William Simmonds - Puppet Master


William Simmonds - Puppet Master


Photographs L - R, T - B :-

1. First Puppet Show Photo - taken at The Greenhouse, Brookside, Fovant Wiltshire in 1913
2. A Scene from 'The Circus'
3. A Scene from (?) 'A Seaport Town'
4. A Scene from a Show
5 - 8. Behind the Scenes
9. The reminiscences of Mrs Casty Cobb, William Simmonds Puppet Show assistant in the 1930's. Produced for the 1980 Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum of William and Eve Simmonds work.
10. Flyer for a season of Puppet shows at the Grafton Theatre in London
11. Review of the Grafton Puppet Shows taken from the London News, 8th June, 1924
12, 13. Puppet Show plans in Simmond's own hand


The following Article was part of the Simmonds Archive gifted to Oakridge History Group. We have been unable to track down the publisher and hope that there is no breach of copyright reproducing it here. The published article has handwritten corrections, probably by a family member.

by Jacqueline Sarsby, 1994

It is more than two decades since William Sim­monds'   puppets last appeared before an audi­ence. When they made their debut in London in the 1920s, they brought something to the stage that no other English marionettes had achieved. Not only were they beautiful to look at, but they moved easily and gracefully - and they could act.

As one reviewer put it, 'they could convey their miniature agony or gaiety'. The sailor danced the hornpipe, Estelle, the equestrian rider, rode the circus horse around the ring, the puppet kitten could jump from floor to table with one feline spring, and above the painted seaport backdrop, a seagull wheeled and soared. At private shows, children (and even dogs) sometimes had to be restrained from trying to seize the tiny, moving creatures, so fascinating and alive did they seem.

The puppets were designed, jointed and strung by an engineer, carved by a sculptor, and painted by an artist - Simmonds was a man of many talents. But puppets are ephemeral crea­tures: he died in 1968, and is better remem­bered now as a sculptor, whose work, at its best, has an affinity with Japanese carving. He had trained, however, as a painter and had consid­erable youthful success.

Simmonds was born on 3 March, 1876 in Constantinople and started to work half-time, at the age of 13, in his father's architectural office. Evening classes in art eventually led to a local scholarship at the National Art Training School (the Royal College), where he studied under Walter Crane, and to the Royal Acad­emy Painting Schools from 1899 to 1904. He exhibited ten paintings at the Academy, and in 1907 the Chantrey Bequest bought his water­colour, The Seeds of Love, for the Tate Gallery. He worked as an illustrator at this time, pro­ducing Biblical and classical colour-plates for Nelson's, but his most important commission was as one of the assistants to Edwin Austin Abbey, painting the decorations for the House of Representatives at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He also went on to oversee their installa­tion after Abbey's death.

Simmonds loved children, and he liked to make moving toys for them - a chariot for his nephew and niece to ride in, and subsequently a wooden elephant on wheels for the children of his friend, Ananda Coomeraswamy.

In March 1912, he married Eve Peart at Clapham Registry Office. Eve had also studied painting, and was an accomplished needle­woman. Later in the same year, when his father was dying, Simmonds sat with him for long periods and began to carve puppets 'for some­thing to do'. He gave his first puppet show in December, and from then on, carving and pup­petry were to be his most important artistic activities.
This first show was at a children's party at Fovant in Wiltshire, where William and Eve were living next door to her  brother's family. The first puppets were a clown, an old man, a piebald horse and Columbine. The backcloth was of a village fair, and William Wyatt, the garden boy, played the mouth organ and the base drum under the kitchen table.  

In an interview in the Manchester Guardian in 1922, Simmonds said he had 'seen a puppet show when (he) was four or five years old, which did a sort of play with many grotesque and queer features. (He) remembered a man whose head came off, a cheese taking its place, then another, then another, till (he) had ten cheeses in place of one head. There was another puppet that walked about with his head in his hands   ... ' These were the trick puppets which had become extremely popular in Victo­rian music halls.

Simmonds developed amusing surprises in his own shows, such as the  pantomime horse which suddenly divided in two, revealing a puppet inside the back end, or the scene shifters, who appeared in the interval, moving props and discussing their work in broad Gloucestershire accents. There was a   puppet who could paint a portrait on stage, and a miniature puppet show for the puppets them­selves to watch.

There were few other interesting puppet shows in England when he began. In 1917, he saw a performance by Clun Lewis, the old Irish puppeteer, but by this time Simmonds   was already giving shows at the Artworkers' Guild as well as privately in London. In 1922, he exhibited A Vitrine of Marionettes at the Inter­national Theatre Exhibition.

He was interested in European and Far Eastern marionettes and went to see visiting puppet theatres throughout the inter-war period. The puppeteer Gair Wilkinson was a close friend, and many other puppeteers, such as Harro Siegel from Berlin, later came to visit him. Although he had no obvious mentor, and few followers, he was not cut off from other puppet-masters, but his work was undoubtedly the result of his own unusual mix of talents, not least of which was engineering design.

In 1915, the Simmonds went to help with the war effort, staying in Alfred and Louise Pow­ell's house in Hampstead. William worked for Colonel Crompton on the design of the   first tank, and from 1917 with Captain de Havilland on aircraft design. One can see in his large­scale drawings for puppets, the same interest in the mechanics of movement which led him to aircraft, to windmills, even to   mangles as a child, as well as to moving toys and puppets.

After the war, the Simmonds went to live at Far Oakridge, Gloucestershire, an area where many of their artistic friends already had houses and patronage. Wealthy local families, such as the Biddulphs of Rodmarton Manor, and the Wills   family of Miserden, engaged his services. A private performance fee of £60 made the puppets an elite entertainment. In 1929 and 1930, they travelled to Eaton Hall in Cheshire to entertain the Duke Of Westmin­ster's guests after dinner, and on one occasion, the audience included Wrnston Churchill, asleep on a gilded chair!

Hostesses vied with one another to secure the puppets for   their par­ties, begging him to come, and deprecating the modest size of their rooms. They also played before the cream of the Arts and Crafts move­ment, either at London shows or in their homes: May Morris, Emery Walker, St. John Hornby, the Dolmetsches, the Rothensteins and many other friends.

The shows had a group of regular helpers: Catherine Cockerell handed Simmonds the puppets which he manipulated on stage. Eve played the virginals and the painter, Barnett Friedman, the fiddle, so that the puppets could dance to Cecil Sharp's country dances and Dol­metsch's musical arrangements.

Each show consisted of several playlets. In 1934, when they gave a rare season of public performances at the Grafton Theatre, London the programme began with the Harlequinade, then a serenade, followed by The Woodland, then the interval enlivened by The Scene   Shifters' Shift, followed by Mahogany Suite (a Victorian scene) or The Circus (on alternate evenings), and finishing with A Seaport Town.

Perhaps the best loved of these and the most faery-like was The Woodland, the scenery and the puppets for which are now at Gloucester Folk Museum. Last Christmas, when the the­atre was displayed publicly for the first time, one could see both Simmonds' artistry and his innovations. Centre   stage was a block, painted with trees, so that he could stand, hidden in the middle, with a semi-circle of stage around him, allowing him to move the puppets to the front of the stage or on either side of him. To the left were two little fauns caught in the wild dance of joy which comes at the end of the scene.
They are extraordinary, delicate little creatures with pointed,  wooden ears and cloven hooves. In the middle was the stag, lying as immobile as he must have been in the play, his joints loosened in death, his coat a smoothly painted surface. Behind a tree knelt the bearded forester, dressed by Eve in medieval tippet and tunic, his bow across his body, and to the right was the smoothly carved dryad with a crown and anklets of leaves, her delicate pointed breasts painted with a covering of leaves.

The Woodland is a playlet full of the gentle­ness and reverence for nature which abounds in Simmonds' drawings and carvings of animals. It evokes the Chaucerian faery world of 'nymphs, fauns and armadriades', similar to the Victorian faery world which peopled Sim­monds' early paintings, Hermia, A Midsummer Night's Dream and a Pixy Ring.

It also recall three of the carved and painted panels which he made for Cecil Sharp House in 1930 - Jack in the Green in his leafy ruff, the hobby horse and the dragon - figures which, although they are more vigorous and less faery­like as befits processional figures, also combine in themselves the worlds of nature and culture, of human beings and their environment in all its natural power. Simmonds was at home in the world of the folk-song collectors, and his painting, The Seeds of Love, (1906), refers to the first folk-song Cecil Sharp collected, a few years before.

One reason, no doubt, for the puppets' suc­cess was that this  romanticism was combined with realism, a close observation of character and its physical expression. In A Seaport Town there is a sergeant and a raw recruit. From the first drawing of the puppets' movements, one can see how stiff and unyielding the sergeant will be, and how pathetic and unsuitable the recruit.

William Simmonds' diaries are full of raw material for his puppet world and for his sculpture, snippets of conversation overheard, or curious turns of phrase, the observations of countrymen, the behaviour of his bees, but also a fox with a baby rabbit in its mouth, or a hedge warbler in a rosemary bush. This was a man in love with the countryside where he lived, both the natural world  and the local people.


Oakridge History Group


See Also :

William & Eve Simmonds

William & Eve Simmonds - The Marionette Makers: http://oakridgecommunityarchives.org/items/show/414

William Simmonds - Wood Carving Gallery: http://oakridgecommunityarchives.org/items/show/413


First Puppet Show Photo - taken at The Greenhouse, Brookside, Fovant Wiltshire in 1913
A Scene from 'The Circus'
A Scene from (?) 'A Seaport Town'
A Scene from a Show
Behind the Scenes
Behind the Scenes
Behind the Scenes
Behind the Scenes
The reminiscences of Mrs Casty Cobb, William Simmonds Puppet Show assistant in the 1930's. Produced for the 1980 Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum of William and Eve Simmonds work.
Flyer for a season of Puppet shows at the Grafton Theatre in London
Review of the Grafton Puppet Shows taken from the London News, 8th June, 1924
Simmond's handwritten performance plans
Simmond's handwritten performance plans


“William Simmonds - Puppet Master,” Oakridge Community Archives, accessed April 19, 2019, https://oakridgecommunityarchives.org/items/show/415.

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