All the world’s a (miniature) stage
When children’s TV and theatre writer Jeffrey Kindley was six years old, he became obsessed with Amahl and the Night Visitors, an opera that tells the story of a young boy who meets the three kings one winter night. “It was going to be televised as a holiday special,” recalls Kindley, speaking from his home in New York’s Upper West Side. But “unfortunately, we didn’t have a television”. His mother’s subscription to The Ladies’ Home Journal came to the rescue, with a toy theatre version of the production. “I loved making that theatre!” Kindley says.
A cereal-box design of Disney’s Peter Pan followed and he “learned that any shoe box could be turned into a proscenium”. His youthful enthusiasm was transformed into a writing career – and a passion for Broadway (“I have seen at least 2,000 plays,” he says). But Kindley has also stayed true to his first theatrical encounter, creating a collection of 130 paper theatres, 70 of which are displayed throughout his apartment.
A 1920s Teatro de los Niños sold by Vectis for £220
A 1962 Remco Showboat theatre set sold for £30 by Vectis in 2021
Kindley’s journey from child enthusiast to serious collector is not unique. Model theatres, constructed in card or wood, boomed as an accessible form of home entertainment following the second world war, and over the past few decades, as the generation who played with them as children have matured into collectors, there’s been a surge of renewed enthusiasm.
A sale by toy auctioneers Vectis heralded their resurgence last year, as many of the theatres up for auction pushed over their sub-£100 estimates into the hundreds. Twickenham’s Strawberry Hill House gallery, built by Horace Walpole in 1749, followed suit this summer with an exhibition of 14 Gothic sets, including a staging of Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. Masterpiece London’s July art fair confirmed their popularity, with a large and opulent wooden example from writer Maria Curti Comerio’s 19th-century holiday mansion in Laino, Italy, complete with seven handpainted sets, on sale at Robertaebasta gallery for €60,000.
A vintage theatre for sale at Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop
A Hansel and Gretel theatre, £25, from Benjamin Pollock’s
Louise Heard, who runs specialist Pollock’s Toy Shop in Covent Garden, locates their current appeal in nostalgia for the days of analogue entertainment. “They’re magical,” she says from her shop. “Bright squares of colour that take you back to childhood, but also to a theatrical family experience.” Kindley, who keeps his 70-strong paper collection for display only, concurs – “wanting to preserve a moment is what it’s about”.
WHERE TO BUY
Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop pollocks-coventgarden.co.uk
Pingel Rare Books pingelrarebooks.com
WHAT TO READ
A Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured Book by Robert Louis Stevenson (Pollock’s Toy Museum Trust, £17.50)
WHERE TO SEE
Pollock’s Toy Museum pollockstoymuseum.co.uk
Toy theatres first became popular during the 18th century, when they were sold as souvenirs after live theatre shows. Printers would “drop” new theatres, backdrops and characters according to what productions were on show – from Punch and Judy sets to folk tales, Aladdin, and even a full-cast staging of The Taming of the Shrew. “People could re-enact what they had seen,” says Kathy Taylor, who runs Vectis’ TV & film department, and organised last year’s landmark sale. “When they’re in a darkened room and illuminated by candlelight they do represent what it would have been like to visit a theatre”. By the early 19th century it had become “a complete craze – like Pokémon”, says Alan Powers, curator of the Strawberry Hill exhibition and a collector himself.
In today’s market, folk art wooden British theatres and their continental counterparts might go for around £100, with prices pushing up for more technical stages. Spanish designs are worth looking out for, says Heard, often featuring multiple layers of scenery and coloured cellophanes for immersive lighting effects. The Vectis sale featured an El Teatro de los Niños by prolific Barcelona maker Nualart, complete with accessories to perform The Repentant Pirate (in Spanish) – including a sheet of miniature tickets – which went for £360 over an estimate of £100.
A 1920s Teatro de los Niños, sold at auction by Vectis for £160 over an estimate of £80 to £120
A c1890 theatre sold for £150 by Vectis in 2021, complete with a cast of characters
A collection of 100 oak-cased optical theatres, which are harder to find, can be purchased at Paris’ Pingel Rare Books. Dating from 1750, the design allows viewers to peep through a circle onto a tableau. Complete with props to create biblical scenes, wild-boar hunts, whaling, carnivals and city views, they are priced at €49,000.
For paper sets, “Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop remains the ne plus ultra,” says Kindley, “but eBay sometimes has surprises”. Current offerings at Pollock’s include a colonnaded sea-blue toy theatre that was handmade in the 1930s with hand-drawn characters (POA).
Particularly sought-after backdrops or characters include romantic melodrama The Miller & His Men, which was originally performed at Covent Garden in 1813, says Powers. It was a favourite back in the day because it “ends with an explosion”. An “indoor firework” recreated the scene during at-home performances. (“It was all highly dangerous and flammable,” he confirms.) Etsy seller Greenbanks Curiosities has a pristine set for £150. For the less pyrotechnically inclined, Greenbanks is also selling Pollock’s candy-coloured 1910 edition of Sleeping Beauty (£175).
For some children who played with such models their influence has been immeasurable. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Ralph Fiennes nurtured their talents on miniature theatres, says Heard. And for some adults, such as occasional Pollock’s customers Philip Pullman and Emma Thompson, the magic of toy theatre still sets the stage for the imagination to run riot.