The Rise and Fall of Toy Theatre
A writer discovers the living remains of miniature theatrical productions, which served as the PR campaigns of the day in 19th century England.
By GARRETT EPPS
One day in late winter 1884, the author Robert Louis Stevenson entered a grimy print shop near London’s Finsbury Square. The shop’s owner, W.G. Webb, had stayed up late the past few nights making notes for his famous friend, a longtime customer, about the curious world of the English “toy theatre”—a popular art form (now all but vanished) that replicated the dramas of the day in miniature. Stevenson was at work on an essay about that world for The Magazine of Art. Webb was a prolific toy theater producer at the time, and his name was almost synonymous with what was called “Juvenile Drama.”
Years later, Webb’s grandson recalled the scene that followed. “Here, Mr. Stevenson,” Webb asked, “where do I come in in this?”
To contemporary eyes, the English toy theatre might seem to offer only a kind of surreal nostalgia. The tiny actors, arms spread in comically theatrical attitudes, seem to squint at us from a timeless dream world. But those little figures once felt very much alive. What’s left of them offers small glimpses of history—ones not available anywhere else.
“You don’t come in at all,” Stevenson replied. “I come in.”
“This won’t do,” old Mr. Webb answered. “I’ve helped you in this history. Without my help it would not be written. I have given you the information and besides you are using my pictures for the illustrations.”
“There was a fearful row in the shop,” the younger Webb wrote, and before the shouting was over, the elder man had torn his notes to bits under Stevenson’s nose.
On his way out the door, the nettled author shook a finger. “This is going to cost you something, Mr. Webb,” he said. “This is going to cost you a great deal.”
Later that spring, Stevenson published his essay on toy theatre (“A Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured”), making no mention of Webb but instead praising his chief rival, Benjamin Pollock. In his essay Stevenson included the address of Pollock’s shop in nearby Hoxton, and concluded, “If you love art, folly, or the bright eyes of children, speed to Pollock’s…”
Webb’s print shop is long gone; but, more than a century after Stevenson’s essay, the name of Pollock lives. Pollock’s today, in fact, is split like Gaul into three parts connected only by the name and the history. Pollock’s Toy Museum, on Scala Street in London’s Bloomsbury, welcomes 10-12,000 visitors a year to an exhibit of rare old toys and a shop that sells toy theatres and plays; a mile to the south, in the bustling Covent Garden Market, Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop does a brisk business in nostalgic toys and reissued toy theatre paraphernalia; finally, there is Pollock’s Toy Museum Trust, which has no physical location but labors to keep the lore and tradition of toy theatre alive.
To contemporary eyes, the English toy theatre might seem to offer only a kind of surreal nostalgia. The tiny actors, arms spread in comically theatrical attitudes on elaborate sets, seem to squint at us from a timeless dream world, like the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland. But those little figures once felt very much alive—they are drawings of real actors familiar to every theatre-goer in Victorian England. What’s left of them offers small glimpses of history—ones not available anywhere else—of the stagecraft and personalities of the 19th Century British stage. “The toy theatre is much more than just a toy,” the famed British actor Peter Baldwin wrote in 1992. “The spirit of early nineteenth century theatre can only be recaptured by the scene and character sheets of the English Juvenile drama.”
A toy theatre was, as we will see, a tiny but complex structure—as intricate and lovingly assembled, in its way, as model railroads can be for today’s hobbyists. In its prime, it was not a nostalgic hobby but a breathless bulletin from the newly emerging world of mass communications and global celebrities—a chance for ordinary people to touch their heroes in person.
As the Industrial Revolution gathered speed in the early 19th Century, masses of former country folk emigrated from the countryside into English cities. They often sought escape, even if only temporarily, from the harsh conditions of factory labor and tenement life. The popularity of gin was one result, but the theatre offered a healthier respite. Plays became mass spectacles akin to contemporary Broadway shows like The Lion King or Spider-Man. The demand for “cheap seats” was rapacious; when the Covert Garden in 1809 raised ticket prices, playgoers rioted inside the theatre, night after night, for three months—until the disorder compelled the owners to apologize and reduce them. Meanwhile, theatres grew. By mid-century, for example, Drury Lane seated 3,000; the Sadler’s Wells featured a tank in front of the stage where the producers staged mock naval battles.
Theatrical publishers—shops with names like West, Jameson, and Hodgson—dispatched multiple artists to the opening each new production. One artist would hastily sketch the actors, mimicking their theatrical poses; another would draw the scenery, producing backdrops and wings. A writer hastily annotated the script to show where and how action occurred. The team turned over their drawings to the printer, who prepared sheets depicting the actors and scenery and a tiny booklet of script.
The rendering of the scenery and actors is antique but far from crude; among the art workers who grubbed out a living in the trade were the youthful poet and artist William Blake and George Cruikshank, later a famed caricaturist and illustrator of Dickens. Once drawn, the sheets were printed through a combination of etching, engraving, and lithograph. These were sold by the sheet (as Stevenson noted) either in black and white (to be hand-painted by the buyer) or (for double the price) already colored. Children bought them to use as toys, but adults also treasured them as souvenirs of their favorite actors and beloved performances.
A toy theatre was quite small—the stages were about 6 ½ inches wide, roughly the width of a 1950s-era black-and-white TV screen. The tiny actors were sold on individual papers sheets somewhere around 9 ½” x” 7 1/2”—each sheet containing as many as four “actors,” who might be different characters or simply the same actor in a different theatrical pose: defiance, devotion, or despair, as different moments in the script demanded. Each “actor” was cut out, pasted onto a card, and fastened to special wire slides that would allow the “performer” to slide them on and offstage through grooves in the wooden base. Convention called for the performer to wiggle the “actor” back and forth as he (or a friend) uttered the lines, varying his or her voice as different characters required. Tiny oil lamps provided authentic theatrical lighting.
A typical theatre—such as “Pollock’s Regency,” which is sold now in a large booklet along with scenes, script, and “actors” for “Sleeping Beauty”—included a colorful proscenium, complete with a painted orchestra beneath the stage; a paper curtain; a stage floor, wings, and a back wall. An individual play will offer one or two scene backdrops, to be slipped in against the back wall.
An Irish bookseller convinced film producer J. Arthur Rank to commission a toy theatre of Laurence Olivier’s 1948 famous film of “Hamlet,” complete with five changes of scene and two plates of characters printed in color.
Over the years the scripts became somewhat abbreviated versions of the actual play. In “Blackbeard the Pirate,” for example, the dialogue occupies about three pages. Prince Abdallah and the British Navy rescue the fair princess Ismene from the vile lusts of the pirate chief; “Foolish woman!” the pirate boasts. “You are the Princess of a puny kingdom, but I, I am the uncrowned Emperor of the Seven Seas!” Replies the haughty beauty, “I care nothing for your threats and do not boast too soon, proud pirate.” The manly British tars , dressed in flat hats and striped jerseys, put Blackbeard to flight singing “Huzza for the Red, White and Blue!”
Some plays are more elaborate—one, called “Jack Sheppard,” contains 64 pages of script. Another favorite was “The Miller and His Men,” based on an 1813 production at the Covent Garden; the young Winston Churchill treasured this classic because it ended with the explosion of a tiny wad of gunpowder (which sometimes set fire to the entire theatre, though usually with no loss of full-sized human life).
Presenting the plays to an actual audience, however, was not really the aim for many of Webb’s and Pollock’s customers. “Yes, there was pleasure in the painting.” Stevenson wrote in his essay on toy theatre. But when all was painted, it is needless to deny it, all was spoiled. You might, indeed, set up a scene or two to look at; but to cut the figures out was simply sacrilege; nor could any child twice court the tedium, the worry, and the long-drawn disenchantment of an actual performance…”
Instead, the charm of toy theatre for many was simply the chance to be connected to a real play, and a real cast, and to the glamorous rococo world that was the Victorian stage.
Like that theatre itself, toy theatre’s great days were winding down by 1870. By 1884, only Webb and Pollock, friendly rivals, remained in the business, and Stevenson’s essay warned of the art form’s imminent disappearance. Benjamin Pollock, however, kept his shop afloat until his death at 80 in 1936. A few years later, the family sold their shop and stock to an Irish bookseller named Alan Keen. (Among his other schemes, Keen convinced film producer J. Arthur Rank to commission a toy theatre of Laurence Olivier’s 1948 famous film of “Hamlet,” complete with five changes of scene and two plates of characters printed in color.)
The film of Olivier’s Hamlet is a classic, but the toy Olivier theatre was a flop. Hamstrung by debt, Keen ceased operations after the war. Then, in the mid 1950s, a flamboyant BBC journalist named Marguerite Fawdry contacted Pollock’s receiver. Her son played with toy theatre, and she wanted to buy a few of the special wire slides needed to bring the tiny characters alive. According to her 1995 obituary in The Independent, the accountant responded, “I believe there are hundreds of thousands in the warehouse, madam, but there’s no one who could look them out for you. Of course, you could, I suppose, buy the whole lot if you wanted them.”
So she did, and created the first incarnation of the Toy Museum.
Fawdry was, by all accounts, a magnetic personality. She attracted children still fascinated by the tiny actors and scenes and recruited them as helpers. Among these protégées was Louise Heard, who now manages the Toyshop in Covent Garden. The store sells copies of original Victorian theatres and plays, and also produces and sells entire new theatre sets, including a moody 2014 evocation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” by noted illustrator Kate Baylay.
Fawdry’s grandson Eddie, a photographer, still owns and operates the Toy Museum, which maintains a stock of dozens of toy theatres, including some not available elsewhere that can be printed only on demand. Not long before her death in 1945, Fawdry also established the Pollock’s Toy Museum Trust, which keeps alive the lore of the toy theatre through web sales, library and museum exhibitions, and publications.
Alan Powers, chair of the Trust, was another child protégée of Fawdry’s. A distinguished architectural historian, he is an impresario as well. On a recent August Sunday, he gathered fifty enthusiasts for a production of “The Waterman,” a romantic drama depicting an annual boat race on the Thames. Powers deployed his own personal theatre for the production, complete with electric footlights, and gave voice to the cutout of Tom Tug, the dashing boatman. The performance took place at the Art Workers Guild in Bloomsbury, which traces its origins to 1884; one past Master was the noted artisan and radical thinker William Morris.
The 50 adults were rapt as the cast stamped their feet to simulate the sound of movement; all stood when the performance ended with a chorus of “Rule Britannia.”
The lone small boy present drifted away from the performance, however; he found more excitement in leading his faithful dog back and forth across the front of the hall with the false promise of a lick at the ice cream in his hand.