The Fantoccini," he said, "is the proper title of the exhibition of dancing dolls, though it has lately been changed to that of the "Marionettes," owing to the exhibition under that name at the Adelaide Gallery.
That exhibition at the Adelaide Gallery was very good in its way, but it was nothing to be compared to the exhibition that was once given at the Argyll Rooms in Regent-street, (that"s the old place that was burned down). It was called "Le petit Théâtre Matthieu," and in my opinion it was the best one that ever come into London, because they was well managed. They did little pieces—heavy and light. They did Shakespeare"s tragedies and farces, and singing as well; indeed, it was the real stage, only with dolls for actors and parties to speak for "em and work their arms and legs behind the scenes. I"ve known one of these parties take three parts—look at that for clever work —first he did an old man, then an old woman, and afterwards the young man. I assisted at that performance, and I should say it was full twenty years ago, to the best of my recollection. After the Marionettes removed to the Western Institution, Leicester-square, I assisted at them also. It was a passable exhibition, but nothing out of the way. The figures were only modelled, not carved, as they ought to be. I was only engaged to exhibit one figure, a sailor of my own making. It was a capital one, and stood as high as a table. They wanted it for the piece called the "Manager in Distress," where one of the performers is a sailor. Mine would dance a hornpipe, and whip its hat off in a minute; when I had finished performing it, I took good care to whip it into a bag, so that they should not see how I arranged the strings, for they was very backwards in their knowledge. When we worked the figures it was very difficult, because you had to be up so high—like on the top of the ceiling, and to keep looking down all the time to manage the strings. There was a platform arranged, with a place to rest against.
The first to introduce the Fantoccini into London—that is, into London streets, mind you, going about—was Gray, a Scotchman. He was a very clever fellow,—very good, and there was nothing but what was good that belonged to it—scenery, dresses, theatre and all. He had a frame then, no longer than the Punch frame now, only he had a labouring man to carry it for him, and he took with him a box no larger than a haberdasher"s box, which contained the figures, for they were not more than nine inches high. Now my figures are two feet high, though they don"t look it; but my theatre is ten feet high by six foot wide, and the opening is four feet high. This Gray was engaged at all the theatres, to exhibit his figures at the masquerades. Nothing went down but Mr. Gray, and he put poor Punch up altogether. When he performed at the theatres, he used to do it as a wind--up to the entertainment, after the dancing was over, and
they would clear the stage on purpose for him, and then let down a scene with an opening in it, the size of his theatre. On these occasions his figures were longer, about two feet, and very perfect. There was juggling, and slack and tight rope-dancing, and Punches, and everything, and the performance was never less than one hour, and then it was done as quick as lightning, every morning, and no feat longer than two or three minutes. It didn"t do to have silly persons there.
This Gray performed at Vauxhall when Bish, the lottery-man in Cornhill, had it, and he went down wonderful. He also performed before George the Fourth. I"ve heard say that he got ten pounds a-week when he performed at Vauxhall, for they snatched him out of the streets, and wouldn"t let him play there. It"s impossible to say what he made in the streets, for he was a Scotchman and uncommon close. If he took a hatfull, he"d say, "I"ve only got a few;" but he did so well he could sport his diamond rings on his fingers,—first rate— splendid.
Gray was the first to exhibit gratis in the streets of London, but he was not the first to work fantoccini figures. They had always been exhibited at theatres before that, Old Porsini knowed nothing about them—it was out of his business all together, for he was Punch and nothing more. Gray killed Porsini and his Punch; regular shut him up. A man of the name of Flocton from Birmingham was, to the best of my knowledge, the first that ever had a fantoccini exhibition in England; but he was only for theatres.
At this time I had been playing in the orchestra with some travelling comedians, and Mr. Seawood, the master, used among other things to exhibit the dancing figures. He had a proscenium fitted up so that he could open a twenty-foot theatre, almost large enough for living persons. He had the splendidest figures ever introduced into this country. He was an artist as well, splendid scene and transparent painter; indeed, he"s worked for some of the first noblemen in Cheltenham, doing up their drawing-rooms. His figures worked their eyes and mouths by mechanism; according to what they had to say, they looked and moved their eyes and mouths according; and females, if they was singing, heaved their bosoms like Christians, the same as life. He had a Turk who did the tight-rope without anybody being seen. He always performed different pieces, and had a regular wardrobe with him—beautiful dresses—and he"d dress "em up to their parts, and then paint their faces up with distemper, which dries in an hour. Somebody came and told me that Gray was in London, performing in the streets, and that"s what brought me out. I had helped Mr. Seawood to manage the figures, and I knew something about them. They told me Gray had a frame, and I said, "Well, it"s a bit of genius, and is a fortune." The only
figures they told me he had—and it was true —was a sailor, and a Turk, and a clown, and what we calls a Polander, that"s a man that tosses the pole. I left Seawood directly, and I went to my father and got some money, and began instantly making my frame and figures. Mine was about sixteen inches high, and I had five of "em. I began very strong. My fifth figure was a juggler. I was the second that ever came out in the streets of London. It was at the time that George the Fourth went to Scotland, and Gray went after him to try his luck, following the royal family. As the king went out of London I came in. I first of all put up at Peckham, just to lay to a bit and look about me. I"ll tell you the reason. I had no one to play, and I couldn"t manage the figures and do the music as well, consequently I had to seek after some one to do the pandean pipes. I didn"t like to make my first appearance in London without music. At last I met a party that used to play the pipes at Vauxhall. I met him one day, and he says, "What are you up to now?" so I told him I had the fantoccini figures. He was a beautiful pipe player, and I"ve never heard any one like him before or since. He wouldn"t believe I had the figures, they was such a novelty. I told him where I was staying, and he and his partner came over to see me, and I performed the figures, and then we went on shares. he had worked for Gray, and he knew all his houses where he used to perform, and I knew nothing about these things. When Gray came back he found me performing before one of his houses in Harley-street, where he always had five shiliings.
They was a tremendous success—wonderful. If we had a call at a house our general price was two-and-sixpence, and the performance was, for a good one, twenty minutes. Then there was the crowd for the collection, but they was principally halfpence, and we didn"t care about them much, though we have taken four shillings. We never pitched only to houses, only stopping when we had an order, and we hadn"t occasion to walk far, for as soon as the tune was heard, up would come the servants to tell us to come. I"ve had three at me at once. I"ve known myself to be in Devonshire-place, when I was performing there, to be there for three hours and upwards, going from house to house. I could tell you how much we took a-day. It was, after taking expenses, from four to five pounds a-day. Besides, there was a labourer to whom we paid a guinea a-week to carry a frame, and he had his keep into the bargain. Where Punch took a shilling we"ve taken a pound.
I recollect going down with the show to Brighton, and they actually announced our arrival in the papers, saying, that among other public amusements they had the Fantoccini figures from London. That"s a fact. That was in the paper. We did well in Brighton.
We have, I can assure you, taken eighteen shillings and sixpence in half an hour, cornerpitching, as we call it; that is, at the corner of a street where there is a lot of people passing. We had such success, that the magistrates sent the head-constable round with us, to clear away the mob. If we performed before any gentleman"s place, there was this constable to keep the place clear. A nasty busy fellow he was, too. All the time we was at Brighton we made twenty pounds a-week clear, for we then took only shillings and sixpences, and there was no fourpenny pieces or threepenny bits in them times. We had gentlemen come up many a time and offer to buy the whole concern, clear. What an idea, wasn"t it? But we didn"t want to sell it, they couldn"t have given us our price.
The crowd was always a great annoyance to us. They"d follow us for miles, and the moment we pitched up they"d come and gather about, and almost choke us. What was their ha"pence to us when we was taking our halfcrowns? Actually, in London, we walked three and four miles to get rid of the mob; but, bless you! we couldn"t get rid of them, for they was like flies after honey.
We used to do a great business with evening parties. At Christmas we have had to go three and four times in the same evening to different parties. We never had less than a guinea, and I have had as much as five pounds, but the usual price was two pounds ten shillings, and all refreshments found you. I had the honour of performing before the Queen when she was Princess Victoria. It was at Gloucester-house, Park-lane, and we was engaged by the royal household. A nice berth I had of it, for it was in May, and they put us on the landing of the drawing-room, where the folding-doors opened, and there was some place close by where hot air was admitted to warm the apartments; and what with the heat of the weather and this "ere ventilation, with the heat coming up the grating-places, and my anxiety performing before a princess, I was near baked, and the perspiration quite run off me; for I was packed up above, standing up and hidden, to manage the figures. There was the maids of honour coming down the stairs like so many nuns, dressed all in white, and the princess was standing on a sofa, with the Duke of Kent behind her. She was apparently very much amused, like others who had seen them. I can"t recollect what we was paid, but it was very handsome and so forth.
I"ve also performed before the Baroness Rothschild"s, next the Duke of Wellington"s, and likewise the Baron himself, in Grosvenorplace, and Sir Watkyn W. Wynne, and half the nobility in England. We"ve been in the very first of drawing-rooms.
I shall never forget being at Sir Watkyn Wynne"s, for we was very handsomely treated, and had the best of everything. It was in
St. James"s-square, and the best of mansions. It was a juvenile-party night, and there was a juggler, and a Punch and Judy, and our Fantoccini. One of the footmen comes up, and says he, "Would any of you men like a jelly?" I told him I didn"t care for none, but the Punchand-Judy man says—"My missus is very partial to them." So the footman asks—"How will you carry it home?" I suggested he should put it in his hat, and the foolish fellow, half silly with horns of ale, actually did, and wrapped it up in his pocket-handkerchief. There was a large tumbler full. By and by he cries—"Lord, how I sweat!" and there was the stuff running down his hair like so much size. We did laugh, I can assure you.
Fantoccini has fallen off now. It"s quite different to what it was. I don"t think the people"s tired of it, but it ain"t such a novelty. I could stop up a whole street if I liked, so that nothing could get along, and that shows the people ain"t tired of it. I think it"s the people that gave the half-crowns are tired of it, but those with the ha"pence are as fond of it as ever. As times go, the performance is worth two pounds a-week to me; and if it wasn"t, I couldn"t afford to stop with it, for I"m very clever on the violin, and I could earn more than thirty shillings a-week playing in bands. We still attend evening parties, only it isn"t to princesses, but gentry. We depend more upon evening parties. It isn"t street work, only if we didn"t go round they"d think I was dead. We go to more than thirty parties a-year. We always play according to price, whether it"s fifteen shillings, or ten shillings, or a guinea. We don"t get many five-guinea orders now. The last one was six months ago, to go twenty-eight miles into Kent, to a gentleman"s house. When we go to parties, we take with us a handsome, portable, fold-up frame. The front is beautiful, and by a firstrate artist. The gentleman who done it is at the head of the carriage department at a railway, and there"s the royal arms all in gold, and it stands above ten feet high, and has wings and all, so that the music and everything is invisible. It shuts up like a portfolio. The figures are first-rate ones, and every one dressed according to the country, whatever it may be, she is supposed to represent. They are in the best of material, with satin and lace, and all that"s good.
When we perform in the streets, we generally go through this programme. We begins with a female hornpipe dancer; then there is a set of quadrilles by some marionette figures, four females and no gentleman. If we did the men we should want assistance, for four is as much as I can hold at once. It would require two men, and the street won"t pay for it. After this we introduces a representation of Mr. Grimaldi the clown, who does tumbling and posturing, and a comic dance, and so forth, such as trying to catch a butterfly. Then comes the enchanted Turk. He comes
on in the costume of a Turk, and he throws off his right and left arm, and then his legs, and they each change into different figures, the arms and legs into two boys and girls, a clergyman the head, and an old lady the body. That figure was my own invention, and I could if I like turn him into a dozen; indeed, I"ve got one at home, which turns into a parson in the pulpit, and a clerk under him, and a lot of little charity children, with a form to sit down upon. They are all carved figures, every one of them, and my own make. The next performance is the old lady, and her arms drop off and turn into two figures, and the body becomes a complete balloon and car in a minute, and not a flat thing, but round—and the figures get into the car and up they go. Then there"s the tight-rope dancer, and next the Indian juggler—Ramo Samee, a representation—who chucks the balls about under his feet and under his arms, and catches them on the back of his head, the same as Ramo Samee did. Then there"s the sailor"s hornpipe— Italian Scaramouch (he"s the old style). This one has a long neck, and it shoots up to the top of the theatre. This is the original trick, and a very good one. Then comes the Polander, who balances a pole and two chairs, and stands on his head and jumps over his pole; he dresses like a Spaniard, and in the old style. It takes a quarter of an hour to do that figure well, and make him do all his tricks. Then comes the Skeletons. They"re regular first class, of course. This one also was my invention, and I was the first to make them, and I"m the only one that can make them. They are made of a particular kind of wood. I"m a first-rate carver, and can make my three guineas any day for a skull; indeed, I"ve sold many to dentists to put in their window. It"s very difficult to carve this figure, and takes a deal of time. It takes full two months to make these skeletons. I"ve been offered ten pounds ten shillings for a pair, if I"d make "em correct according to the human frame. Those I make for exhibiting in the streets, I charge two pounds each for. They"re good, and all the joints is correct, and you may put "em into what attitudes you like, and they walk like a human being. These figures in my show come up through a trap-door, and perform attitudes, and shiver and lie down, and do imitations of the pictures. It"s a tragic sort of concern, and many ladies won"t have"em at evening parties, because it frightens the children. Then there"s Judy Callaghan, and that "livens up after the skeletons. Then six figures jump out of her pockets, and she knocks them about. It"s a sort of comic business. Then the next is a countryman who can"t get his donkey to go, and it kicks at him and throws him off, and all manner of comic antics, after Billy Button"s style. Then I do the skeleton that falls to pieces, and then becomes whole again. Then there"s another out of-the-way comic figure that falls to pieces
similar to the skeleton. He catches hold of his head and chucks it from one hand to the other. We call him the Nondescript. We wind up with a scene in Tom and Jerry. The curtain winds up, and there"s a watchman prowling the streets, and some of those larking gentlemen comes on and pitch into him. He looks round and he can"t see anybody. Presently another comes in and gives him another knock, and then there"s a scuffle, and off they go over the watch-box, and down comes the scene. That makes the juveniles laugh, and finishes up the whole performance merry like.
I"ve forgot one figure now. I know"d there was another, and that"s the Scotchman who dances the Highland fling. He"s before the watchman. He"s in the regular national costume, everything correct, and everything, and the music plays according to the performance. It"s a beautiful figure when well handled, and the dresses cost something, I can tell you; all the joints are counter--sunk—them figures that shows above the knee. There"s no joints to be seen, all works hidden like, something like Madame Vestris in Don Juan. All my figures have got shoes and stockings on. They have, indeed. If it wasn"t my work, they"d cost a deal of money. One of them is more expensive than all those in Punch and Judy put together. Talk of Punch knocking the Fantoccini down! Mine"s all show; Punch is nothing, and cheap as dirt.
I"ve also forgot the flower-girl that comes in and dances with a garland. That"s a very pretty figure in a fairy"s dress, in a nice white skirt with naked carved arms, nice modelled, and the legs just the same; and the trunks come above the knee, the same as them ballet girls. She shows all the opera attitudes.
The performance, to go through the whole of it, takes an hour and a half; and then you mustn"t stand looking at it, but as soon as one thing goes off the music changes and another comes on. That ain"t one third, nor a quarter of what I can do.
When I"m performing I"m standing behind, looking down upon the stage. All the figures is hanging round on hooks, with all their strings ready for use. It makes your arms ache to work them, and especially across the loins. All the strength you have you must do, and chuck it out too; for those four figures which I uses at evening parties, which dance the polka, weighs six pounds, and that"s to be kept dangling for twenty minutes together. They are two feet high, and their skirts take three quarters of a yard, and are covered with spangles, which gives "em great weight.
There are only two of us going about now with Fantoccini shows. Several have tried it, but they had to knock under very soon. They soon lost their money and time. In the first place, they must be musicians to make the figures keep time in the dances; and, again, they must be carvers, for it won"t pay to put
the figures out to be done. I had ten pounds the other day only to carve six figures, and the wood only come to three shillings; that"ll give you some idea of what the carving costs.
Formerly I used to make the round of the watering-places, but I"ve got quite enough to do in London now, and travelling"s very expensive, for the eating and drinking is so very expensive. Now, at Ramsgate I"ve had to pay half-a-guinea for a bed, and that to a man in my position is more than I like. I always pays the man who goes along with me to play the music, because I don"t go out every day, only when it suits me. He gets as good as his twenty-three shillings a-week, according to how business is, and that"s on an average as good as four shillings a-day. If I"m very lucky I makes it better for him, for a man can"t be expected to go and blow his life away into pandean pipes unless he"s well paid for it.