning.

 

The next stage was to make a huge project-book in which I began the process of designing every visual element I intended to show: human characters and what they wear, settings and the moods generated by them, objects, animals and events.

 

IMG_5873

 

IMG_4125 (1)

 

It was exhaustive and stretched to several hundreds of images. (Enough for three books really.) Even if something appeared only once – such as the ‘imagined’ hyena that appears early on – I drew it dozens of times to work out what the image would bring to the book.

 

IMG_7484

 

For a bridge described by the author as ‘arched like a hissing cat’, I made more than fifty drawings of arch-backed cats, hump-backed-bridges, cat/bridges and bridge/cats, gradually finding the hissing cat/bridge hybrid that best conjured the mood of the scene.

 

IMG_7479

PastedGraphic-2 (2)

Simon is an incredibly enriching poet to collaborate with, and to do justice to him I find ways of accompanying his texts in ways that will take the reader by surprise. I  begin with the words of course, but often the places most profitable for illustration are the spaces between them.

 

JP: What advice would you give to our students wanting to one day follow in your footsteps?

 

Well they can’t follow in my footsteps, and shouldn’t want to. They should find their own ways, and travel by routes of their own devising. My careers have been various. I didn’t start as an artist, but as a choreographer and director, so I came late to the easel and even later to illustration. My experience is that the wider your interests, the better you’ll be at whatever you do. I don’t go around thinking about illustration all of the time. I read (voraciously) listen to music, study history, try to understand the world, try to understand people and stash away everything I learn in the place marked ‘material to be be used on some future project!’ I study art of all varieties and periods. I collect art, vintage toys (particularly wooden building blocks), textiles, puppets, masks, comics, fossils and books. I’ve collected all my life, whenever I’ve had a bit of spare cash. Some of the things I’ve collected ended up in the stage production of Hansel & Gretel, and migrated from that to the book.

 

Below: from the shelves of my tinplate toy bird cabinet…

IMG_1833 (1)

… to the stage production of Hansel & Gretel 

 

… to a double-page spread in the book:

 

PastedGraphic-2

 

This little cavalryman migrated from my sitting room…

 

IMG_4727

 

… to an animated sequence in the stage production …

 

 

… to a preparatory drawing for the book …

 

IMG_5037

 

… to full render separations on paper and lithography film …

 

IMG_5071

 

… to the final colour book illustration. (Detail)

 

IMG_8587

 

All my collections fuel my work. I never have to start from scratch with any illustration project. Somewhere in my collection, there will be a starting-point ready made. I just wander around looking at what I have until I find it. It’s a more organic process than trying to conjure something out of nothing.

 

Here’s a link to a little film about the making of Hansel & Gretel.

 

http://www.designfortoday.co.uk/hansel-gretel

 

Clive Hicks-Jenkins, 2020.

 

Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes

Author: Simon Armitage

Illustrator: Clive Hicks-Jenkins

Designer: Laurence Beck

Publisher: Design for Today

The Pleasure of Pollock’s

 

WP_20171114_12_17_28_Pro.jpg

Wonderful things may be seen at Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop in Covent Garden. The Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre features in the Christmas-themed Pollock’s window situated in the Covent Garden precinct, while in the first-floor shop a glass cabinet overflows with the toy theatre, together with a marvellous cast of the inhabitants of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, iced gingerbread men, assorted Harlequins, Punch and Judy puppets, Russian Dolls, Witch’s cats and just about every treasure any lucky child might wish to find crammed into the toe of a Christmas-stocking! Bliss.

WP_20171114_12_18_05_Pro.jpg

Below: A Covent Garden street lamp sheds golden light to warm the winter chill, while Hansel & Gretel ride safely home on the back of a friendly duck.

IMG_8778 (1).jpg

 

WP_20171114_12_21_52_Pro.jpg

>>>><<<<

SaveSave

Hansel & Gretel at Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop

Hansel & Gretel update from the Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop website:

‘NEW! This utterly bewitching illustrated toy theatre recreates the scary story of Hansel & Gretel, tempted into the Wicked Witch’s beautiful gingerbread house. Clive Hicks-Jenkins’ uniquely expressive painterly style evokes the story’s darker undercurrents, yet is peppered with delicious sweets and candies. This fully playable toy theatre comes complete with a proscenium, stage, six backclothes, two side wings, 14 characters/props and Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop curtain. The eerie, somewhat grisly tale is told in an entertaining scipt written by the artist, accompanied by an additional mini theatre poster for ‘Jury Lane’. The theatre requires cutting and sticking to set up using scissors or a craft knife for maximum precision.’

DSC00107 (1).jpg

 

19030587_1449361821795520_5059693892201099472_n (2).jpg

DSC07219

DSC09272 (1).jpg

The toyshop has also produced a pop-up card based on the Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre.

‘Good enough to eat although we don’t recommend it! Send a pop-up version of our Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre through the post as it comes flat and through the marvels of paper engineering opens up into a tableaux of Clive Hicks-Jenkins exclusive design for Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop.’

 

BPP0001_1

IMG_0504 (2).jpg

A newly released game of Pelminism is based on the Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre designs.

‘Warning: Do not play while hungry. This delicious game of Pairs otherwise know as Pelminism will help train your memory, so perfect for all the family to play together. Match Biscuits and Sweets from Hansel & Gretel beautifully illustrated by artist Clive Hicks-Jenkins and watch out for that witch! 32 card discs with instructions in a box.’

memorygame

Finally, there are Hansel & Gretel wooden spinning-tops in assorted colours.

cylindertop

 

All the above may be found at the newly launched, redesigned Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop website.

PGB0001_1.jpg

0395b53edef8f787878d6c1624017cdc--covent-garden-english-style.jpg

>><<

 

 

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

Hansel & Gretel Q&A

 

pastedgraphic-3

I did a question & answer for the main newspaper of north Wales, The Daily Post. Peter went to get a haircut at the barber shop in Aberystwyth, and our friends there had very kindly set aside a copy for us. I answered the questions so long ago that I’d almost forgotten what I’d said. Here’s the transcript:

Your name:

Clive Hicks-Jenkins

How old are you?

Sixty-six.

Where are you from?

Newport, Gwent.

Tell us about your family

My father was a wayleaves officer with the South Wales Electricity Board. He was responsible for brokering contracts between SWEB and the landowners/farmers whose acreage needed to be crossed by power lines. But because he was a countryman and loved the landscape, he was an artist when it came to placing them where they’d least be visible, hiding them in valleys and along the edges of woodlands. My mother was a hairdresser. She loved films and from an early age she took me every Saturday afternoon to the cinema. Never to see kids’ films though. She loved more dramatic fare, and so my tastes were quite unusual. I don’t know how she bucked the certificate system. She probably knew the local cinema manager and bargained haircuts against him turning a blind eye to a seven year old watching Bette Davies melodramas!

What are you best known for?

Probably my Mari Lwyd-themed series of 2000-2001, The Mare’s Tale. I had an exhibition of that name, and it made quite a splash. There was a book of poetry by the late Catriona Urquhart that accompanied it, and in 2013 the composer Mark Bowden and the poet Damian Walford Davies made a chamber work of the same name, based on the underlying narrative of a psychological haunting.

DSCF6713

Tell us about your exhibition (what’s it called, what’s it on/where is it being held?)

The exhibition is at Oriel Tegfryn, Menai Bridge, and it’s the result of four years of exploration on the theme of Hansel & Gretel.

When is it running from/to?

Sept 1st – Sept 24th.

What can people expect?

Last year the publisher Random Spectacular commissioned a picture book from me that was based on the fairy tale. As my version is very dark it’s been marketed as being more suitable for adults. (It’s been described as ‘George Romero meets the Brothers Grimm!)

dsc09556

Simultaneously I was commissioned by Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop in Covent Garden to design a toy theatre assembly kit of Hansel & Gretel. This has been quite a thrill. I played with a Benjamin Pollock toy theatre when I was a child, and so it’s a great privilege to be asked to make a new one to bear his name. Published this summer, in contrast to the picture book it’s a sunnier affair, quite suitable for children. Even so I put my own visual spin on it. You won’t have seen a Hansel & Gretel quite like it.

DSC00115 (1)

The Tegfryn Gallery exhibition consists of all the artworks made for the picture book and the toy theatre, plus illustrations for Hansel & Gretel alphabet primers that I made several years ago. Prepare for a Hansel & Gretel Fest!

DSCF8407

Tell us five things which make your exhibition great?

1) Scary and beautiful is an alluring mix!

2) I can guarantee it’s not going to be like anything you’ve ever experienced at Oriel Tegfryn.

3) What’s not to love about art in which family dysfunction, unhealthy appetites and manslaughter are the principal themes? This is a fairytale for the soap generation.

4) There are Liquorice Allsorts deployed as weapons and gingerbread men that bite back!

DSCF1769

5) If you want to know what horrors lie beneath a witch’s prosthetic nose, then this is the exhibition you’ve been waiting for!

Tell us what’s good about the venue

It’s a warm and welcoming gallery with wonderful staff. Visiting Oriel Tegfryn is like calling on friends who are always pleased to see you.

Who is your favourite artist and why?

The ‘who’ is George Stubbs, and the ‘why’ is because he painted animals with unparalleled compassion. His Hambletonian, Rubbing Down may be numbered among the world’s greatest equestrian artworks.

What piece of work are you most proud of and why?

Green George. It’s in a private collection here in Wales. If you type the title and my name into a search engine, you can see it. I paint only for myself and I never think about who might purchase. I made Green George as a painting I’d like to live with, though in fact I never did. It was finished only days before being shipped to the gallery, and it sold immediately. I knew even as I painted it that I was riding the wind. I couldn’t have bettered it.

DSC01676.JPG

Tell us a little known fact about yourself:

I once played Batman’s nemesis, the Riddler, in an American musical.

What are your best and worst habits?

I’m a fiercely loyal and loving friend. But I’m also implacably unforgiving when betrayed. It’s an unattractive trait.

What’s next for you? What are you currently working on, or what do you plan to work on?

I’m on the last lap of a fourteen print series on the theme of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in collaboration with Daniel Bugg at the Penfold Press. The press has been publishing the series sequentially. The art historian James Russell has been writing accompanying texts. It’s been a wonderful experience.  The Martin Tinney Gallery is having an exhibition of the work in January.

Penfold C cmyk-2

Then I go into rehearsals for a new music theatre work of Hansel & Gretel that I’m designing and directing. The production opens in London before embarking on a year long tour.

Unknown – Version 2

 

SaveSave

Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre

DSC09193.jpg

My work on the forthcoming Pollock’s Toy Theatre of Hansel & Gretel is all but done. Yesterday I packed the nine boards of original artwork in a stout card box and dispatched them via Parcelforce to Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop in Covent Garden. When scanned, printed and packaged as an assembly kit, this third in the series of Pollock’s ‘artist designed’ model theatres will comprise of six A4 cards in a pretty, embossed Pollock’s folder, complete with detailed construction notes.

There’s a proscenium arch and everything needed to build the stage, two ‘house-curtains’ (one for the beginning and another for the curtain-call), backdrops and cut-cloths for the six scenes that make up the play I’ve written to go with the theatre, and twelve characters to bring the story to life. Standing at some ten inches high when constructed, while not a miniature it certainly qualifies as small, though I hope the attention to detail in it will make this toy theatre feel big in spirit.

Below: backdrop for Inside the Witch’s House

DSC09187.jpg

It’s been a tremendous honour to be chosen for the project. The theatre curtain of the model bears Benjamin Pollock’s name, a responsibility that has made me occasionally blanch at the thought of the weight of his reputation on my shoulders. At every stage of the journey – it’s been over eighteen months since I received the commission to create the Hansel & Gretel theatre – I’ve worked to make this contemporary contribution to the Pollock’s aesthetic one that I would be happy to lay before him. I feel as though I’ve achieved this entirely personal goal, though ultimately that will be for others to judge.

Hansel & Gretel

coming soon to

Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop

Covent Garden

Silence in the Woods

DSCF4400

 

Forgive the silence at the Artlog. The reason is simple. Right now I am consumed with completing the Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre Kit for Benjamin Pollock’s Toy Shop in Covent Garden. It’s quite a complicated job, designing something not only beautiful, but that also works in terms of being relatively simple to cut out and make. This morning I’ve been writing the assembly instructions and I don’t think in my life I’ve felt quite such a burden of responsibility for making words clearly convey meaning. (I recall all those cut-out toys of my childhood that went horribly wrong because the instructions misdirected me!)

But the silence is largely due to being unable to share the images I’m producing, because the people at Pollock’s understandably want to keep the design under wraps until the launch. Everything has to be a secret until then.

But I can tell you that there will be plenty of scenery by way of back-cloths and cut-cloths, with kuchen-cottages, gloomy kitchens, blazing ovens, haunted woods and confectionary galore. Moreover this production should satisfy the most ardent toy theatre enthusiasts with the number of characters I’ve managed to fit in into a small space, including – apart from the usual suspects – the Witch’s Cat, a friendly Duck, some Gingerbread Men and a couple of Monster Trees.

Scissors and glue at the ready!