Janina Parol, Assistant Treasure Registrar, and Dora Thornton, Curator of Renaissance Europe, British Museum
If you walk by the north bank of the Thames when the tide is low you will spot mudlarks searching for finds, even when it is windy, raining and freezing. You might think they are crazy, but you will certainly be curious to know what they have found – if they are prepared to get that muddy and wet there must be a reason. Mudlarks can spend hours waiting to catch the right tide, but for the hundreds of hours that are spent out there in all conditions some of the last things we imagine them being interested in are toys.
But interested they are. One in particular has discovered a huge number from the medieval and post-medieval periods. Tony Pilson, the highly-regarded founder member of the Society of Thames Mudlarks, has generously donated a selection of these toys to the British Museum. This matches his gift of London toy finds to the Museum of London, which forms the basis of the foremost book on medieval and post-medieval toys, Toys, Trifles & Trinkets by Hazel Forsyth and the late Geoff Egan. We have now registered our toy collection from Tony Pilson on our collection database. The range is extraordinary: from miniature muskets, cauldrons and porringers, watch parts, tools, animals and detailed tableware.
Looking through this collection we soon realise that many tears must have been shed by children over their beloved toys, which suddenly fell out of their grasp and over a bridge or wall with no possibility of rescue. Thomas Richardson’s The City from Bankside, painted around 1816–1825, shows a small girl playing on one of the wharves where blocks of stone are being prepared for shipping. Looking at her, it is all too easy to understand how playthings were lost in the Thames. One doll in the Pilson collection in the British Museum, found at Bull Wharf in London, takes us close to her original owner, a small girl in late Tudor London. The doll is a rare find; her closest comparison in the Museum of London was also found on the Thames foreshore and donated by Tony Pilson. The British Museum doll is cast in lead alloy and is almost complete. Her dress is so exactly detailed that she can be dated to the late 1500s. She wears a heart-shaped hood, a fitted bodice which is laced at the back and a full skirt, which opens at the front to reveal a kirtle or underskirt. A sweetmeat bag hangs from her waist.
We know very little about who made these hollow-cast dolls, but we think they were sold at city fairs such as St Bartholomew’s Fair at Smithfield in London. Elizabeth I’s entertainer, the oddly-named Ippolita the Tartarian, had ‘one baby of pewter’ bought for her in 1562, which might have looked a bit like this one. Could lead alloy dolls have been less expensive versions of the larger dolls made of ceramic and dressed in the latest style, which were imported into England from abroad? A Dutch print of 1632 shows these grander dolls for sale at a toy stall at a city fair. Any parent will recognise the scene of a little girl exercising pester power. Her mother smiles as she opens her purse, the stall-holder looks on indulgently while the family dog sits waiting. The Dutch inscription points a moral with a strongly Protestant commercial ethos: ‘Well set-out is half sold.’
That marketing drive perhaps explains why dolls, or ‘babies brought out of England’, were given as presents to Algonquin people by English traders in Virginia in the 1590s as attractive presents ‘which we thought they delighted in’. A doll can be much more than a doll. Toys given to little girls were useful ways of winning over their mothers, as women often acted as intermediaries between Native Americans and the new English settlers. John White’s watercolour of the wife of a chief of Pomeiooc and her daughter shows a doll like the ones on the toy stall in the print. The English were cultivating new markets.
But even in Europe, dolls were not just playthings or useful diplomatic gifts. They might have been display pieces for adults, or curios for collectors with a taste for miniatures. In other cultures, dolls have an independent life. In Japan, for example, dolls were displayed in the households of families with daughters at the annual doll festival held on 3 March every year since the 1600s. With the opening of Yokohama to world trade in 1859, many Japanese people became intensely curious about foreign customs – particularly in relation to children – and the city had a European community. Perhaps that is why the Dutch print seen here appealed so strongly to the artist Utagawa Sadahide (1807-1873) that he copied it as a colour woodblock print. A quick comparison reveals how Sadahide retained the hobby horses stuck into a barrel; the drums on sticks; the toy trumpets; and even the folds of the women’s dresses. But the central doll in Sadahide’s print is no plaything: it has a formal presence relating to Japanese tradition. In translating a European print into an unmistakably Japanese idiom, Sadahide demonstrates how dolls as miniature human figures attract us across continents and centuries.
Postscript (added 9 January 2015):
We wrote this blog in Tony Pilson’s honour and to thank him for his generosity to the British Museum and the Museum of London in donating substantial collections of small finds accumulated over many years. We were very sorry to hear of his death, on 24 November 2014, but we hope that this small tribute can serve as our way of remembering him. His legacy is upheld in the work of the Society of Thames Mudlarks, who continue to search the foreshore and record their finds with the Museum of London.
Anyone can walk along the Thames foreshore, but scraping or digging is strictly regulated by The Port of London Authority and there are different levels of searching, from eyes only to scraping and using a metal detector. There are prohibited areas and permission should always be sought.