Pleasing as Punch
The new exhibition at Scotland Street School Museum of Education in Glasgow, "A Penny for a Dream", is so full of colour and form that a visit is like walking into a kaleidoscope.
It's a gorgeous exhibition, bursting at the seams with historic puppet-show material, including shadow, glove and paper puppets, dozens of toy theatres, printed play-bills, etchings and engravings and much, much more - all drawn from the collection of John Blundall, the new artistic director of the Scottish Mask and Puppet Centre.
The title of the show refers to an essay by Robert Louis Stevenson, whose youthful imagination was fired by the cut-out toy theatre sheets he bought every week (only a penny each if you coloured them in yourself) from a shop at the top of Leith Walk in Edinburgh.
There are dozens of toy theatres on display at Scotland Street, with examples from Britain, France and Germany. Some are in flat, plain printed form; others are cut out and coloured in. There are big, elaborate ones and tiny, exquisite ones. One has little magnetised figures; another is in pop-up form. There is also a selection of toy theatre plays on display, including adaptations of Uncle Tom's Cabin and Robin Hood.
Puppets of one kind or another have been with us for at least 2,000 years. The first records are of shadow puppetry in China and India. In Georgia in the Caucasus, shadow puppetry has become a complex art form, in which a whole team of artistes does a show with many pairs of hands.
In 19th century Britain, many families eked out a living travelling the country giving open-air Punch and Judy shows from portable puppet booths. In those days, Punch and Judy meant a disciplined presentation with a tight script and a cast of at least 12 characters rather than the two or three puppets knocking lumps out of each other - verbally and physically - that it eventually became.
There is a range of Punch and Judy figures on display at Scotland Street (including a homely little group made from scraps of material with penned-on faces). Other exhibits are less familiar: jumping jacks, articulated paper puppets, black shadow characters and crudely-made puppets from France that were used to attract people to a travelling tooth-pulling booth.
Artists showed a great fascination for puppets and miniature theatre, and the Scotland Street exhibition features dozens of beautifully detailed etchings and lithographs. One of the earliest is a Hogarth print depicting the full range of public diversions available at the time, from wire walkers to peep shows. There are also pictures of travelling musicians with clever "plank" puppets - set on the ground on a plank of wood - which moved when tapped with a shoe in time to the music, mini-theatres which could be quickly set up on a folding table, and a baby being entertained at home with a humble rag puppet.
However, despite its beauty and subject matter, this exhibition is disappointing for children, with no "hands-on" material and no evocative sound-effects. Once the initial oohs and aahs have died down, young children especially may grow bored as the adults pause time and again to read all the printed information and pore over minute details.
Compensation may be found in the school workshops for Primary 5 to Secondary 2, which run throughout November and December, on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings and afternoons. Pupils from schools in the former Strathclyde area can have a go at making toy and shadow theatres, jumping jacks, tinsel pictures or Christmas cribs. The cost is Pounds 1 a head, bookable on 0141 287 2747.
A feast for the eyes, excellent on social history and, of course, the history of children's entertainment before television, "A Penny for a Dream" runs at Scotland Street until January 5.
For further information about Saturday workshops in December, telephone the museum on 0141 429 1202. A new, permanent exhibition, "The Magic World of Puppets", has opened this week at the Scottish Mask and Puppet Centre (8-10 Balcarres Avenue, Glasgow G12 0QF, tel: 0141 339 6185) which is running a new HND course in puppet theatre arts.