A Rare Group of Fifteen c.1880s Marionettes From a Travelling English Troupe

Origin: English
Period: Late Victorian
Provenance: Unknown
Date: c.1870-90
Heights: 24 to 32 inches
Other measurements available on request

Used by a travelling English troupe in the late Victorian era, this charming group of fifteen marionettes (string puppets) with papier-mache heads and wooden limbs comprising three clowns, a devil, a minstrel, two sailors, two jugglers, two maidens, two headless figures, a mule and a lion all having a variety of silk, cotton, horsehair components and costume, two with glass eyes, and all with several cotton thread attachments survive as a group.

The condition of the marionettes would be best described as ‘attic fresh’, there is some over-painting to some of the faces, but there are no concerns about the stability of the wood, there are no signs of infestation and the hair and fabric only have minor losses apart from two or three figures where the fabric is soft and deteriorating. The clothing has general discoloration commensurate with age but the colours largely still remain vibrant. The condition of each would be described all the way from poor to fair to good, most of the costumes are in tact, though some have tears and losses, much of the string work is still present, the lion for example still has the wooden operating handles, whilst some of the jugglers balls for instance are lacking and there are knocks to the heads of each as you would expect. It is remarkable really that they are presented together here as a group so the condition is merely a side issue and the overall appearance is evocative and wonderfully rich, showing the passing of time and the many hands that have used and admired them. They could be restored to operate fully again without too much trouble.

Puppetry in Great Britain has a rich and diverse history. From the Victorian marionette showmen with their elaborate travelling theatres and trick marionettes to the Punch and Judy professors in their booths on the sea front, each have played their own part in not just our puppet history, but our social history as well. In the 19th century, English marionette troupes were world-famous and popular with adults and children alike. Troupes toured the country in the UK and abroad, setting up temporary theatres seating 200-700 people at fairs or on village greens, and playing in established music halls and theatres. They were run by families whose members carved, dressed, strung and operated the marionettes in short plays based on popular entertainments including pantomimes and melodramas. A band would advertise the shows and play during the performances.

There are aspects of some of this group that look like a set in the National Puppetry Archive called The Glennie’s Royal marionettes which were also predominantly papier-mâché though many of those had very sculpted heads. However, it doesn’t mean to say that one of their makers didn’t change troupes. This could happen often, especially when many of the puppeteers were related.

Very hard to find a group in tact, this travelling family is museum worthy and presents a rare opportunity to acquire a troupe from the Victorian era. Very decorative and as equally collectable.

With our thanks to Michael Dixon at the National Puppetry Archive.