The Miniature Stage - 19th Century English Toy Theatre

Among the many treasures of Christ Church Library is a very little known, but extraordinarily valuable and huge collection of theatrical ephemera donated by Francis Bridgford Brady in 1977. Containing tens of thousands of items ranging in date from the 17th to 20th centuries, the collection spans a range of theatrical and entertainment subjects and is an invaluable primary resource for entertainment and wider social history. The only comparable collections worldwide are at the V&A, the British Museum, the University of Pennsylvania and the New York Public Library. Roughly 25% of the material in our collection is completely unique, not being catalogued within any traceable archive elsewhere.  A priceless collection the Library plans to catalogue, digitise and research in detail, thus making available to scholars material and images of immense value.

This exhibition charts the spectacular rise and fall of the English toy theatre, from its origins in the theatrical souvenir prints of the early 1800’s, its development into a working replica miniature theatre for the home and its struggle to compete with the explosion of popular print at the end of the century. The major sideline of the toy theatre business, the theatrical portraits, will also be explored showing how the cultivation of verisimilitude contributed to the growth of celebrity culture.

There is a version of the exhibition available online.

Additional material from the Christ Church collection was displayed in the Bodleian Library exhibition Staging History (curated by Michael Burden and Jonathan Hicks). The context for this particular exhibition was The London Stage 1800-1900 Project, which had at its heart an on-line calendar of performances of events in the London theatres during the 19th century.

The exhibition at the Bodleian sought to address the growth of history and historicism in the writing and staging of theatre, opera, and drama. It approached the subject from two angles, one from the straight-forward staging of modern historical events such as the death of Captain Cook, or the siege of Gibraltar; and the increase in the use of quasi-history as a basis for modern dramas. Subjects here included the development of rescue opera, and the influence on the stage of the novels of Walter Scott. The exhibition contained tickets, playbills, theatrical portraiture, playtexts, and their sources.

One of the key cabinets was history as re-imagined by Walter Scott, which contained Christ Church material.

In a special talk on 7 October in the Upper Library at Christ Church, we illustrated how toy theatres were built by demonstrating the assembly and decoration, and handing out kits for you to build at home. The kit included a paper model to cut out and colour, complete with characters and scenery from a popular pantomime.

The exhibition was curated by Lauran Richards and Cristina Neagu.

An exhibition, The Miniature Stage - 19th Century English Toy Theatre, ran from 12 September to 7 October 2016 and from 23 January 2017 for the duration of Hilary Term.