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.
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:
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.
Clive obliged with small groups of spectators, while I tried to work out how best to suggest draped velvet with lines of lustre.
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 🤩.
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!
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 ✨💖
It was really fun working in this way, so I thought you might like to see a few snippets ‘behind the scenes’!”
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
In 1985 Pollock’s Toy Theatres Ltd published a facsimile of one of the most ravishingly beautiful of Orlando Hodgson’s plays for the toy theatre, The Giant Horse or The Siege of Troy. Hodgson’s sheets were published in 1833, engraved from original ink and watercolour drawings by Robert Cruikshank (1789 – 1856), caricaturist and lesser known brother of George.
Robert Cruikshank drawing for Orlando Hodgson’s Giant Horse of Troy
Pollock’s Toy Theatres Ltd used a copy of the the play from the V&A Theatre Collection, producing it in an edition of 500, of which mine is numbered 456. The original ten sheets were enlarged so as to fit Pollock’s Redington stage front, and the edition included the original script and a leaflet of the history of the production, packed into a large paper and card envelope.
Pollock’s 1985 reproduction of The Giant Horse of Troy
Hodgson & Co had been a forceful presence in the world of printing for the toy theatre, producing between 1821 and 1825 close on seventy titles. But perhaps the pace and ambition had over-extended the business, because it then passed into other hands.
Robert Cruikshank drawing for Orlando Hodgson’s Giant Horse of Troy
Enter Orlando Hodgson, who emerged to relaunch the family business and reputation. After a slow start as a printer of ‘fancy stationary’, he reverted to the family tradition of publishing sheets for the toy theatre, and between 1831 and 1835 produced full productions of Aladdin, Chevy Chase, The Miller and his Men, The Maid and the Magpie, The Giant Horse and The Forty Thieves.
Robert Cruikshank drawing for Orlando Hodgson’s Giant Horse of Troy
The beauty of Orlando Hodgson’s toy theatre sheets notwithstanding, the rough and tumble of a trade in which others undercut and undermined his business by producing prints that were smaller and cheaper, were discouragements he couldn’t live with, and The Forty Thieves was his last title.
It’s sometimes said that the printmaker West, who came after Hodgson, surpassed him in terms of artistic merit, and that might be engagingly debated. He certainly made more of a success of his business. But for me, the Hodgson sheets have a delirious extravagance that remains hard to beat, and the Cruikshank drawings for The Giant Horse are proof of the lengths to which Hodgson went to ensure that the translation from drawings to printed sheets, were meticulously done.
Robert Cruikshank drawing for Orlando Hodgson’s Giant Horse of Troy
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
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.
From inception to creation, the Dark Movements Toy Theatre stage has been empty save for the settings of a blasted Welsh hill-village, and a threatening forest where trees bristle with thorns. It was started in January, completed a few weeks later, and has since appeared in two of the ten new Dark Movements paintings due to appear in my exhibition, opening next week at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre.
In the painting Pale Horse, a glimmering presence appeared among the trees, though on the stage itself, the forest was empty. Last night, under cover of dark, the arrivals began.