JKG History Page


John Kilby Green & the History of the Toy Theatre


Chapter 4  – Green’s Artists & Engravers



When I first discovered that my 3x great grandfather, John Kilby Green, was a “Historical Engraver”, as he classed himself on the 1851 Census, and that he declared that he was the “Original Inventor” of Juvenile Theatrical Prints, I had the romantic notion that he was responsible for all the artwork he published. This showed my lack of understanding about the processes involved in engraving, printing and more importantly the whole process involved in creating a work for the Juvenile Drama.


·         The Romantic View


When I see a complete play, such as “Wapping Old Stairs” with its 8 character plates, 10 scene plates and 5 wing plates, plus the playbook containing 15 scene changes, I had this romantic view of how Green created such a piece. I imagined JK Green attending the theatrical performance, with pencil and paper, making sketches of the scenes and players. He would go back stage and ask for a copy of the script and on this he would annotate all the scene changes and positions of the characters. He may have attended the play several times before he got close to a finished working set of drawings and a complete annotated script. During the following days he would work at home, perfecting the drawings ready for engraving and revising the script to make it more suitable for performance on the toy theatre. Later he would start the careful process of engraving the plates and setting type blocks for the playbook. Then would come the printing of the finished article, with hundreds of sheets produced and neatly stacked ready for delivery to his agent John Redington. Green would take out a copy of each and cut it up, mount it on card and perform his own play in front of his family, just to make sure everything worked perfectly.


·         The Realistic View


The examination of the plates has led me to believe that very little of the previous paragraph rings true. Firstly when we examine the plates it becomes apparent that there were more than one artist at work and that it is highly conceivable that there was more than one engraver at work as well. This can be shown quite easily when we compare one play with another. But there are instances within individual plays when this happened also (Harlequin Guy Fawkes, has a distinct change between character plates four and five and is almost certainly down to a change in engraver). We also see the evidence that Green was a habitual plagiarist, with many of Green’s productions being copied in part from other publisher’s works. The playbooks would seem to be Green’s redemption. Green’s playbooks have been quoted many times as being the most concise form of the original performance in the theatre. He therefore must have attended the theatre performance at least. Maybe he did, but it could equally mean that he carefully paraphrased the original script, which he could have obtained in any number of ways, without attending the original performance. I like to think he did at least attend one performance of each play he produced. Lastly I doubt if he ever actually performed any of his plays, because if he did, he would have realised just how many imperfections there were in each play. His “Regency” proscenium for example, as it later became called, is a perfect example of such as it just would not go together properly. The figurehead at the top-centre was highly disfigured as a result. Perhaps Green just didn’t worry once the plate had been engraved, as there would have been little that could be done to correct the faults without completely re-engraving the piece. So Green did little of the artwork, a limited amount of the engraving but at least he did most of his own printing.



Notice the change in hairstyles for Guy Fawkes between plates 4 & 5 of Harlequin Guy Fawkes.

This strongly suggests different artists or engravers were involved in their creation.


Having said all this, we must not forget that we still think of all Green’s publications as “Green’s”. In fact he was responsible for the subject matter and the printing and collation of all his productions and on many he was also involved in the artwork and engraving as well. The playbooks were almost certainly his own work. He was responsible for creating his own “house-style” as most of Green’s work is easily identifiable without reference to the imprint.



David Powell writes:-

How do we distinguish between Green's artists and engravers?

Unlike the business of linking up toy theatre plays with their real-life originals, where one is potentially dealing with FACTS (however difficult some of those facts may be to get at after a century and a half), with the artistic side of things we move much more into the area of INTERPRETATION, since so much knowledge of who-did-what has been allowed to die with those-who-did. As a result, everything that is said on such a subject must be imagined as being fenced in by signs saying "in my humble opinion" or something on those lines.

From a point of view of drawing and engraving, the later toy theatre prints (Green, Skelt, etc.) present more problems than the earlier ones (West, Hodgson, etc.). The early prints are often signed (initialled, anyway) by their artists, and those artists are often ones who are well known in other areas of book- and print-publishing (the Cruikshank brothers, the Heath brothers, etc.). Moreover, the artists seem usually to have done their own etching (which is what we normally mean when we talk of toy theatre "engraving"), since etching (unlike real engraving) is a process that can easily be got up by an artist, and does not require a long and laborious process of specialist training. On the other hand, there is no reason why there shouldn't be a division of labour, and in the later period it seems to have been a fairly frequent occurrence for artist and engraver to be two different people. Of all the later publishers, it is Green's prints especially, which have forced me to take this view. (It is not a view I ever wanted to adopt, since it complicates everything most horribly.)

I had always assumed that Green was the engraver on all his works and it was the artist that changed:

If an engraver simply makes painstaking copies of the drawings in front of him and certainly it was like this with Green's earliest work. Look at "the first cheap theatrical print", as "invented" and engraved by Green in early 1811, you will see that the two pairs of figures in the bottom row are in very different artistic styles, which have not been suppressed by Green's engraving: the figures of Punch and Judy being copied from a children's book attributed to Rowlandson, and retaining their dwarfish, caricatured appearance, and those of Clown and Harlequin being copied from an expensive print published by Ackerman, and retaining the smooth lines and elegant body-shapes suitable to a print of that type. The four figures in the top row are from sources not yet identified, but Green has kept enough of their original "feel" for us to guess that all four are from different sources, and that they do not pair up in the same way as the figures on the bottom row.


The first theatrical print, engraved by Green for W West about 1811.

The sources for each pair obviously came from different locations.

There were different engravers as well. If you then turn to Green's Harlequin Guy Fawkes, where there is a clear break in style between plates 1 - 4 of characters and plates 5 - 12, I think the difference is due to a change of engraver rather than any change of artist. My feeling is that the entire set of drawings for the characters was prepared by a given artist, begun by one engraver (possibly the artist himself, and certainly one with a rather superior style of engraving) and then finished off by another, more pedestrian hand (Green himself?). Whether the break was due to illness, procrastination, disagreements about payment, or some other cause, one can only speculate, though a similar problem seems to have happened to Green three times more: with Blue Jackets, where the change of style occurs within the same sheet(s), with The Battle of Waterloo, where it occurs after one plate, and The Woodman's Hut, which seems to have been abandoned altogether after just one plate. It also occurred to Redington, with Baron Munchausen, where two of the character plates (and some scenes) stand apart from the rest. But with Redington, I think we may be dealing with two ARTIST-engravers, since not only the style of engraving but also the underlying drawing (details of costumes, etc.) seems to change at the same time.

We know Green had to work hard to make ends meet, would he really have employed separate engravers when he had the skill to produce works himself:

Green predominantly used second-hand plates in the early part of his second career. Douglas has the most second-hand plates of any early play, and also Green economized by copying from Dyer's version of the play (so Speaight says - I have never actually seen any of Dyer's Douglas), yet, while the scenes may well be engraved by Green, the characters are not. They are by the same engraver as the first four plates of Guy Fawkes. And the same hand is clearly at work in The Red Rover and The Brigand (characters and scenes) and The Forty Thieves (scenes only - the characters look like Green himself again). Thus, even in the earliest part of his second career, Green shared the work of engraving with others.

Green did economize during the early days, but only to the extent of sharing the work of engraving. And, after about 1841, he seems to have done very little engraving himself. The fact is, he resorted to outside help almost from the beginning. I think it was HE HIMSELF who didn't come up to his own standards. His entire career was one where his talents and circumstances were never equal to the inner vision by which he was guided. However well trained he was in all the different techniques of engraving, he must have known that, artistically, his work was pedestrian, and that, if he wanted to create a decent body of published work, he had to pay for decent artists/engravers. To do otherwise would have been a false economy. Good business sense (as opposed to simple stinginess) involves knowing when to spend money as well as when to save it. (I say this with all the confidence of someone who has no business sense of his own, but who has studied the careers of theatre managers, impresarios, etc. They often have a reputation for meanness, but closer examination shows the meanness to be selective rather than all-round.)

He was being careful in lots of other ways. Living in Walworth (far from ideal for a publisher-shopkeeper, since there would be no passing trade to speak of) was one very large economy. The use of zinc plates instead of copper (and Green seems to bought large sheets of zinc for cutting up himself, rather than buying the plates ready-made) was certainly another. If I am right in supposing that the "E" engraver was the alcoholic Hornygold, he probably sold himself more cheaply than a more sober craftsmen would have done, though he seems to have been unreliable, and Green may have been glad to get rid of him, once he had discovered the "N" engraver. There is also the possibility that commissioning drawings from an artist was not so much cheaper than commissioning drawings and engravings together from an artist-engraver, certainly not enough to justify a noticeable loss of artistic quality, provided that economies could be made in ways that affected the published product less adversely. Moreover, Green's fortunes must have had a certain upward trend, as he seems to have passed beyond the stage of having to use second-hand plates as early as 1835.

As Green was so careful with money, why didn’t he teach his own children to engrave, so as to keep the money in the family?

I don't know why Green didn't teach his children to engrave. I always imagine George Green working secretly, perhaps hoping to show his father when he had done something decent. And evidently his father did approve of his efforts, since he allowed him to progress from his roughly-engraved Sixteens in Dred to a set of Fours prepared for him by Green's usual engraver of the time. But parents are odd. Pollock let his daughters colour and cut out and serve in the shop, but they didn't know one end of his printing press from the other, having barely been allowed even to assist him, so they were quite at sea when he died.

So whom has the most influence on the work created, the Artist or the Engraver?

You will guess from what I have said above that my answer to this question is in favour of the engraver. Indeed, sometimes the engraver seems to be much the stronger personality. Only look at some of the original drawings and engravings reproduced in Wilson and Speaight (mostly with reference to Green's early piracies): there is always some change of "atmosphere" between drawing and engraving, and between original engraving and pirated copy. Whether the change is for the better or worse depends on the talents of the engraver. And also on the eye of the beholder. Whereas Green's Silver Palace is always thought to be an improvement on Skelt's (of which it is a piracy), his Children in the Wood and Timour the Tartar are generally thought NOT to be an improvement on their Skelt-late-Park originals, while his Aladdin and Maid and the Magpie are more controversial. In my Historical Note on the latter play, I suggested that Green's piracy was an improvement on the Orlando Hodgson original, but one or two people strongly disagreed with this.

I think many engravers are indeed "interpreters" rather than mere channels of the original artists' ideas. Where we have surviving drawings for the toy theatre, though some of them (Robert Cruikshank's, for instance) are highly finished, others are the lightest of sketches (see the drawing for The Charcoal Burner in the first edition of Speaight) and actually require quite a bit of "interpretation" before achieving the look of a finished product. (Or what at that time would have been considered as a finished product. With more modern art, it is different, since rough sketches often ARE offered as the finished article.) And I refer again to The Silver Palace, where Skelt's characters have been "interpreted" on to a different plane of art altogether by Green's engraver.

Indeed, since in the toy theatre nearly all our artistic inquiries have to prosecuted using only the surviving prints, it is the engraver's work whose characteristics we are mainly impressed by (initially, at least), and about which we can make the most confident judgements. If we can be reasonably certain that artist and engraver are one and the same (as with most of West and Hodgson's work, for instance), then we don't need to worry too much about the distinctive qualities of the art-work that underlies the engraving. But with Green's plays I am very far from certain that artist and engraver are always the same, and of course the business of spotting artists (whose work we only see at one remove) is much more difficult than that of spotting engravers. The most obvious clues to artistic identities are in the size and shape of characters: in Green's early years (1830s) his characters can certainly be divided into small and large, with large (or fairly large) eventually becoming the norm, except that The Daughter of the Regiment makes a sudden return to small-size at a late stage. At other times his characters evince a certain dumpiness (Rookwood, with a late return in Sixteen String Jack) or tallness (Therese, Forest of Bondy).

But artists remain more difficult to pin down than engravers, and scene-artists more difficult than character-artists. Consequently, in the table I gave you of "Green's plays, arranged chronologically, with artistic analysis", I devoted two columns to symbols indicating which engraver I believe to have been responsible for the characters and scenes of each play (ideally there ought to be a third column for frontispieces, since these are often by a different engraver again), whereas I have only given a certain number of references to the characteristics of the artist (more specifically, character-artist) in the preceding column. At the moment (though I hope that more progress will eventually be possible), this is the best I can do.

The imprint on all of Green’s works appears to be very similar. Was this Green’s work?

The lettering on the plates unfortunately is not an indication as to whom the engraver was. Nearly all the toy theatre publishers sent their plates to specialist lettering engravers for all the necessary lettering to be added. This accounts for its consistency and high quality, both in Green's plays and those of other publishers. But it also means that, although the style of lettering is an important ingredient in the final look of each sheet, and in the overall "house style" of each publisher, it can't help with any of the more basic artistic questions to do with artists and engravers.


Green’s first and last ½d plays of Douglas & Goody Goose.

The lettering beneath each character was consistent throughout the 26 year period between the two prints.

Green’s Playbooks are said to follow the original play scripts closely. How accurate a portrayal were they and did Green create them himself?

I think what Speaight says about Green's playbooks is that they are the most concise. When he abbreviates a play, he pares it down to the bone. And this certainly seems to be the case with the melodramas and blank-verse tragedies. But with the pantomimes it is rather different. He always prints a very full (and frequently verbatim) text of the "opening", and must have been on exceptionally good terms with the people behind the scenes at the different theatres, since many of these texts were never published, though we can often compare Green's text with the manuscript submitted by the management to the Lord Chamberlain for licensing purposes. In his early days (as with Guy Fawkes) Green took the trouble to turn mime passages into further rhyming couplets, but later on (as with Whittington) he printed out the mime passages, despite their being impossible for cardboard characters to perform. Further, the length of his "openings" (as with Sleeping Beauty) sometimes left little room for any but the most perfunctory treatment of the harlequinade. So much for the pantomimes. There is also the case of The Silver Palace, whose text Green neither abbreviates nor prints in full, preferring instead to substitute chunks of Pope's Iliad. This very strange text has been dealt with by me (and indeed by Speaight) elsewhere, so I won't repeat myself here. To sum up: as with Green's varying styles of art-work, so with his playbooks, there are a quite number of different approaches to playbook-abridgement within the one body of his published works. Whether Green did all the work himself, or whether one should attempt to attribute the different styles of abridgement to different employees, it might be premature to judge. With the art-work, I think one is compelled to posit a rather complicated series of coming and goings of different artists and engravers, but I am less sure that this is the case with the playbooks. There is certainly more literary skill in Green's adaptations than in Skelt's (for instance), where Speaight's use of the word "puerile" seems amply justified.

As to the physical process of printing, I am sure Green printed the playbooks himself. As always, there was a contrast between his ambitions and his ability to achieve them. Although I regard him as the liveliest and most intelligent of the toy theatre publishers, I am sure that his education was sub-standard (certainly by comparison with younger men such as Webb or Redington, though he may have been better equipped than Skelt or Park, whose books are full of misplaced aitches) and his spelling was often very eccentric, though consistently so. Thus he managed to mis-spell Thurlow Place as Therlow for several years, and in the book of Jack the Giant Killer he spells Cornwall (where the pantomime is set) as Cornwell throughout. I am likewise sure that he only had a very small press, with an inadequate supply of type (inadequate, that is, even for printing one little playbook). The smallness of his press is suggested by his use of the format known as 18mo, where you fold a piece of paper into three by three, which makes the most economical use of a press too small to print four pages in either direction. The disadvantage of this format is that you always end up with an unattached leaf, with no spine to sew through. The folded sheet has to be sewn by stabbing, therefore, though in the wider world some printers made regular use of stabbing where pamphlets were concerned, even those printed in an ordinary 8vo (2 x 4) or 12mo (3 x 4) format. The inadequacy of Green's stock of type is suggested by the fact that you can often see where, having run out of the roman sort of a particular letter, he has had to resort to italic or small caps for the rest of the text.

As Redington and subsequently Pollock took over Green’s playbooks, are these exact reproductions with just name changed or did they change them in any way?

The Redington-Pollock playbooks are not always identical to Green's, and are best thought of a substitute, to be relied on only until a Green original comes along. Redington (being trained as a compositor, and boasting a larger and more solid printing press) was technically a much better letterpress printer than Green, but he also made editorial changes in Green's work, tidying up inconsistencies of presentation, and making stage directions more explicit and practical. Barry and I had plans to re-issue Whittington and his Cat as part of our facsimile reprint series, including a reproduction of the Museum copy of Green's text, which appears to be the one marked up by Redington for re-printing. (We were also going to include an original Pollock book with each reprint, as there was a small surviving stock of these.) Apart from more minor pieces of tidying-up, Redington has ruthlessly eliminated all the mime passages included by Green, and the result is to make the play more performable but less comprehensible. The characters are no longer told to do things which cardboard characters cannot possibly do, but their motivation (often expressed in mime) tends to disappear, so that the remaining dialogue loses much of its point and purpose. Pollock (who sent his letterpress printing out) simply copied Redington's version, so that the mime passages have remained largely unknown to modern performers. When Barry performed the play some years ago, I wrote some couplets as substitutes for the mime, which is what I think Green would have done when he was younger and more energetic. (I almost wrote "more enthusiastic", but I don't think he ever lost his enthusiasm. On the contrary, I think he remained stage-struck to the last, and was always eager to communicate his own passion to his young patrons.)


Green’s & Pollock’s playbooks were considerably different.

The quality of the typesetting was significantly better in the Pollock example.

Pollock’s version was very similar to Green’s but a smaller type allowed it to be much shorter at 16 pages as opposed to 24 in Green’s version.

Whatever Green’s level of involvement in the actual processes in the creation of the work that bore his name, is almost immaterial in my humble opinion. He was the brain and the enthusiasm behind them. He saw opportunities to create toy theatre plays that although didn’t make him wealthy, they were sufficient to make ends meet. More importantly perhaps he created a lasting testament for his vision that is still with us today.

Chapter 5 - JK Green the Plagiarist


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