Digital Library of the Week: “Penny Plains” and “Two-pence Coloured:” English Theatrical Portraits from NYPL

“Penny Plains” and “Two-pence Coloured:” English Theatrical Portraits 1799-1847 in the William Appleton Collection from the New York Public Library Digital Image Gallery includes over 300 English toy theatre portrait prints depicting characters for many different plays, including many of Shakespeare’s. ¬†Each portrait is based on a real actor who portrayed the character on stage. For example, here is Edmund Kean in character as Richard the Third:

Mr. Kean as Richard the Third
Mr. Kean as Richard the Third

This is a “two-pence coloured” print, named for its cost of two English pennies. “Penny plains” have no coloring and cost just one penny. Prints were often purchased by children, glued to firm cardboard, and the character cut out. It could then be used in toy theatre, with the stage and set design often created by the child (though soon these also became available for sale) and favorite plays were acted out, in miniature, at home.

To learn more about toy theatre, check out Toy Theatres of the World by Peter Baldwin. It’s in the Greenfield Library’s open stacks with call number 745.5928 B193t.

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