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Springthorpe: Waxworks, Views, Concerts, Marionettes
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Waxwork exhibitions have been around since the eighteenth century (Warner 18), and although waxworks are generally “static” exhibitions, I would suggest that there is more than a little of the theatrical about them. The public moves around the rooms of a waxwork exhibition looking at the various representations of monarchs, politicians and criminals – this surely fits into a view of “theatre”, as the public must suspend their disbelief to consider the representations before them. Great skill goes into the creation of lifelike figures with convincing eyes and veins, and the waxwork must look as if it is about to breathe. Yet in the manner of being viewed, such a waxwork is not entirely akin to the work of the portrait sculptor, it is much nearer to the marionette figures – minus the caricaturing – of the fairground booths. Even the costume requires authenticity, just as on the stage. All of this requires a certain input from the public: a suspension of disbelief and a willingness to engage in the life story or life events of the characters being represented. I would suggest this makes the waxwork exhibition entirely different to a display of sculpture or paintings in a gallery. Some waxworks had a certain degree of movement, although this would have been considerably less than a marionette or other puppet figure is capable of. Waxworks were often to be found in the fairground, along with penny theatres and puppet show-booths. Although devoid of any dramatic performance as such, the effect on the public must have been theatrical, as they considered the lives of the kings or queens, or the horrific actions of the murderer whose wax representation stood before them. Some writers may have a broadly similar viewpoint: Pamela Pilbeam observes that waxworks are a form of theatre (Pilbeam 233), and in a comparison between waxworks and playing with dolls, Marina Warner states that “similar powers of projection invest the stubborn, inanimate, horrible thing with life, with soul” (Warner 55).

This study will consider the Springthorpe waxwork exhibitions which were very popular in the mid-nineteenth century, particularly in Scotland, the North of England, and in Ireland. The Springthorpe family extended their entertainment fare to include variety concerts which could include singing, comedy, clog dancing and ventriloquists, and in the final years of the company’s existence they were marionette proprietors. Most of the references included here are in respect of appearances in Scotland, simply because that is the geographical focus of my own researches. There is no doubt that similar researches conducted elsewhere in these isles of Britain would produce yet more material on the Springthorpe enterprise, and would contribute considerably to an understanding of the scale of their operation, which ran from the late 1820s for almost fifty years.

In the middle part of the nineteenth century there appears to have been no shortage of entertainments and amusements in Aberdeen. There were a mixture of local and itinerant performers, and also those better-known such as Professor Devon the ventriloquist, who had achieved at least a degree of success and who were touring the country. There were theatricals, marionettes, Punch & Judy, jugglers and circuses. We can read William Skene’s remembrances of some of the theatrical amusements in Aberdeen, at this point recalling the 1840s and 1850s:

Springthorpe was another, with his waxwork … There were panoramas and dioramas innumerable, threepenny circuses and theatres, Scott’s Penny Theatre in John Street, and Giles’s Penny Theatre, or “Rattler” as it was called, in the Bool Road, and street acrobats galore … whenever there was an empty shop between terms, it was taken by one or other of those worthies, and improvised into a penny show. I remember that, one winter, in Union Buildings alone there were two rival marionette shows running, conducted respectively by Tammy Fraser and Sandy Ruddiman, the joiner, a capital hand at the business. It was an open question with the boys which was the better.

The earliest reference I have come across to their entertainments is in an article describing some of the shows and amusements that used to visit Aberdeen (Bulloch 190), where we can read: “1823 – In June, Springthorpe’s Waxworks appeared. They...

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