Monday 10 November 2014

Review: Pollock's Toy Museum, London

To this crib I always took my doll; human beings must love something, and, in dearth of worthier objects of affection, I contrived to find a pleasure in loving and cherishing a faded, graven image, shabby as a miniature scarecrow. It puzzles me now to remember with what absurd sincerity I doted on this little toy, half fancying it alive and capable of sensation. I could not sleep unless it was folded in my nightgown; and when it lay there safe and warm, I was comparatively happy, believing it to be happy likewise. 

Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre (1847)

Pollock's Toy Museum
Childhood and the nineteenth century often seem to go hand in hand in the popular imagination. The Victorian period saw the growing popularity of fairytales, the plight of children as a central theme in the period’s novels and the golden age of children’s literature, with the publication of Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857), Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), Kingsley’s The Water Babies (1862) and many more. Here too is the emergence of the very idea of childhood as we know it, so it’s little surprise that visual reminders of the Victorian nursery still maintain popularity today – from the bonneted little girls on kitsch greetings cards, to the Victorian-style wooden rocking horses which serve as toys or ornaments in many houses around the country.

Before I left London, I spent an afternoon visiting Pollock’s Toy Museum – a small but maze-like museum filled with original toys from the period, and the twentieth century. Soldiers, dolls, teddy bears, and puppets stare out from glass cases – a little worn (like Jane’s doll), and maybe occasionally glass-eyed and creepy, but still very obviously objects of fun, elevated by the charm and novelty of age.

The elaborate dollhouses allow you to glimpse into middle class Victorian homes in miniature, while the toy theatres, for which Pollock’s is particularly famous, are grand and detailed, giving you an idea of the lavish sets for popular plays (including Cinderella, Aladdin and Black Beard the Pirate) and the experience of being in the theatre (the dress of the figures in the boxes, the attire of the conductor and orchestra). The more modern toys will make many feel nostalgic – or surprised at just how far back some games and toys date. There’s an action man from the 1920s, Meccano from 1907. Of socio-historical interest are then military toys linked to both World Wars and even the Falklands conflict. While the collection is mainly British, there are cases of American toys too and some of the nineteenth-century theatres are modelled after German and French playhouses.

The Secret Victorianist at Pollock's Toy Museum
For Victorianists, the magic lanterns, kaleidoscopes and stereoscopic viewers show how a preoccupation with early forays into photography and film trickled down to children’s toys – a pattern of reflecting adult concerns in child’s play which we see also in the ‘space’ toys which start to come to prominence from the 1940s.

If you’re in London and passing by Goodge Street, the museum is worth a visit. For £6 an adult you can indulge your inner child, and transport yourself back to a Victorian schoolroom.

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