Theatre of Memories: Pollock’s Toy Museum

It’s like handling a butterfly, trying to describe Pollock’s Toy Museum. The delicate fabric of its wings tear with every word. Every not-quite-right description, every nearly-there-but-still-too-trite summary misses the mark, causing something full of life to crumble into dust.

 

Emotionality has sunk deep into these buildings and their belongings. It has wormed into the beams and seeped through the bricks, laying lodged in its very core.

 

‘With a lot of museums the items feel quite separate from us and our lives, but toys are unifying things. They tend to have quite an effect on children; you get to see them discover the concept of the past. That’s something we all have to learn: there were people before us. Toys are a very good way of bridging that gap.’ shares Jack.

The staircase leading up to the enthralling Pollock's Toy Museum

it had to survive WWII, a bombing, and a bankruptcy… 

Jack Fawdry Tatham, the great-grandson of Marguerite Fawdry, who began what is now Pollock’s Toy Museum, currently runs the venue with his partner, Emily Fairlie Baker, having taken over from his father. But the full story spans as far back as the 1800s. Born as a toy theatre company, it passed from the founder, John Kilby Green, to his agent, to his daughter, her husband, their daughters, then it had to survive WWII, a bombing, and a bankruptcy… until its final lifeline was dangling on the telephone wire.

 

 

In the 1950s, Marguerite was searching for a slide for her son’s toy theatre and rang the company to enquire if they could supply it, but she found they were in receivership. She could not buy the slide, but, if she pleased, she could buy the business. Thus Pollock’s was bought. The legacy she was now mistress of was largely spirit, essence and adventure, though there were tangible assets too. The toy theatres and plates that Kilby Green made back in the 1800s had survived.

 

 ‘Toy theatres were the beginning of celebrity culture’, Jack explains, ‘In Britain, acting was seen as a dubious trade for a long time, but in the early 1800s it started to become more acceptable. People made merchandise with actors’ names, and the public collected their favourite actors. Toy theatres rose out of that.’

 

The antique printing press in the basement

 The collection of toy theatres at Pollock’s is monumental. Enter the building and you will instantly see them dangling above the ancient cashier register in a bedazzlement of colour, an Aladdin’s Cave of paper wonder. The mind-altering delicacy of the construction, coupled with the artistry of their painted facades brings on a mesmeric excitement as the scenes within them almost dance. The entranceway toy theatres are for sale and are still made today, but throughout the building you can spy the originals.

 

Rested in place behind glass, the Victorian versions are spellbinding. Jack points out meticulous detailing and painstaking layers of card that make up what they are. One of them has all the action: a disappearing stunt is unfolding on stage, with assistants fumbling under the trapdoor and machinery in place for the illusion to unfold.

A Toy Theatre showing a magician appearing in a puff of smoke

Jack is still making prints from the original etchings by Kilby Green in the basement of Pollocks’, with a huge, antiquated press. The basement also doubles up as a studio for artists to take up residency, with Violeta Bravo – a visual artist who works with printing, drawing and painting – currently in situ. ‘We have all these archives of the plates, in theory they’re a part of the museum, but I print from them. Some might argue that’s not good for conservation, but I think they’re better off being used. That’s what they were made for. It keeps them alive.’ Jack says.

 

 ‘For me as an artist it feels important, because, well, that’s what I love. It ties in with the museum too; it makes it feel more alive. There’s not really a prescriptive idea of what a museum can be… I guess there’s loose parameters, but they are free to change and adapt. Museums are quite a new thing in reality. I like that our shop is actually a part of our history, not just a gift shop.’

 

 All the toys on display have, at some point, been played with. Each little mark on a spinning top, tear of fabric on a teddy-bear, or smudge on a toy theatre are reminders to a past at play. It’s an incredibly touching, sobering thing to see: the signs of wear left by a busy child and its beloved companion. The child is presumably grown and long dead, but the toy is here, preserved as an artefact, a protected memory. It is a symbol of both mortality and immortality.

‘I know that we can’t all have beautiful childhoods, but you would hope that everyone sees bits of magic

The toys and their history span millennia. The oldest is an Ancient Egyptian model mouse, made circa 2,000BC. Amongst the most recent are Woody and Buzz from Toy Story. ‘I bought them in a jumble sale’, Jack laughs, ‘The plot of Toy Story Two is that an evil toy collector is trying to put them in a case. When I got them back to the museum I told them both, look, I’m going to put you in a case tomorrow, if you want to escape you can. I left them outside the cabinet with a door slightly open. When I came back the next day they were still there, but I’ve given them a screwdriver in the cabinet, so if they want to leave they can.’

Woody & Buzz Lightyear with their screwdriver
Eric, the oldest known teddybear

All the items in here are treated with this care, this respect for the life they have lived. Even a hole in a wall has become something of a hidden gem; patched up with a mini theatre that a sharp eye might notice. Jack’s words ring through the sloping floors, wonky walls and labyrinthian staircases: ‘I know that we can’t all have beautiful childhoods, but you would hope that everyone sees bits of magic, has fond memories and good associations – especially with toys. I feel it’s nice if the museum can draw that out.’

There is a definite tenderness to be learned from this museum, from Jack, and its history. The love, consideration and dedication to an intrinsic and all too forgotten part of human life preserved for eternity. An intuitive lesson into humanity.

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