Where does it originate from?
Model Theatre also known as Paper Theatre or Toy Theatre is a form of miniature theatre dating back to the early 19th century in Europe. Toy theatres were often printed on paperboard sheets and sold as kits at the concession stand of an opera house, playhouse, or vaudeville theatre. Toy theatres were assembled at home and performed for family members and guests, sometimes with live musical accompaniment. Toy theatre saw a drastic decline in popularity with a shift towards realism on the European stage in the late 19th century, and again with the arrival of television after World War II. Toy theatre has seen a resurgence in recent years among many puppeteers, authors and filmmakers and there are numerous international toy theatre festivals throughout the Americas and Europe.
Model Theatre by Goethe, which is preserved at his home in Frankfurt.
Theatre with small Skelt proscenium c.1840, reprinted by W.Webb, c.1860. The play is 'Blue Beard' published by W. Webb (collection Pollocks Toy Museum) photographer Matt Chung.
Hobbyists often went to great pains to not only hand-colour their stages but to embellish their toy theatre personae with bits of cloth and tinsel; tinsel print characters could be bought pre-tinselled, or a wide range of supplies for home tinselling could be bought. Just as the toy-sized stages diminished a play's scale, their corresponding scripts tended to abridge the text, paring it down to key characters and lines for a shorter, less complicated presentation. In the first half of the 19th century, more than 300 of London's most popular plays saw the issue as toy theatres. Publishers sent artists to the playhouses of Georgian and early-Victorian London to record the scenery, costumes and dramatic attitudes of the greatest successes of the day.
The theatre management often provided these artists with a free seat, as the toy theatre sheets were excellent free advertising. Mass-produced toy theatres are usually sold as printed sheets, either in black and white to be coloured as desired, or as full-colour images of the proscenium, scenery, sets, props and characters. The sheets are pasted onto thin cardboard, cut out, and then assembled for the purposes of the reenacting of a play. Figures are attached to small sticks, wires, or configurations of strings that allow them to move about the set. Some toy theatres and figures are enhanced with moving parts and special effects, and it is common for performances to include live or pre-recorded sound effects and music.
Theatre with rare proscenium by M & M Skelt from the Pollocks collection. The play shown is 'Harlequin and the Giant Helmet' or the 'Castle of Otranto.' photographer Matt Chung
Redington's new & improved proscenium 1857. The play is 'One O'Clock' or the 'Knight and the Wood Daemon.' (Skelt 1840's) photographer Matt Chung
Late 19th and early 20th Century
Stage theatre of the early 19th century had been based more on spectacle than on depth of plot or character, and these characteristics lent themselves effectively to the format of toy theatre. Toward the end of the 19th century, European popular drama had shifted its preference to the trend of realism, marking a dramaturgical swing toward psychological complexity, character motivation and settings using ordinary three-dimensional scenic elements. This trend in stage theatre did not make an easy conversion to its toy counterpart, and with the fanciful dramas of fifty years prior being out of fashion, the toy theatre’s that remained in print fell into obsolescence.
Despite its fall in popularity, toy theatre remained in the realm of influential artists who championed its resurgence. In 1884 British author Robert Louis Stevenson wrote an essay in tribute of toy theatres’ tiny grandeur entitled "Penny Plain, Twopence Coloured" in which he extolled the virtues of the dramas supplied by Pollock's. Other children's authors like Lewis Carroll and Hans Christian Andersen also dabbled in toy theatre, as did Oscar Wilde.
Redington’s ’Neptune’ theatre - a vintage pre-1939 example, with Green’s 'The Flying Dutchman.' photographer Matt Chung
Redington’s ’Small Britannia’, with ’The Old Oak Chest' photographer Matt Chung
Late 20th and early 21st century
Toy theatre has been enjoying a revival in recent decades. Collectors and traditionalists perform restored versions of Victorian plays while experimental puppeteers push the form's limits, adapting the works of Isaac Babel and Italo Calvino, as well as that of unsung storytellers, friends, neighbours, relatives, and themselves. Contemporary toy theatre may use any available technology and cover any subject, and numerous international toy theatre festivals occur regularly throughout the Americas and Europe, attracting many well-known actors, musicians and authors to their stages.
The late Peter Baldwin who was president of the Guild for many years, was also an avid collector and performer of Toy Theatre. Peter along with his brother Christopher took ownership of Pollocks Toy shop in Covent Garden in 1988 until his death in 2015 aged 82.
Model Theatre is still very much alive within the Guild today, as it was in 1925. Several of our members perform regularly at Guild events. Pollocks Toy Shop in Covent Garden is where you can purchase several different styles of Toy Theatre. Each unique in its presentation and construction, yet simple enough to construct by most people. And we mustn’t forget a visit to Pollocks Toy Museum. Read what some of our members say on their profile pages and you will see for yourself, what a wonderful artform Toy Theatre is. Visit Pauline Venables, Joe Gladwin and Jack Fawdry Tatham.
Guild members admiring a Model Theatre made by Andre Curtis, at an event held in Cheltenham 2023.