After working at this Museum for decades I still find it breathtaking uncovering the treasures we have buried away down in our vaults. An academic from New Zealand emailed me to have a look at a French children’s toy theatre, “La Pleine Mer” (The Open Sea). I vaguely knew about it but never got it all out. What an amazing and incredibly rare object. You can think of it as natural history and French exploration colliding with education and entertainment for children.
The theatre has 27 printed and hand-coloured lithographic cardboard pieces with scenes set in the South Pacific. The backdrop has two French ships under sail, the middle ground a vaudeville-style group of five waves to give a bit of depth and a foreground of lush tropical vegetation around a reef battered by breakers.
The theatre, which was made J. Pintard, Rue Saint-Jacques, Paris, in 1836, has 6 scripts (in French) and lithographs produced by Charles Letaille. The idea was that an adult or older child read the script while younger children slid in or attached a number of loose pieces including boats and individual figures inserted into the scene as directed in the play.
This all sounds fairly standard for a children’s toy theatre until you look carefully at the content of the script, which we’ve had translated. They give the most amazing and exotic descriptions of maritime adventures and aspects of Australia, New Zealand, the Solomon Islands and New Guinea in the 1830s which couldn’t be more further removed from the lives of the wealthy French children for whom it was made.
One play, “The Whale” describes a whale hunt and tells children about the uses of whale products (whale rib bones for umbrellas and whale fat boiled on board in large vats for oil). It concludes with the gruesome description of the crampon-wearing sailors climbing over the carcass of the whale tied to the side of the ship to remove the ribs, skin and fat.
Another one, “The Shark” begins with a deceptively tranquil description of a ship becalmed in the hot tropics. The pace picks up quickly with nail biting anticipation as it is revealed that the ship’s master is repeatedly diving from the ship hauling himself up on a rope to cool off from the heat while a short distance away a shark’s fin creates a “frothing shimmering wake”. Climbing into a small boat, the sailors go to his rescue. Gripped with fear they “could all foresee the struggle that was about to take place between themselves and the shark; a terrible struggle with a man as the contest”. Ironically, the victim in the play ends up being the 16-foot shark which is split open by the ship’s cook. In a play which initially evokes terror the mood is transformed into humour when the sailors discover that a man’s otter-skin hat belonging to the ship’s doctor is inside the shark’s stomach. (Clothes and belongings hung over the side of ships were regularly eaten by sharks).
The really interesting thing about the lithographic images and the content of the plays can be traced to paintings, books and journals of the period. According to Louise Mitchell, a former Powerhouse Curator, who wrote about the theatre in her article “La Pleine Mer Sailing over a cardboard sea” in “The Australian Antique Collector”, in 1988, the lithograph depicting New Holland natives tumbling from their capsized canoe while spearing fish, can be traced to an illustration by the Scottish engraver and miniaturist, John Heaviside Clark (c.1777-1863). Clark had never seen Australian aborigines but adhered to the popular European imagery of them as being noble and savage sportsmen. The illustration appeared in a book published in London in 1813 with the title “Field sports … of the Native Inhabitants of New South Wales”. The shark attack lithograph was derived from the well-known American romantic horror-painting of 1778 by John Singleton Copley (1738-1815) “Watson and the Shark”.
In keeping with most toymakers of the period, the theatre’s manufacturer, Pintard produced a variety of toys and related material aimed at educating children in art, geography, scripture, history and natural history. This theatre looked at navigation, maritime life, exploration, geography and the people of the Pacific. Advertising his stock at the conclusion of the “La Pleine Mer” script, he claimed that the moral teaching in its purest form is the basis of all these little educational works. Not only is this toy probably one of the earliest in our collection directly related to Australia but the stories, the humour, the melodrama and images are as fresh today as they were in 1836.
Post by Margaret Simpson, Curator