Curator's Choice: The Museum of Childhood

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The Independent Culture
My seasonal choice combines three exquisite nativity figures which were part of a pioneering purchase made by the founder-curator of the Victoria and Albert museum in 1864, well before any real interest was shown in this type of decorative art. The standing peasant figure is most probably a shepherd and the man on horseback appears to be one of the black King Balthazar's followers, which suggest that the figures came from a very grand crib. These nativity figures were a great part of the folk religion in Europe's Catholic countries in the 18th and 19th centuries and became sought after accessories in 19th-century Naples.

As well as these elegant figures, we also have an entire Neapolitan crib on display during the Christmas period. The buildings are by Pasquale Aloiso, who is one of the few craftsmen in Naples still specialising in this art form. The great cribs were huge, almost operatic assemblages which would have literally hundreds of figures each of about a foot high, re-enacting the nativity scene in a ruined classical temple overhung with angels.

Baudelaire once said that toys are a curious kind of sculpture, a child's initiation into art and these seasonal figures certainly approach the condition of sculpture in their delicacy and parodic gestures, but they also give insight into domestic life in 18th-century Italy.

Apart from these extravagancies, the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood also holds the national collection of toys and dolls, one of the largest in the world, including one dolls' house made in Nuremberg in 1673. A perfect initiation for any child into the world of art.

Anthony Burton is head of Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood, Cambridge Heath Road, London E2 (081-980 2415), Mon-Thu 10am-5.50pm, Sun 2.30-5.30pm.

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