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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
Pieces from the Harlequinade range may be purchased direct from Sussex Lustreware
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.
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.
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:
Davenport’s Magic Shop, back in the days when it was in Gt Russell Street.
When I was a kid attending a theatre school in London that didn’t board, I lived with my aunt and her husband in Dulwich Village. Amy and J.L. were busy people who travelled a lot. The upshot was that on many weekends I was left to my own devices, usually alone in the house. But with so much to explore on the doorstep, I never felt at a loss with what to do with my time. I’d catch a train to central London. Once there I walked everywhere, criss-crossing the city to visit my favourite museums and places of historic interest.
In the process I discovered shops that were survivors of another age. Benjamin Pollock’s in Scala Street, with its museum of toy theatres housed up a rickety stairs that for me was like climbing to heaven, and Cornellisen the ‘artists’ colourmen’ in Gt Russell Street, where the darkly varnished interior was lined in glass jars displaying powdered pigments as rainbow hued as a tropical sea. Davenport’s in Gt Russell Street was conveniently situated opposite the British Museum, and I would save my magic-trick purchasing for a post-museum treat. Hours spent blissfully drawing in the Egyptian galleries followed by an hour at Davenport’s, was for me, Saturday afternoon perfection.
The Theatre Zoo by John Griffiths for Motif magazine, September 1959
The Theatre Zoo was another of my haunts, where masks crowded the shelves and sticks of hard, waxy Leichner greasepaint, a stage make-up even then almost obsolete in the West End theatres all around, were displayed under the glass-topped counters. (I had a well-stocked Leichner make-up box and was much in demand for transforming friends for a lark, using mortician’s wax, crepe hair and Leichner sticks to create the monsters of old Universal Pictures horror films!) I collected a hit list of eccentric shops in the maze of narrow streets behind Covent Garden, the ones with interiors more like museums. I made a circuit, marked on the A to Z of ‘special places’ stored in my head, that on weekends I would delight in navigating, taking in my favourites. Long before I became a painter I was purchasing French varnishes, mahl-sticks and gilding-papers that I had no use for beyond the fact that I loved the shops I found them in. I relished the sense of ancient crafts, the language of forgotten skills, the scents of resins and rabbit-skin glue and scenic-fireproofing, the graphic loveliness of the packaging of vintage stock. I wandered, a boy in a trance in love with I knew not what.
I took a weekend job in Berman & Nathan’s theatrical outfitters. I’d sit cross-legged on a counter sewing buttons on Pearly King and Queen costumes, or re-stitching worn eyelets that held the laces of corsets worn by ‘doxies’ in musicals. (Ever noticed how many corseted loose women appear in operas, ballets and musicals? Those corsets take a lot of maintenance, and for about a year, I was the boy who spent his Saturdays repairing most of them!) With my pay I’d purchase cheap tickets in the ‘gods’ to see some of the productions I’d earlier delivered costumes to after repairs at the B & N workshops.
There was a shop that sold pens of all types, from mapping-pens to fat and satisfying-to-hold fountain pens. I wish I could remember its name. Concerned with the shop’s slowly diminishing stock of products, I took to saving my pocket money to make purchases. No weekend was complete without carrying off a paper bag of some treasure that had caught my eye because of the old-fashioned graphics on its battered packaging. I was addicted to the old stock of French perfumed inks lining one shelf, produced by the venerable Paris manufacturer, J Herbin. The labels on the the bottles were as tantalising as those on fireworks (I recall a stunner called ‘Lotus Bleu’), and I took to writing my letters home in inks that gave up the unmistakeable scent of flowers. One had the powdery scent of violet cachous, and I can’t imagine what my parents must have thought when envelopes started arriving addressed in the scratchy/spidery scented penmanship of mapping nibs dipped in perfume! My letters must have smelled like the insides of old ladies handbags!
This was the London of the ‘Swinging Sixties’. But I was a tad young for all that, and my heart lay not so much in the trendy emporiums of Carnaby Street, as in the wonderful survivals of a past fast vanishing, though I didn’t know that at the time.
A few weeks ago I had a meeting in London that required an overnight stay with my sister-in-law in Blackheath, and I reserved the following day for a visit to the Pollock’s Museum, still in a corner property on Scala Street. Alas, although I’d checked the business hours, when I arrived mid morning the door marked with an ‘open’ sign was locked, and remained so for the hour I hung around hoping that someone would turn up. After that disappointment I traced the old map, still in my head, of the shops I’d once loved. None of them save Cornellisen and Pollock’s have survived, or at least not in the places they had once been. (I know that Davenport’s Magic Shop is still in the hands of the family, though re-located somewhere close to Trafalgar Square.) The walk felt like I was straddling two realities, the bright and vibrant one in my head, and the lacklustre reality of what the West End and Bloomsbury have become. There’s no room left for the eccentricities and unlikely post-war survivals that I had witnessed the tail-end of. The economics have changed in ways that the old communities could never have envisaged. The dusty shops with ancient stock and courteous proprietors are now only in my memories. I guess that’s where everything ends, eventually, in the realm of ‘once upon a time’.