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The Craven Collection of Theatrical Memorabilia

The Babette Craven collection of theatrical memorabilia is one of the finest compilations of early English porcelains and other objets de vertu assembled by any private collector in the post-war period. The Craven collection comprises eighteenth- and nineteenth-century porcelain figurines, plaques, tiles, boxes, ewers, jugs, portrait medallions, engravings, and playbills. It illuminates the impact of the English stage on an important aspect of the visual arts and complements the Folger Library's extensive holdings of Shakespearean memorabilia. Whereas Henry Folger acquired artifacts relating specifically to Shakespeare, Mrs. Craven collected more widely, acquiring some Shakespeare but also objects relating to other popular plays and playwrights, their characters, and the theatrical personalities of their time. The collection was a gift to the Folger Library from Mrs. Craven and her family.


Unlike their European counterparts, who depended upon wealthy patrons to insure their financial stability, English porcelain factories were, from the beginning, commercial operations. Growing demand and competition among factories challenged manufacturers to come up with new and novel designs for their creations. English porcelain manufacturing flourished at exactly the same time that

David Garrick dominated the English stage. Garrick (1717-1779) was the greatest and widest-ranging actor of his generation and was unsurpassed in such roles as Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear. He was equally admired in comedy.


The next actor of note was John Philip Kemble (1757-1823). At his best in heavy dramatic roles, Kemble was thought unfit for romantic parts despite his handsome appearance. He often played opposite his older sister Sarah Siddons (1755-1831), a widely acclaimed tragic actress whose most famous role was Lady Macbeth.


At the age of thirteen, William Henry West Betty (1791-1874) took the London theater world by storm. Excitement ran so high that the military had to be called out to maintain order in the streets outside the theater on his opening night. Master Betty, the "Young Roscius," was the brightest star of the London stage during the 1804-1805 season, playing such roles as Hamlet and Romeo. Prints, engravings, medals, and other memorabilia struck in his likeness filled all the shops. After his brief but hectic London success, audiences just as quickly turned against him, and he was hissed off the stage. His attempted comeback, years later, was virtually ignored.


One of the most popular actresses of the day was Dorothy Jordan (1761-1816). Jordan was known to London audiences as a fine comedienne. From 1791 to 1811 she was familiar to the public at large as the mistress of the Duke of Clarence (later King William IV) with whom she had ten children. She retired from the stage in 1814 and spent her last years in Paris.


Edmund Kean (1787-1833) was a strolling player until 1814, when he first acted Shylock at Drury Lane. He continued to delight audiences with villainous parts such as Macbeth, Iago, and Richard III.


The central feature of the Craven collection is the world's most comprehensive iconological collection of objects relating to John Liston, the leading comic actor of the first half of the nineteenth century. Liston was extremely popular and well respected in his day, even though he was a comedian competing with those great tragedians Kemble and Kean. After twenty years on the London stage, John Liston reached the summit of his career with the creation of his masterpiece character, Paul Pry in John Poole's play of the same name. Pry, a man consumed with curiosity, is an interfering busybody unable to mind his own business. With his striped trousers, hessian boots, tail coat, and top hat, Liston molded Pry into a uniquely endearing character. Most memorable was the umbrella that Pry conveniently left behind everywhere he went so that he would have an excuse to return and eavesdrop. The public became totally infatuated with John Liston and with Paul Pry. Effigies of Liston as Pry appeared on inn signs, in print shops, in the pottery warehouses, in the center of pocket handkerchiefs, stamped on butter, adorning snuff boxes, and in toyshops. The Staffordshire, Rockingham, Derby, and Worcester porcelain factories all produced figures of Paul Pry. One of the greatest theatrical hits of the age, Paul Pry was still being revived in the 1890s with Liston's performance imitated, dress and all.


For Liston there was never to be another part as memorable as Paul Pry, but the actor's popularity never waned. During his thirty-eight year career (from 1799 through 1837), Liston played in more than 600 roles. He was particularly adept at affecting unpolished manners, an awkward gait, and a variety of accents. He took particular care to select just the right costume and wig for each of his characters. No matter how bad the play or how silly the part, Liston always managed to captivate the audience. He was celebrated in prints and porcelain more than any other actor before or since.


The mass market for theatrical memorabilia that developed in the eighteenth century and flourished in the nineteenth century continues even to the present day. David Garrick, Sarah Siddons, and Paul Pry, who captivated the imaginations of earlier audiences and were immortalized on a wide range of products, have yielded to Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, and the vast array of Star Wars collectibles that mark today's fascination with the stage and screen.

David Garrick as Macbeth and Hamlet. Silver tea caddy, ca. 1775.

Plaque with four theatrical figures including Sarah Siddons and John Philip Kemble. Staffordshire, ca. 1800

William Henry West Betty playbill and souvenir boxes, ca. 1805-1807

John Liston as Paul Pry. Lithograph and ceramic figurines, ca. 18261830

Miniature of George  Frederick Cooke as Iago, ca. 1800; Paper-mache snuff box with portrait of Edmund Kean, ca. 1822

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Learn more about Englishman David Garrick, arguably the most famous eighteenth-century Shakespearian actor, and his theatrical circle.

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