Theatres Fit for Prints: Charlotte Crow Lifts the Curtain on 'Juvenile Drama'-A 19th-Century Phenomenon, Subject of a New Exhibition on Regency Toy Theatre at Sir John Soane's Museum in London

By Crow, Charlotte | History Today, February 2004 | Go to article overview

Theatres Fit for Prints: Charlotte Crow Lifts the Curtain on 'Juvenile Drama'-A 19th-Century Phenomenon, Subject of a New Exhibition on Regency Toy Theatre at Sir John Soane's Museum in London


Crow, Charlotte, History Today


IN 1811 WILLIAM WEST (1783-1854), a London haberdasher, had the idea of publishing theatrical portraits to sell to children from his shop in Wych Street off the Strand. He soon discovered that these souvenirs were being cut out and used in miniature theatrical performances by their imaginative young owners. West saw the potential of the new craze and responded by producing sheets of characters, which he sold at 'a penny plain and twopenny coloured': 'juvenile drama' was born.

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West's works (he published 146 plays in an) form the basis of a special, free exhibition that has just opened at the Sir John Soane Museum, in conjunction with Pollock's Toy Museum. Besides celebrating the first toy theatre publisher, the exhibition rakes a wider look at the London theatre of the period, the relationship between the toy theatre and Regency architecture, and the use of toy theatres in the home.

West, was proud of his prints and employed accomplished artists to execute them. Sheets were sometimes rushed out just a few days after the opening night of a popular production. The theatre managers of the day mostly approved of West's quality merchandising and his dramatic portraits. Thanks to them, great theatrical performers such as Edmund Kean and Joseph Grimaldi were brought to life in miniature productions in drawing rooms all over the country.

In 1850, West was interviewed by Henry Mayhew for his London Labour and the London Poor: The interview, which remained unpublished until the 1970s, is a remarkable historical document and it is explored in some detail in the exhibition catalogue. In it Mayhew brings West to life, reproducing his cockney accent in a way that is both comical and touching. He describes West as 'a little spare man whose clothes hung loose about him', shabbily clad, and 'although reputed to be well off, ... seldom indulged in the luxury of a clean face'. The whole interview can be heard as an audio recording in the exhibition.

By the 1850s, West had in fact moved on from producing theatrical prints, developing a thriving trade in under-the-counter pornography. His 'Bawdy Songsters' can be seen in the exhibition, and show a seedier, if humorous, aspect of Victorian London.

Both Soane's and Pollock's have an association with West. …

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Theatres Fit for Prints: Charlotte Crow Lifts the Curtain on 'Juvenile Drama'-A 19th-Century Phenomenon, Subject of a New Exhibition on Regency Toy Theatre at Sir John Soane's Museum in London
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