INTERVIEW BETWEEN HENRY MAYHEW & WILLIAM WEST
Monday, February 25, 1850
continue my inquiries among the Toy-makers. In my last Letter I dealt chiefly
with the makers of playthings for the children of the poor. In the present one
I purpose dealing with those who manufacture the superior description of articles,
such as are seen principally in the arcades and bazaars.
One among those whom I visited was a celebrated publisher of penny theatrical characters and maker of toy theatres. He is the person to whom the children of the present generation are indebted for the invention. I found him confined to his room with asthma. He sat in a huge armchair, embedded in blankets, with a white night-cap on his head. He evidently was very proud of having been the original inventor of the toy theatres, and he would insist upon presenting me with the earliest prints in connection with the mimic stage. He was a little spare man whose clothes hung loose about him.
"I am a maker of children's theatres, and a theatrical print publisher. I have been in the line ever since 1811. The first time I began to publish anything of the kind was when the pantomime of Mother Goose was performing. I was the first in the line. I think I had the business all to myself for two years. Mrs. J-, who lived in Duke's-court, Bow-street, took to it after that. She sold my prints at first, and then she began to print and publish for herself. Now, I think, there's about six in the line. I was originally in the circulating library and haberdashery line. My mother was in the haberdashery way, and I continued it. We had a glass case of toys as well, and among the toys we sold children's halfpenny lottery prints - common things that were done in those days, sir. Well, you see, my parents used to be at Covent-garden Theatre, and I took it in my head to have a print done of Mother Goose. I can show you the old original print by me. You shall see, sir, the first theatrical print ever published. (He here produced a bundle of impressions.) He's the third cheap theatrical print ever published. It's numbered up here, you see - but I brought em out so fast after that I left off numbering them very soon. I brought out one a day for three years. The print consisted of eight characters in as many separate compartments. The first was the elder Grimaldi as Clown, the second Bologna as Harlequin, the third was the Columbine of that day. Oh dear," said the publisher, "what was her name? - she was a werry excellent Columbine at Covent-garden Theatre." The other compartments were filled with other characters in the piece. "You'll see, sir," continued the old man, "there's a line of foolish poetry under each of the characters. I made it myself to please the children. It runs:-
The Clown, Joe Grim,
John Bologna, the Harlequin;
Gay and merry Columbine,
With her lover, Spaniard fine;
Demon of Interest, fiend of gold,
Don Alvaro very old;
A poor Chinese man,
And Mr. Raymond, as Magician.'
The first theatrical print published was not very different from the third in the character of its art or poetical descriptions. There was, however, a spirit and freedom of touch about the execution that was far superior to what might have been expected.
The lines under the eight distinct characters were as follows: -
The golden egg and Mother Goose-
Prime, bang-up, and no abuse.
Here's Harlequin as feather light,
And Zany's antics to please you with delight;
Here's Mr. Punch you plainly see,
And Joan, his wife, both full of glee.
In woman's habits does Harlequin
Deceive the clown, by name Joe Grim.'
"I brought out this print you'll understand, to please the children. The lottery things was so bad, and sold so well, that the idea struck me that something theatrical would sell. And so it did - went like wildfire among the young folks. Shopkeepers came to me far and near for em. Bad as the drawing of these here is, I can assure you it was a great adwance on the children's halfpenny lotteries. These two figures here in the corner, you see, a'n't so bad, but they're nothing to what we do now. This plate was done by a Prentice of the name of Green, who worked at Mr. Simkin's, an engraver in Denmark-court. He used to do them in his overtime. He was obliged to have something to look at to copy. He was no draughtsman himself, you know. This here picture of Mother Goose he took from a large print of Mr. Simmonds in that there character published by Ackennan, and sold in Covent-garden at 2s. 6d. plain, and 5s. coloured; the others was all copied from large prints of the clay. I dare say I sold right off as many as 5,000. It was printed many times over, and every edition I know was a thousand. We don't do so many now. It was sold at a penny plain, and twopence coloured. You had better take that there impression with you. It's a curiosity, and abit of the history of one's country - yes, that it is, sir. Why it's 39 years ago. I think I must have been about 24 when it was published - I'm 63 in June. The success of the theatrical prints was so great, I was obliged to get three presses to print them fast enough. I brought out a new one every day, as I told you before. We only did the characters in the pantomime at Christmas time. The small ones wasn't likenesses - they was merely characters to give the costumes. We didn't make likenesses till very late. The wardrobe people at the minor theatres and masquerade people used to buy a great many to make their dresses from. Young Green only did me two plates. He was such a bad draughtsman he couldn't do anything without a copy, and I was forced to get permission of the better printsellers for all he did. I gave Green 30s. or £2 for each plate he did for me. He was very dear, cause he was so slow over the engravings. Well, I think I had done about seven prints - they were bad-uns - only copies, and badly done too - all by apprentices, when Mr. Hashley, of the Hamphitheayter, sent young with a drawing to show me. It was uncommon well done; oh, such a beautiful picture! he got on to be one of the first-rate artists arterwards, and drawed half-crown caricatures; he did all the battle-pieces of them times - all Bonaparte's battles and Nelson's shipping. Well I gave him an order directly for the whole of the characters in the Blood Red Knight, wot Hashley was performing at that time. I can show you the print on it - you must see it, for it was a great adwance in my purfession, sir. I should like you to look at it, sir, cause I considers it as a matter of history like." He here brought out another brown parcel of prints. "Look here, sir," he said, as he turned over the impressions - "here's one of the stage fronts we do now - it's only part of it, you'll understand. It's done by a real architectural designer - but he's dead too: I suppose I shall go next.- -did this here stage-front of Drury-lane as it was after the fire; and he did Covent-garden for me as well, but he wasn't good at architect. This here, sir, was the first stage front we begun to make. It's the large impression; we had a small one out as well. The date, you see, is 1812- and it wasn't quite a year after I published my first print. Igot liberty from the master carpenter to go and make the drawing of the front as soon as ever it was up after the fire. This here print," he continued as he turned over the different copies before him, "was done for me by a Royal Academician of the name of Mr. ---; it's Ducrow in the scene of 'the Ingun and the Vild Oss.' You see, sir, Mr. Ducrow paid for it being done by my man, and guv it away on his benefit night, and I had the plate of him afterwards. This is a late production, so you can see the improvement, There's the first plate --- did for me. It's the principal characters in The Lady of the Lake, as produced at the Surrey, and a great advance you see it is on the others. After that he did the Blood-red Knight. Here's one of his first prints of osses. It's Baghranho, as first performed at Hashley's. Here's the first battle he ever drew. He did it unbeknown tome on a copper of mine, thinking I would like it; but it was quite out of my line. It was that there as got him all J---s battles to do. He showed it to him, and J--- guv him an order directly. After that he had ten pound a week from J---,and ten pounds a week from me too. He had 30s. a plate, and never did less than six in the week; and for the larger ones he had more. I found the copper. Why, I used to pay my coppersmith £70 and £80 a year for plates only, ---- , the artist and scene painter, did a great many for me, and he was the only one as turned out grateful to me. All the others got such great men they wouldn't look on me. At first, you see, we didn't do any but the principal characters in a piece, cause we didn't think of making theayters then, and went on as we begun for two years. After that we was asked by the customers for theayters to put the characters in, so I got up the print of a stage front, thinking that the customers would get the woodwork done themselves. But after the stage front they wanted the theayters themselves of me more than ever, so I got some made, and then the demand got so great that I was obliged to keep three carpenters to make em for me. One was a horgan builder and could make anything in machinery. I turned out the first toy theayter for children as ever was got up for sale, and that was in the year 1813. You see my father was the under property-man at Covent Garden Theatre, and I had a sister a dancer there, and another sister belonging to the fruit-office in the boxes - so we was all theatrical; and when I was about seven years old, I got my father's prentice in the shop to make me a wooden theayter - he was uncommon clever at carpenter work, and the painters and carpenters of Covent Garden used to come and see it when we exhibited in our one-pair back three times a week. We used to charge 2d. a piece. It was thought a great thing in those days; and so many people used to come and see it, that father and mother wouldn't allow it after a time; so it was put up as a raffle, and it was won by a young man, who took it with him to Scotland. It was that as gave me the hidea of making toy theayters for sale. After I made a few I was hobligated to make scenery, and to do the sets of characters complete. Nobody but me made toy theayters for a long while; nor did they do the scenery. One man used to do three dozen theayters a week; and another man did me a dozen more of the small. The larger theayters took longer time, and I don't think I made more than a dozen of them in a year. I used to make, I think, about fifty toy theayters a week. I always had a room full of them upstairs, except at Christmas, when we couldn't turn them out fast enough. I think I must have sold about 2,500 every year of em. Some theayters I made came to as much as £20 a piece. I have made about four of them, I think, in my lifetime. They was fitted up with very handsome fronts - generally 'liptic harch fronts, built all out of wood, with ornaments all over it - and they had machinery to move the side wings on and off; lamps in front, to rise and fall with machinery; and side lamps to turn on and off to darken the stage, and trick sliders to work the characters on and change the pantomime tricks; then there was machinery to make the borders rise and fail as well, and cut traps to open for the scenery to go up and down through the stage. 'The Miller and his Men' has sold better than any other play lever published. I wore out a whole set of copper plates of that there. I must have sold at least five thousand of that play, all complete. It's the last scene, with the grand explosion of the mill, as pleases the young uns, uncommon. Some of em greases the last scene with butter - that gives a werry good effect with a light behind; but warnish is best, I can't abear butter. Some of them explosions we has made in wood work, and so arranged that the mill can fly to pieces; they comes to about 4s. 6d. apiece. The next most taking play out of my shop has been 'Blue Beard'. That the boys like for the purcession over the mountains - a coming to take Fatima away - and then ere's the blue chamber with the skelingtons in it - that's werry good too - and has an uncommon pretty effect with a little blue fire, though it in general sets all the haudience a sneezing. The next best arter that was the Forty Thieves' - they likes that there, for the fairy grotto and the scenery is werry pretty throughout. Then again, the story pleases the children uncommon - it's a werry good one I call it. I'll give you the date of the first likeness as ever I did; I've got it here handy, and I should like you to see it, and have it all correct, cause you see, as I said before, it's a matter of history, like. Here's all my large portraits - there's 111 of them. This here's one of ---. It's Liston, as MoIl Flaggon, you see. That there one is done by Mr. ---, the royal academician. It's Mr. H. Johnston as Glaffer. I think the part was in a tragedy called the 'Hillusion.' That was the werry first portrait as I published. Here's one by ---, done about the same time. That's Mrs. Egerton, as Hellen Macgregor. The portraits I have just been showing you are 2d. plain, and 4d. coloured - but they don't sell now, the penny has quite knocked them up. Then there's other people wot makes as low as a halfpenny, but they a'n't like the performance at all. You see the cheap shops makes up the dresses with silk, and tinsel, and foil, but I never did. My customers used to do some; but, to my mind, it spoilt the figures, and took away all the good drawing from em. Formerly they used to cut out the parts of the figures, and stick pieces of silk, and tinsel, and lace behind them. Then the boys used to make all their own dots and ornaments themselves; and I used to sell punches expressly for doing em, and arter that I sold the ornaments themselves. Now the ornaments are sold in large quantities by these halfpenny printsellers. They are punched out by children I think - they make them as low as a halfpenny a packet. I haven't published anew set of characters for this seven year. You see they began to make halfpenny plates - they used to copy my penny ones and sell em at half-price, so I thought it high time to give over. I had come down in my large portraits from 2d. to ld.,and I wasn't going to reduce to halfpenny - not I. It seemed like lowering the purfession to me - besides, the theaytres themselves couldn't makeado of it, sol gave over publishing. The decline of the drama is hawful, and it's just the same with the toy theaytres as it is with the real ones." (He then showed me his books. They were all indexed alphabetically. First came the small characters under A - "Aladdin;" then came those in B -"Blue Beard," "Battle of Waterloo" (of this nearly 10,000 had been printed), and "Bottle Imp;" under C were "Comus" and "Coriolanus;" under F was the "Forty Thieves;" under H "the Highmettled Racer," "Hamlet," and "Harlequin Brilliant;" under I came "Ivanhoe;" under M the "Miller and his Men," "Maid and the Magpie," "Montrose," and "Midsummer Night's Dream; under O was the "Old Oak Chest" and "Olympic Revels;" under R, "Robinson Crusoe" and "Rob Roy;" and under T, "Timour the Tartar." Then came the index of the scenes in the same plays, arranged in a similar manner, with the number of impressions attached.
I remarked that he had printed a great many portraits of Mr. Bradley? He said that gentleman was such a great favourite with the children - he made himself up so murderous looking - and then he was such a fine swordsman with T. P. Cooke, you'd think they were going to kill one another. It was quite beautiful to see em - people used to go on purpose. He told me he had printed more portraits of Huntley, Bradley, and Blanchard, than of any other members of the theatrical profession - with the exception of Kean in Richard. He hadn't done anything particular with the others. He had made upwards of 1,000 pantomime tricks. He was fond of doing them for the children. Now he has scarcely any call at all for them. This Christmas had been a little better - he didn't know why. He showed me also an account of the expense of making a toy theatre that he had made to be sent out to Australia. It was for the children of the Chief Judge there. He had made two for the same party. The second was the best, and came to £16 12s. 6½d. He told me that his receipts used to be in his best time as much as £30 a week for theatres and penny and twopenny plates of characters only. Now he only takes about 3s. 6d. or 4s. 6d. a day, or from £1 to £1 5s. a week.