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Chatelaine's Antiques and Appraisals Magazine > Collectibles > Feature: Theatre Memorabilia

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Collecting Theatre Memorabilia


 The world of the Victorian stage survives in the toy theatres, statuettes and other popular mementoes that were produced for enthusiastic collectors of the day. The most famous of all writers for the theatre, William Shakespeare, has given rise to more memorabilia and souvenirs than any other playwright.

 Costumes and stage props are the most desirable theatre collectables, but they are costly and rare. Toy Victorian theatres are much more accessible and have enormous appeal for adults as well as children. Devised in the early 19th century by a London printer called William West, the little stages were sold with paper sheets of cut-out illustrations depicting the characters, scenery and costumes for a particular play.

 These printed sheets were evocatively nicknamed 'penny plain or twopence coloured'. The earliest twopenny sheets were coloured by child outworkers; later ones were printed by lithography. To work, the paper sheets had to be stuck on to card, cut out and fixed to wire holders which slid the characters along the stage. Costumes were held on by little tags hooking over the shoulders; hats were fitted to heads by slits between the brim and the crown. The architecture, scenery and characters' poses were copied from the real theatre. Often the characters were recognizable portraits of well-known actors and actresses.

 Several firms produced these toy theatres, among them J H Jameson, Hodgson and Co and Orlando Hodgson, and one of them Pollock's - is still trading today. They now sell reprints of the most popular Juvenile Drama plays. Apart from Shakespeare's Richard III and Othello, there are long-forgotten folk tales and historical dramas including The Miller and His Men, The Giant Horse and Timour the Tartar. The Miller and His Men was a great favourite. It was adapted from a melodrama by Isaac Pocock which had its premiere at Covent Garden in 1813. The final scene shows the mill being blown to pieces, with bodies and broken wood silhouetted against the flames as they fly through the air.

 Marionettes made during the Victorian era in England, Belgium and Italy are rare enough to be valuable collectors' items. Full-length English puppets 1.2-1.5m or 4-5ft high were often modelled on characters from the Italian commedia dell'arte. A typical troupe might include the clown, Pantaloon, a moustachioed Harlequin, a Columbine with large thighs, and 'heavy men' (fathers and villains).


 Porcelain figurines of famous stage characters and performers first appeared in the 18th century. In the 19th century, the firms of Derby and Rockingham made china figures of leading actors such as David Garrick, Edmund Kean and John Philip Kemble, often showing them in the roles for which they were most celebrated. The most popular statuettes, which were often crude but always cheerful and cheap, were produced by the Staffordshire potteries throughout the 19th century. They produced over 300 characters from the theatre, opera, ballet and circus.

 Usually anonymous, they were meant to be generalized depictions of actors and actresses rather than exact portraits. Many were copied from music covers, toy theatre sheets and magazines. Among other popular forms of theatrical pottery were ironstone jugs depicting harlequinades. There were also jugs commemorating a famous wild animal trainer who persuaded a lion to lie down with a lamb, and pot lids showing scenes from Hamlet.


 Purpose made stage costumes from the 19th century are relatively rare, as they were often flimsy and few have survived to the present day. Nevertheless, until some years ago it was still possible to buy spectacular dresses and suits worn by well-known performers.

 Nowadays such items are more usually auctioned is sale rooms and those designed by 'big' names such as Erte, Leon Bakst or Alexandre Benois fetch high prices. Stage props such as daggers, belts and jewellery used by famous performers are also sometimes seen at auction or in antiques shops.

 Other collectible items include the theatrical medals that were cast in the early 19th century. Made of bronze, pewter or brass, they bear relief portraits of famous actors - over 430 different faces have been listed. Bone, ivory and metal ticket checks engraved with the names of patrons who regularly bought seats at a particular theatre also make interesting collectors' pieces.

 Gramophone records of play extracts and music hall songs have become an increasingly popular form of theatrical memorabilia. The earliest recordings were made on cylinders in the 1890s, though discs were introduced before the turn of the century. Sir Henry Irving, the first actor to be knighted for his services to the theatre, made recordings of speeches from Richard III and Henry VIII on cylinder in 1896. In a very different theatrical vein, Charles Coburn and Dan Leno were among the stars of the Victorian music hall who lived into the age of recording and left a permanent vocal reminder of their art.

 These are only a sample of the kind of objects that qualify as theatrical memorabilia. Many enthusiasts prefer to build up their collections around a particular actor play or theatre, arranging props, posters and playbills, wigs and costumes next to each other to recapture the electric atmosphere of live performances long ago.



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