The High Toby – J B Priestley

This is less of a review of the High Toby than a brief look at the history of the toy theatre in Britain and more specifically the end of an era with the collapse into administration of the most famous, and by then the only significant, toy theatre company in the country, that run by Benjamin Pollock. For those readers unfamiliar with toy theatres I will also look in some detail at The High Toby and what you got when you purchased the book.

Benjamin Pollock didn’t set out to be a toy theatre maker and retailer, he married into the trade in 1877 when he took Eliza Redington as his wife and effectively inherited the family business of print making, especially sheets for toy theatres, before that he had been a furrier like his father. But his name was to become synonymous with toy theatres which was already a declining business when he started in the trade. However he was in for a considerable stroke of luck, with the reduction in the popularity of the toy theatre had gone a significant reduction in the number of competitors as they had slowly gone out of business and then in 1887 Robert Louis Stevenson wrote an essay called ‘A Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured’ about his love for toy theatres and specifically mentioning Pollock’s business, you can read it as chapter 13 of his later compilation of essays called Memories and Portraits available on Project Gutenberg. The title refers to the way the sheets were priced either a penny a sheet that you had to colour in yourself or two pence for pre-coloured, frankly half the fun of these was the colouring in as successfully performing a play on a toy theatre was actually quite difficult. This essay which originally appeared in The Magazine of Art drove interest in the subject and dramatically increased trade for Pollock’s.

Benjamin Pollock continued the business until he died in 1937, largely simply reprinting the sheets originally sold by John Redington with his name replacing Redington’s (just as Redington had done with his predecessor in the business) although he did introduce a handful of new plays in the six decades he was in charge. It was this careful use of the existing plates that kept his costs down and enabled the business to continue bringing in an income in the face of yet another downturn in demand for the products he was selling. Pollock’s daughters continued the shop for a short while but WWII intervened, the building was bombed and in 1944 they sold the plates and remaining stock to Alan Keen who ran an antiquarian bookshop. Keen may have understood book selling but the far more financially precarious world of toy theatres was all new to him and he set about expanding the new Benjamin Pollock Ltd company he created and that meant new plays and new designs of theatres to perform them in. Not content with new versions of classic pantomimes which didn’t require much or any royalties to be paid he commissioned completely new works including an adaption of the 1948 J Arthur Rank film of Hamlet starring Laurence Olivier.

As the film was in black and white the backgrounds and wing dressings for this production was also in black and white although the characters were reproduced in full colour using photographs of the actual cast. The licencing for this could not have been cheap but was almost certainly eclipsed by the cost of the other 1948 publication of The High Toby. There would be one more new production from Benjamin Pollock Ltd. which was a version of the nativity story published in 1950 but by 1952 the company had gone into receivership, probably pushed over the edge by the two 1948 new productions.

As indicated above The High Toby should really have been called The High Cost. In 1948 when this book was published Priestley was at the height of his powers, his most famous play ‘An Inspector Calls’ was written in 1945 and had reached the London stage the following year to excellent reviews so hiring him to write a play was a bold but extravagant choice for the Benjamin Pollock company. That they also got the well known artist and theatrical designer Doris Zinkeisen to design the sets and figures may well have been a step too far, although getting Penguin Books to publish the book unlike than their self published Hamlet may well have offset some of the cost as Priestley could at least expect more royalties that way but as this was a commission he would have received a significant advance. The book is intended for use with the Benjamin Pollock Regency Theatre which cost 38 shillings and sixpence (the equivalent of £69 in 2021) so not a cheap toy, especially so soon after WWII, so this was only an option to wealthier families. Along with the short play there are backdrops, dressings for the wings and characters in various poses to fit the performance all of which need to be cut out and mounted on cardboard before attaching to rods so they can be moved on the stage.

Some of the backdrops included in the book can be seen below, there are a total of nine pages of backdrops

Wing dressings and a couple of carriages are on these pages again there are more wing dressings than I have included here.

and the designs for figures include these, there are two more pages of characters to be cut out. Not only did the lucky child with this toy need wealthy parents they also needed endless patience to cut out and mount all the various parts.

The text of the play indicates which version of each character is needed in that scene and as you can see this would have been a very colourful performance which is more than could be said for the largely black and white version of Hamlet printed by Benjamin Pollock at roughly the same time.

The play is actually quite good fun and the stage directions are clear and easy to follow there is even a section which indicates the type of voice to be used for each of the characters, but it would still need at least two children to perform it with any degree of success. There is a licencing note as well in the book that makes it clear that whilst toy theatre performances are royalty free, should anyone wish to perform the play on a real stage then there would be a licencing cost associated with it.

I’m glad to say that 1952 was not the final end of the Benjamin Pollock business, in the mid 1950’s Marguerite Fawdry needed some parts for the toy theatre that her children played with and tried to buy them from the receivers who refused. They did however suggest she could buy all the plates, printed sheets and theatres they held which she duly did and opened The Benjamin Pollock Toy Theatre museum, which also continued selling stock as the shop had. She even produced new plays but in a much more modest fashion than Alan Keen. The museum she created still exists and is still run by the Fawdry family in Fitzrovia, a district of London, and is now high on my list of places that I want to visit the next time I am in the city.

White Horses – Eric Ravilious

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Puffin Picture Books, an imprint of Penguin Books intended for children, started in December 1940 and ran until March 1965, although by then you were lucky to get one new title a year. In all 119 titles were published out of 120 that were given numbers, the missing title was 116 assigned to Life Histories by Paxton Chadwick and this was eventually printed by the Penguin Collectors Society in March 1996 under the guidance of Steve Hare. The story of the series appeared to be complete, but there were in the archives references to other titles that never even got as far down the path to publication that Life Histories had. One of these was Eric Ravilious’s White Horses. The beautiful watercolours of chalk figures and hills on the English chalk Downs intended for the book did exist but there appeared to be nothing more.

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Ravilious had been approached by Noel Carrington, editor of the Puffin Picture Book series to produce illustrations for a thirty two page landscape book of Downland figures back in 1939 and he was originally very enthusiastic about the project working of watercolours straight away. By the beginning of 1941 he had produced a dummy which showed the planned layout but by then commitments to the War Ministry left him no time to do more. Sadly on 28th August 1942 Ravilious was killed in an air crash whilst working as war artist in Iceland, the dummy of Downland Man (as Carrington referred to it)  disappeared and the planned book appeared to have died with him.

The story leaps to 2010 and the rediscovery of the dummy tucked away with other papers in the possession of Roland Collins. This critical evidence is now held at The Wiltshire Museum in Devizes and it is with their permission to make use of the document that the book I now have in front of me exists. Step forward Joe Pearson, owner of a small printing company in London, book and illustration collector and Penguin Books expert.

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Design For Today has, since its launch in 2015, already built up a reputation for producing fine examples of illustrated books based on Joe’s love of mid 20th century design, either reprints or more often using contemporary artists as inspired by the period as Joe is. As their website says…

Design For Today’s artists’ books are all designed, crafted and printed in the UK, using quality, sustainable materials and printed using the traditional processes of lithography, letterpress, screenprint, or linocut.  Editions are small, from 500 – 1500

Joe had been hinting throughout 2018 that White Horses (as Ravilious titled the dummy) was a project he was working on; with Alice Pattullo commissioned to produce the black and white illustrations needed to complete the artwork as Ravilious had only ever done the colour pictures and Puffin Picture Books are a mix of both. The text of the final book is by Joe himself.

On the 31st December 2018 disaster struck, as the warehouse holding all of DFT’s stock, along with part of Joe’s own book collection and personal items, was burnt to the ground and nothing could be saved. White Horses is the first book to be launched after that loss of all of the back stock from the first years of the business and members of the Penguin Collectors Society are to receive a copy of the standard edition with their June mailing.

My copy of the limited edition version, which also includes a signed A3 print of one of the pictures by Alice, arrived the other day and it is an excellent piece of work not just well printed as I expected having quite a few of DFT’s products already, but entirely in the spirit of the Puffin Picture Book series.

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The double page spread above shows the sort of village that the creators of the earliest chalk carvings would have lived in at about 1500BC and this is the illustration that comes as the print with the limited edition book. The limited edition appears to have sold out already but standard copies of this beautiful book are available for £15 plus postage from Design For Today, anyone who like me loves Puffin Picture Books and/or the works of Eric Ravilious is sure to want one.