Marguerite Fawdry: OBITUARY
Thursday 21 September 1995
If they visited with any regularity they might find themselves put to work in the basement collating sets of plays from packets of printed sheets unopened since the 1890s, with a paper bag of special treasures to take home at the end of the day. This eccentric private museum with its associated shop selling model theatres and unusual toys has been an enduring feature of the West End since the 1950s. It was a pioneering venture in conservation, taste and way of life.
She was born Marguerite Desnieres in 1912, the daughter of a Breton father killed two years later in defence of his country and an English mother, and was educated at the Lycee in South Kensington, west London, and at the University of Lille. In 1935 she joined the theatre studio of Michel St Denis but worked in journalism before the Second World War took her into the French Section of the BBC and the Press Office of General de Gaulle.
In 1942 she married Kenneth Fawdry, a schoolmaster, whom she had first met on a train from Florence to Rome. They shared radical politics, unconventional attitudes and a strong sense of missionary purpose. Their son John was born during the war and in 1951 Marguerite left the BBC, which Kenneth had by then joined, to write scripts for language-teaching broadcasts. It was into this fertile seedbed of education, parenthood and the stage that the germ of toy theatre fell almost by accident in 1952.
Benjamin Pollock of Hoxton, whose name is commemorated in the museum, died in 1937. In 1944 his stock of copperplates and lithographic prints for traditional English toy theatre, dating back to the 1830s, was acquired from his daughters by Alan Keen, a bookseller who revived the business with more flair than the post-war austerity years could support.
The Fawdrys, enthusiasts for many kind of popular arts including the naive paintings of Mr Bucket of Battersea, had been among his customers, but Marguerite was dismayed to discover that the business had gone into receivership in 1954, when she wanted some of the wire slides (twopence each) for pushing the tiny figures on to the stage. The accountant whom she traced gave a provocative response, "I believe there are hundreds of thousands in the warehouse, madam, but there's no one who could look them out for you. Of course, you could, I suppose, buy the whole lot if you wanted them."
This is what she did, with help from Kenneth's father, and started business from the attic in Monmouth Street, encouraged by other visionaries such as George Speaight, author of Juvenile Drama (1946), and the photographer Edwin Smith, and enlisting the first generation of helpers for whom, down the years, shared enthusiasm substituted for earnings.
The museum began as a complementary attraction, gradually filling all floors of the house with a shop on the ground floor and the stock divided between the Dickensian basement and the Fawdrys' house at Wrotham, in Kent. Marguerite's friend Jacques Brunius, Surrealist and film-maker, lent and ultimately bequeathed his collection of optical toys. The museum displays were cunningly devised by the toymaker Yootha Rose and the display style was (and remains) a tightly packed cabinet of curiosities with strongly coloured backgrounds.
Marguerite Fawdry had an excellent eye and a lifelong curiosity about other cultures, reflected in the museum and the shop which was stocked with finds from the Fawdrys' long summer holidays in Italy, Yugoslavia and elsewhere.
Almost equal to the discovery of the Pollock stock was the chance find of a barn in the Dolomites full of wooden Dutch dolls packed in brown paper parcels for dispatch to a vanished pre-1914 toy market. Pollocks bought the lot and some of the dolls found themselves dressed in Pearly costume by a genuine Pearly Queen. There were toy-theatre sheets from Copenhagen, Epinal and Barcelona, American cast-iron automata banks and Japanese paper carp.
In the 1960s shopkeeping became a performing art and Marguerite Fawdry excelled in it. In George Speaight's words, "the shop became a mecca for parents in search of unusual toys and decorations; boutique owners in swinging Britain of the Sixties flocked to Monmouth Street in search of `with-it' stock for their shelves".
Fawdry's cosmopolitan outlook inspired her to produce brightly coloured reprints of simplified Victorian plays in multi-language European editions and in New York she and Kenneth, an equally compelling figure, did impromptu demonstrations for the buyers at Maceys and Bloomingdales. Pollocks catalogues were designed with witty graphics.
Having begun the fashionable revival of the Covent Garden area, Pollocks moved north to Fitzrovia. Marguerite was able to buy two adjacent houses on the corner of Whitfield Street and Scala Street for a larger museum, now a charitable trust, held exhibitions, including one on Chinese toys, on which she wrote one of her several entertaining and scholarly books. In 1980 Pollocks opened a shop in the newly refurbished Covent Garden Market, now devolved to its manager Peter Baldwin.
In his retirement, Kenneth Fawdry helped the business to flourish. His death in 1986 was a blow but Marguerite continued to run Scala Street with John Fawdry despite declining health, remarking recently, by way of explaining its business philosophy, that "no one in their right mind would have reprinted The Siege of Troy", the grandiose romantic play reissued in 1985.
Marguerite Desnieres, museum curator, writer, entrepreneur: born Bexleyheath, Kent 14 May 1912; married 1942 Kenneth Fawdry (died 1986; one son); died London 15 September 1995.
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