Friday, January 6, 2012

The Fantoccini Man

"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 Europe
We 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 man was well-known in the Regency era. Fantoccini is the Italian word for puppets, particularly puppets operated by strings. We know them as 'marionettes' a name which overtook 'fantocinni' in popularity in the middle years of the nineteenth century.

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
The quotes in this post (but for the first and last) are taken from the reminiscences of a Fantoccini man (never actually named) published in the book, London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew in 1851. This man, aged about fifty-five years, had worked in street performance nearly all his life. At one time, he was employed with a Mr. Seawood who used the 'dancing figures' and he learned the trade from Seawood. He realized the possibilities of the craft and he began to make his own frame (stage) and figures.

"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 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,



Anne Gallagher said...

You always have such interesting posts,Lesly-Anne. You must spend hours on research. Thanks for this reminder daily life in the Regency wasn't all balls and parties. And that there were other ways to make a living besides being a fish-monger.

Lesley-Anne McLeod said...

I was absolutely fascinated by the Fantoccini. I'd never heard the word before, much less known that the marionettes were presented as a street performance. The word did lead to lots of interesting research--when I should have been writing for my deadline of Jan. 14 for my WIP--new release in June.

Pete Clifford said...

I believe the "SEAWOOD" mentioned here was my 5 x great-grandfather Samuel SEWARD (c.1737-1810), or possibly his son of the same name (c.1788-1828), who seems to have taken over the travelling fantoccini exhibition after his father's death. I am descended from Samuel's son Abraham, who was a scene-painter.