The publisher William West was one of the pioneers of toy theater print production in England in the early nineteenth century. He both engraved and published prints for sets of character sheets. From the way they are arranged on the sheet, using every bit of available space, it is easy to see that these figures were meant to be cut out. In addition to purchasing all the necessary character sheets for one play, the owner of a toy theater might also buy a script containing a simplified version of that play. Each script would have been sold individually as a small pamphlet that was easy to hold with one hand while the other hand moved characters around on the stage.
The phrase “penny plain, twopence colored” originates with toy theater prints—both the character sheets and the theatrical portraits that came after. These prints could be purchased either plain—with the intention that purchasers would do the coloring themselves—or fully colored by the print shop. Once colored, a theatrical portrait would most likely be framed and hung on a wall in the home to be admired. You can see an example of a colored theatrical portrait to the right (top).
Playing with toy theaters and coloring theatrical portraits were activities primarily undertaken by boys, which probably explains why the most common portraits depict actors in the roles of warriors, pirates, or kings. But some girls and even adults took up the hobby of coloring these prints, so occasionally an actress, such as Sarah West in the role of Desdemona, is portrayed.
Theatrical portraits were taken one step further in what are known as "tinsel prints." After coloring the print, the purchaser would affix small bits of foil, fabric, and even leather to the actor’s costume in appropriate areas: foil for armor and jewelry, fabric for a kilt, or leather for a pair of boots. The foil could be purchased pre-cut or in sheets to be cut by hand. The finished result is multi-dimensional and truly dazzling (see image at bottom right).
Click the links at right to hear art cataloger Bettina Smith discuss colored and uncolored theatrical portraits, as well as an example of a lavishly embellished tinsel print.