"This was an exhibition called the Fantoccini, and far superior to any of the street performances which I have yet seen." W. Wells Brown, Three Years in EuropeWe are all familiar with the Punch and Judy show, that staple of the Victorian seaside, long presented in the streets of the cities of Britain. But there was another street performer who eclipsed Punch's popularity briefly and was the delight of crowds of children and adults.
The Fantoccini had a long history. They were brought from Italy, as was Punch, and their popularity soared in the eighteenth century. They were exhibited, with performances, in small theatres all over Britiain. An exhibition is reported at Hickford's Room, James Street in the Haymarket, in 1770. And in 1780 there was another presentation, at No. 22 Piccadilly.
But it was a Scotsman named Gray who is credited with taking the Fantoccini into the streets of London.
"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."It appears that he operated in the first decades of the nineteenth century. His stage was about the size of a Punch and Judy theatre, and his figures were about nine inches high. He made, by all accounts, a very good living performing in the streets as well as in theatres, and eventually presented a show for George IV.
|Typical street show of puppets|
"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."No small feat, to transport this apparatus around London--"..cornerpitching, as we call it; that is, at the corner of a street where there is a lot of people passing." The Fantoccini man must have employed a porter to assist him. Certainly he did employ a musician--pandean pipes--"I didn't like to make my first appearance in London without music". He carved his own fantoccini, and took pride in costuming them in fine dress.
He made a fine career of the Fantoccini and made excellent money from his creations, "Where Punch took a shilling we've taken a pound". He operated in direct competition to Gray and, it seems, soon eclipsed the other.
He described for Mayhew his programme, thus:
"We begins with a female hornpipe dancer; then there is a set of quadrilles...After this we introduces a representation of Mr. Grimaldi the clown, who does tumbling and posturing, and a comic dance. Then comes the enchanted Turk. ... The next performance is the old lady...then there's the tight-rope dancer, and next the Indian juggler...the Polander, who balances a pole and two chairs...then comes the Skeletons...it frightens the children... The performance, to go through the whole of it, takes an hour and a half..."Certainly an extensive show--and this Fantoccini man undertook, as well as his street work, evening parties, Christmas parties, and even performed for Princess Victoria, and the Duke of Wellington! It must have been delightful.
W. Wells Brown, whose quote opened this post, also said,
"Many who would turn away in disgust from Mr. Punch, will stand for hours and look at the performances of the Fantoccini...they can hardly fail to have a hearty laugh..There may be degrees of absurdity in the manner of wasting our time, but there is an evident affectation in decrying these humble and innocent exhibitions,..."
Would that we could experience such a charming performance on our chill and crowded streets...
'Til next time,