Clown marionette, Tiller-Clowes troupe, 1870s-1890s, Museum no. S.294-1999

Clown marionette, Tiller-Clowes troupe, 1870s-1890s, Museum no. S.294-1999

In the 19th century, English marionette (string puppet) troupes were world-famous and popular with adults and children alike. Troupes toured the country in the UK and abroad, setting up temporary theatres seating 200-700 people at fairs or on village greens, and playing in established music halls and theatres.

They were run by families whose members carved, dressed, strung and operated the marionettes in short plays based on popular entertainments including pantomimes and melodramas. A band would advertise the shows and play during the performances.

Tiller-Clowes marionettes

The V&A's set of 35 Tiller-Clowes figures is the largest to survive from a 19th-century touring marionette theatre in Britain. In 1873 the Tiller and Clowes families joined forces, flourishing in various combinations until World War I began in 1914. Their marionettes and scenic backdrops lay in store for almost 30 years until they were rescued by Gerald Morice and George Speaight, and more recently revived by John Phillips.

The lightbox below shows a selection of string puppets, or marionettes, held in the Theatre collections including marionettes from the Tiller-Clowes troupe.

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