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"Penny Plains" and "Two-pence Coloured:" English Theatrical Portraits 1799-1847 in the William Appleton Collection

306 toy theatre prints portraying plays and actors in character, from the early- to mid-19th century; these prints comprise the visual materials in the William Appleton collection of theatrical correspondence and ephemera, 1697-1930.

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Mr. G. French as Harlequin. Digital ID: 1156903 Mr. G. French as Harlequin. Digital ID: 1156903

Collection History

Identified by the prices (in English coin) purchasers paid for them, the "penny plain" and "twopence coloured" theatrical portraits here depict renowned actors Joseph Grimaldi, Edmund Kean, Charles and Fanny Kemble, Madame Vestris and William Macready, among others.

William Worthen Appleton has collected documents and books on theatre for most of his life. A respected scholar, he taught theatre courses at Columbia University from the 1940's through the late 1970's. Professor Appleton has written widely in his field including books on Beaumont and Fletcher, Charles Macklin, and Madame Vestris. The toy theatre prints form part of a larger donation in 2001 from his extensive collection, of manuscript letters from theatre personalities-chiefly British-such as Edward Gordon Craig, David Garrick, Henry Irving, the Keans and Kembles, Sarah Siddons, and G.B. Shaw, to which Professor Appleton continues to add.


The toy theatre prints in the Appleton Collection are English. By 1811 William West of London was printing sheets of stage characters for purchasers to colour, paste on cardboard and cut out, though others treaured them as individual portraits. Single prints in black ink on white paper were called "penny plains" while those with color added by the seller were the "twopence coloured." West's first subject was Joseph Grimaldi in "Mother Goose," a role that brought him fame and lifelong success on the stage.

In "A Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured," the title of a chapter by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) in his Memories and Portraits, the author recounts his childhood experience of gazing longingly through a store window at sets of prints for successful plays with renowned actors, and his first acquisition.

Related Resources

Baldwin, Peter. Toy Theatres of the World. (1992)

Garde, Georg. Theatergeschichte im Spiegel der Kindertheater: Eine Studie in populärer Graphik. (1971)

NYPL. Guide to the William Appleton Collection of Theatrical Correspondence and Ephemera, 1697-1930.

Speaight, George. The History of the English Toy Theatre. (1946, rev. ed. [1969])

Stevenson, Robert Louis. "A Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured." In his Memories and portraits. (1887)

Tudor-Craig, Pamela. "Times & Tides - History of Toy Theatres." History Today (May 1997) <>

Wilson, Albert Edward. Penny Plain, Two Pence Coloured; A History of the Juvenile Drama. [c1932]

Library Division(s)

NYPL Digital Gallery provides free and open access to over 800,000 images digitized from primary sources and printed rarities in the vast collections of The New York Public Library, including drawings, illuminated manuscripts, historical maps, vintage posters, rare prints and photographs, illustrated books, printed ephemera, and more.