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Stage & Literature

Moorabool's Theatrical Collection
Curated Collections

Some interesting items in stock at Moorabool are all about the Stage: this is the pop-culture of the 18th & 19th centuries, featuring the influencers, the stars, and the characters of the popular writers of the day.

Shakespeare & Sir Walter Scott
Shakespeare & Sir Walter Scott having a chat.
Robbie Burns
Robbie Burns

The ‘Top 2’ celebrities we come across in the Antique world are William Shakespeare and Robbie Burns. Their popularity rose & fell over time, just like any celebrity. Shakespeare had the advantage of a head-start, but the popularity of Burns coincided with the explosion in production that came with the Georgian world of the Industrial Revolution. New inventions, techniques and materials were used to make a never ending variety of interesting mementos of both the man and his characters, and in the first half of the 19th century, he eclipsed Shakespeare in popularity. Over the course of the latter 19th & 20th century, Shakespeare regained the lead, until in the present day, Shakespeare is well know and still very popular, while Robbie Burns has faded from the pop-culture scene.

Actors were always popular. Chief amongst these was ‘Falstaff’ – a Shakespeare character who was made in a wide variety of materials over a long period.

And then there’s the more minor celebs. Some of these were ‘child stars’ – famous for a few seasons on the stage. Others are totally inappropriate in the modern world, such as the ‘black-face’ depictions of Africans.

Please enjoy our presentation below…. let the show begin!

A ‘Child Star’ – This fascinating image on a small English Enamel patch box is taken from a print by G. Thompson, Southfield, 1805. It is titled ‘Mafter Betty ftuding his part – this aftonijing youth was only Thirteen Years of Age last September / 1804’, and depicts the child prodigy, William Henry West Betty (1791-1874).

He debuted on stage in Ireland in 1803, aged 11; over the next few years he was incredibly popular and well-recieved as a child star. For a while, he was the highest ever paid actor, earing 75 Guineas per night while at Drury Lane.

His fame led to Royal introductions, and George III even presented him to the Queen.

After a whirl-wind few years of multiple roles in many venues, he retired the stage in 1808 to study at Christ’s College, Cambridge. After graduating, he did retry theatre, but his lustre was worn – the critics were savage, and he failed to impress. The usual path of famous ‘child-star descent’ followed, ending with a failed suicide; he gave up acting altogether in 1824, although he was always active in some form with theatrical charities.

See this interesting items here >>

The Young Roscius patch box c.1805

Shakespeare 1564-1616

Antique Shakespearian Commemorative items at Moorabool Antiques
Antique Shakespearian Commemorative items at Moorabool Antiques
In Memoriam - Shakespeare needlework
In Memoriam – Shakespeare needlework, early 19th century

William Shakespeare, often regarded as one of the greatest playwrights in history, wrote his stage plays during the late 16th and early 17th centuries. His literary works have left an indelible mark on the world of literature and theatre, and therefore also the material culture associated. Renowned for his ability to capture the complexities of human nature and emotions, Shakespeare’s plays such as “Romeo and Juliet,” “Hamlet,” and “Macbeth” continue to resonate with audiences worldwide, exploring themes of love, ambition, power, and tragedy. His mastery of language, rich characters, and enduring narratives have solidified his legacy, ensuring that his works remain relevant and influential across generations.

A most unusual piece that illustrates his lasting impression is seen here – a Georgian embroidery, featuring a lady by “Shakespere’s”grave, strewing it with roses.
There’s a wonderful range of Shakespeare products, including no end of busts, some better looking than others. But most peculiar is the vase seen below -it has an identical Shakespeare face on either side, for some unknown reason!

Shakespeare Ceramics
Shakespeare Items at Moorabool Antiques

Robbie Burns 1759-96

Victorian Robbie Burns Commemoratives
Victorian Robbie Burns Commemoratives

Robbie Burns was a Scottish poet and lyricist born in the 18th century. Celebrated as the national poet of Scotland, he is best remembered for his contribution to Scottish literature and culture through his heartfelt poems and songs. Burns’ works, including the iconic “Auld Lang Syne,” often showcased his keen observation of everyday life, social issues, and the beauty of nature. His ability to capture the essence of the human experience in both Scots dialect and English endeared him to generations.

Charles Dickens (1812-70)

Charles Dickens caught the imagination of the Victorian era by depicting the grim reality of the working classes and their struggle. His characters made excellent material for the Victorian consumers, appearing on ceramics, metalwares, and endless printed material.

Charles Dickens characters
Charles Dickens characters

Other Theatrics

Many other playwrights and authors achieved popularity in Georgian & Victorian England, and had their own ‘products’ – or rather, all the entertainers in the Staffordshire Potteries and the Printing Press owners ignored the concept of ‘copyright’ and made their own souvenir to sell to the public. Some of the printed images are very fragile, intended for a short life-span and therefore rare survivors. Others like the Staffordshire pottery figures have lasted very well…. indeed, long after their original celebrity has been forgotten, and now it’s a challenge to work out who the image represents. Going through the definitive books on Victorian Staffordshire Figures by Harding, there are pages of unknown actors & performers…..

‘Tinsel’ theatrical prints

In the late 18th century, printing of cheap prints depicting the latest celebrity in their stage roles became popular. The theatre was the basis of entertainment for the period, as one didn’t have to be able to read to enjoy it – and the printed visual depictions revealed much about the story of the play.
In the early 19th century, this idea merged with the children’s toy world, and the idea of the ‘toy theatre’ was born. Printers produced the stage itself, suitable to cut out & mount on wood or cardboard. Some came in a pre-build form, as seen below. The characters of the popular plays were then printed, ready to be cut out – and the script of the play could then be used to re-enact the play at home – think of it as a do-it-yourself Netflix production!

Toy Theatre - 19th century
Toy Theatre – 19th century – coming soon to Moorabool Antiques

The printers made small figures suitable for cut-outs, but also larger prints depicting the characters, with small sections of backdrops behind them. They were the equivalent of a filmstar or pop-star poster for the wall today. These are generally called ‘Tinsel Pictures’ for the following reason: they were sold plain for a penny, tuppence for coloured, and intended to have an industrious child glue ‘tinsel’ (sparkly pieces of foil, beads, and pieces of bright cloth) onto the figures to beautify them. You could imagine them being a terrific present from a parent to a child at Christmas – a ‘pop-star’ of the day along with a bag of glittery tinsel to make them look pretty. The same idea is still current, with the ‘bead pictures’ being a modern day descendent.
The following pictures are ‘Tinsel’ type, although just the coloured versions without additions.

Sir Rowland Trenchard, from Jack Sheppard, pub.  Redington, c.1850
Sir Rowland Trenchard, from Jack Sheppard, published by J. Redington, c.1850

This dramatic Theatrical print depicts Sir Rowland Trenchard, a character from William Harrison Ainsworth’s novel ‘Jack Sheppard’, 1839. This was a historical romance about the 18th century celebrity-criminal, Jack Shepherd (1702-24). It’s a ‘True Crime Series‘ in today’s pop-culture lingo.

In the story, split into three periods, Trenchard comes from the central portion, where he is raising his nephew, Thames Darrell. However, he is described as ‘immoral’, and has his charge removed into the care of a Mr Wood – who also fosters the young Sheppard, thus entwining their lives in preparation for the third part, where Sheppherd hangs out with the wrong crowd and turns to a life of crime. This comes to a head when his foster-mother is murdered by one of his thief companions in a staged break-in. After multiple captures and escapes, Sheppard is finally captured and hung before a large crowd of Londoners….. roll end credits.

Polly Maggott, from Jack Sheppard, printed London 1839
Polly Maggott, from Jack Sheppard, printed London 1839

This character is Poll Maggott, also a part of the Jack Sheppard story. She’s based on the real-life Poll, who along with another girl, Bess Lyon, were responsible for edging Jack into his brief but glorious life of crime. This print has her played by Mrs W. Daly, and as it was published December 17th, 1839, it is from the original play of the story.

Jack Sheppard was published in parts in  Bentley’s Miscellany from January 1839 until February 1840. Charles Dickens was Ainsworth’s friend at this stage – and the editor of Bentley’s, where he also ran his stories. However, this friendship soured rapidly after the runaway success of Jack Shepherd: while it eclipsed Dickens’ most popular novel, ‘Oliver Twist’, it wasn’t envy that drove them apart, but controversy about the values being depicted in the works. While Dickens is a great ‘moralist’, eager to balance the dark deeds of his villains with redemption, often as a tear-jerking end scene, Ainsworth was more realistic: critics condemned the ‘unredeemed crimes’ in this “evil work of popularity”, which has “now gone to its cradle in the cross-roads of literature, and should be henceforth hushed up by all who have—as so many have—a personal regard for its author”.  What would these critics make of the average Netflix drama these days!

Shortly after, Dickens and Ainsworth were no longer friends – the price Ainsworth paid for his popularity. The stage play of the novel was presented right away in 1839, while the novel was still popular. It opened at London’s Adelphi Theatre – the same popular West End venue still hosting the latest shows to this day. This was the first of many shows mounted over the next few decades – but due to the controversy, and the fear of polluting the minds of vulnerable audiences and turning them to a life of crime – the Lord Chamberlain slapped a 40-year ban on the play being held in London under the well-known title! No doubt this controversy contributed to the work’s popularity, much as bans do today to a modern audience – they make  greater demand to see what the controversy is about.

This print is typical of the mass-market souvenir produced for this once popular piece of pop-culture.

Paul Pry & Lubin Log – the John Liston roles.

John Liston as Paul Pry, Staffordshire Pottery figure c. 1820
John Liston as Paul Pry, Staffordshire Pottery figure by Enoch Wood, c. 1825

A popular Georgian stage character was ‘Paul Pry’. As his name implies, he was a busy-body, always prying into other people’s business. A favourite technique to snoop was to leave a coat or hat behind when leaving from a visit, then calling back to collect it without the supervision of the host. John Liston was a stage celebrity of the early 19th century, and he played the part of Paul Pry to great reviews.

See our Paul Pry figure here >

Staffordshire figure of Lubin  Log, in Love, Law and Physic  by James Kenney 1819
Staffordshire figure of Lubin Log, in Love, Law and Physic by James Kenney 1819

Another early 19th century Staffordshire figure of a character/actor is often also labeled ‘Paul Pry’ – but Myrna Schkolne (of argues that this is not correct: the busy-body character of ‘Paul Pry’ is well depicted in the first figure, but in this character there is a different personality. He’s almost sneering, definitely arrogant, and seems to carry a hatbox, parasol, and elaborate ladies coat…. Rather, it’s the upstart cockney ‘Lubin Log’, recently ‘come into money’ and out shopping so he can impress a lady – who naturally doesn’t want to have anything to do with him. This is the plot of  ‘Love, Law and Physic‘ written by James Kenney in 1812.

See the Lubin Log figure here >

John Liston as Paul Pry & Lubin Log, early 19th century
John Liston as Paul Pry (left) & Lubin Log (right), early 19th century

The one thing binding these two interesting figures together is that the actor John Liston played both parts in their different plays. If you look at the face of both, there’s a similarity.

John Wesley (1703-91)

John Wesley commemoratives, circa 1839
John Wesley commemoratives, circa 1839

Another ‘pop-culture’ theme involves the religious characters, chief of who was the English evangelist, Wesley. His independent Methodist theology was wildly popular both during his lifetime, and after he died – indeed, he’s still well regarded today.

His first sermon was a date to be commemorated: the 1739 – 1839 Centenary was a moment recorded in a wide range of pieces.

John Wesley jug
John Wesley jug
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