Curator's Choice: Pollock's Toy Museum

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My choice is a Victorian toy theatre in all its splendour, dating from before 1900. With its hand-coloured proscenium arch, the elegant audience in the boxes at the side and the orchestra at the base, it is a typical example of a popular toy. The theatre structure was always very simple, with a wooden stage, a recessed cardboard front and a grid above the stage to hold the scenery in place. There were even tin footlights above the orchestra which you were supposed to fill with lamp oil to light the stage. These were highly dangerous and many a theatre burnt down during a performance.

This theatre was made by William Webb, although the figures shown were actually printed by Benjamin Pollock, who was a friendly rival and the other great maker of toy theatres. The characters and scenery are from the grand transformation scene from The Sleeping Beauty. Something awful was going to happen to the hero and heroine and the Fairy Queen would descend and start the harlequinade, when the dramatic part ended and all the comedy and slapstick began.

It was very much an English popular art and children would buy the theatre and then get paper sheets of figures and scenery for individual plays. There were over 250 plays for the toy theatre printed between 1810 and 1860 and so it did get rather expensive after a while, especially as some plays like The Battle of Waterloo contained over 200 figures. For this sort of play you would do cannon effects using indoor fireworks.

I like it because it conjures up this totally lost world of Victorian theatre, this world of painted scenery, of magic, escapist plots, melodrama and music.

Barry Clarke is assistant curator at Pollock's Toy Museum, London W1 (071-636 3452)

(Photograph omitted)