Toys ‘r’ Me

John Alden has been volunteering at Hove Museum & Art Gallery for two years. He is researching into the history of the toy collection with particular emphasis on former curator and toy maker Yootha Rose. A toy maker himself, John’s interest lies in the relationship between craft and play in handmade toy production.

During his research, John plans to write a few blogs about the toy collection and its history.

For nearly 80 years toys have played an important part in my life, playing, learning, making, restoring, dealing and collecting.

In the early 1970s I was working with the Singing Tree, a well known shop in the Kings Road, Chelsea, designing and making miniature items for their extensive range of dolls house furniture, when I first heard the name Yootha Rose. I saw a picture of one of the toys that she made and it was, as they say “love at first sight” and I was determined to discover more.

The next 25 years were a busy time in my life and I had little time for research, although I visited a number of museums including the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green and Brighton and Hove museums but at that time none had examples of her work on display. This was surprising considering her very considerable involvement with their toy collections. She was considered by Leslie Daiken the author of a number of authoritative books about children’s games and toys, to be “in the first rank of British toymaker-artists”.

By 2003 I had still not seen a single item made by Yootha and then my luck changed, I found not one but two pieces of her work for sale and immediately bought them both. One a Punch and Judy show complete with attentive children, mother and nursemaid, is shown here. The other, a toy shop with numerous miniature toys including a Noah’s ark with animals marching two by two, each smaller than my little finger nails.

This find refocused my search for her toys, details of her life and other work, for she was not restricted to toy making but contributed greatly to the preservation, presentation and promotion of antique toys. The following details of her life and work are extracted from the catalogue of her retrospective exhibition at the Royal Pavilion Art Gallery in 1975 a copy of which is in the archives of the Hove Museum & Art Gallery.

She was involved with the theatre from childhood and gravitated from dancing and acting roles to stage and costume design in the mid 1920s. She created designs for a number of revues including the Concert Party and the Hampstead Revue. In 1929, Sir Donald Playfair commissioned her to design the costumes for La Vie Parisienne establishing her reputation as a stage designer. This was followed by Dandy Dick at The Lyric (1930), Alice in Wonderland at the Little Theatre and Duke of York (1932—34) and Shock Headed Peter at Wimbledon (1934). Paintings, drawings and designs for these featured in the 1975 exhibition at the Royal Pavilion.

Whilst teaching at a boys’ school in Dorset during the Second World War she made some toys to fill the gaps on the village Christmas tree. This began her toy making career and was soon followed by an exhibition at The Little Gallery at Heals, London.

In 1945 sixteen of her toys went on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum Britain can Make It exhibition, sponsored by Heals, this resulted in her receiving orders for 20,000 of her toys – a target that she could never achieve.

Strongly against the mechanised production of toys, she resisted all attempts to mass produce her work. This ensured a vitality to her work that is a combination of bold colouring, vigorous carving and an imaginative use of materials. For example, the use of cotton reels for balloonists’ baskets and gold coloured doilies cut up to provide a rich gilding for the dresses of paper angels. The fantasy element in her work may be considered as a reinterpretation of childhood through adult eyes, explaining why her work has such a strong appeal to the collector.

She was also involved in the real world of children and designed stage sets and costumes for children’s plays The Nursery Romeo and Juliet, and The Land beyond the Mountains. These were accompanied by imaginative and simple instructions on how to build sets, and what materials to use. She also designed cut-out paper toys which were published in the magazine Child Education in 1938.

In 1952 she was appointed Trustee of the National Toy Museum and Institute of Play and when in l959 it moved to The Grange at Rottingdean, she became its Honorary Curator. This large and important collection is now at Hove Museum and Art Gallery.

In 1956 she was a founder member of the British Toymakers Guild and later organised a number of solo exhibitions at The County Town, Lewes, The Grange, Rottingdean and numerous Christmas exhibitions at The Ditchling Gallery. She also assisted with the exhibitions of Toys throughout the Ages and Model Soldiers at Park Lane London, Images d’ Epinal, Japanese Toys, and Cats at Pollocks Toy Museum, London and Penshurst Place toy museum in Kent.

In the last ten years my collection of the toys made by Yootha Rose has grown and in 2013 joined the volunteers at Hove Museum and Art Gallery who gave me access to their archives.

The collections and archives at Hove Museum and Art Gallery are large and my research so far has left me with more questions than answers about the craft persons who became involved with toy making in the post war period and the effect that they have had on the great British toy industry, but my research continues!

John Alden.

8 Responses

  1. Gordon Southwood

    Dear John
    Delighted to read your article. Yootha Rose was our neighbour with husband Mr Phillips, when my family moved to Liverpool Road in Kingston Upon Thames in 1950. We moved into 31 and they were living next door in 29 (a Victorian town house of 4 floors). Yootha used the coach house to the rear of her garden (backing on to Richmond Park) as her workshop to make her pieces. I was 8 in 1950 and am now aged 75. I remember them well.

    • Sally vella

      So pleased to hear your comments. I (my family) lived in nearby road. My Aunt who lived in Liverpool Road knew Yootha quite well, they were both very artistic. I remember visiting her in her studio on many occasions, and to this day I have some beautifully made pieces which I think were birthday presents etc.

  2. Charles Saumarez Smith

    My wife, Romilly Saumarez Smith (née Savage) was taken by her aunt, Priscilla Savage, who had been a friend and neighbour in Liverpool Road, to visit Yootha Rose in Brighton. She remembers that she had a decorated Christmas tree all the year round and thinks that she had lived in a ménage a trois in Liverpool Road. We have a fine, appliqued felt picture of a Russian fairground dated 1951, as well as a number of painted wooden boxes.

    • kevinbacon

      Thanks, Charles. I’ve passed this on to the curator of the collection.

  3. Nandita

    I met Yootha Rose, when I was a child of about 8 or 9 I think (though I may have been a bit older) In the early 70’s anyway. I was obsessed with making and crafting (still am!) and my grandmother who knew her arranged it. I was taken to what seemed a vast house, full of toys-I remember some Russian dolls in jewel like colours and some little birds that pecked a round circular thing that turned around. She took hours showing me round, starting at the bottom and working upwards, showing me her treasures, some of them were dusty and I remember her saying she couldn’t dust them all; once she got to the top of the house she would have to come down and start again. She seemed ancient to me, like someone who was part of this amazing and magical house. I thought she must have been there for ever and would never leave. I didn’t know the house was in Brighton, it just stood in my mind as the memory of an absolutely enchanting and awe inspiring day.

  4. Fiona Adams

    I have a Yootha Rose Christmas centre piece comprising of two circular wooden levels with a Christmas tree and 7 figures in a variety of national costumed around the top one. It is designed with little candle holder on the base.

  5. Georgina

    My family lived up the road from Yootha (Claremont Terrace) during the 70s and knew her well. For a child, her house was a magical place. Packed with toys. She had a small workshop in the garden. I stayed there once while my parents were away and was spoiled rotten. I remember playing the piano one-fingered in the front room. Her companion Sheila was a little scary for a child and a bit of a recluse. Yootha’s toys are magical but so are her paintings. I have some toys, drawings and some wonderful Christmas angels that were well loved and in dire need of restoration.

  6. Julia Shvekky

    I was fascinated by your article! I was given a gypsy caravan by Yootha Rose when I was a child and would like to know if it has value but needs a little repair and how can I go about that?

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