Tag Archives: papier-mache

Preparing the Drury Lane Pantomime, Part 3, 1901

The following comes from a 1901 magazine article. Part 1 and part 2 were published previously:

In making human heads the artist plays a very important part, being able with his brush to present them old or young, ugly or becoming, with the same foundation. The old “big-head” of pantomime is practically now obsolete, being replaced by a much lighter mask made in three pieces. Masks that at one time weighed ten pounds now scale only two and a-half. There are also half-masks for animal impersonators, such as Mr. Charles Lauri. The mask fixes upon the lower part of the head and works with elastic springs, moving with the movement of the wearer’s mouth. The upper part of the face is “made-up” to represent the animal being impersonated.

Painting the Model. Photograph by The Press Studio.
Painting the Model. Photograph by The Press Studio.

But perhaps one of the most skilful “properties” ever turned out is the “Blondin donkey.” This was first roughly designed on paper, giving details of the interior arrangements. The performer for whom the dress is intended has to be measured in almost the same way as a tailor measures for a suit of clothes. Much depends upon the accuracy of the figures—the length of the back, arms, legs, and girth. The head is made of papier-mâché, and the body of baize, the latter being padded in such a manner that when the wearer dons the dress it is a close fit and there is no room to fall about inside it. The padding also protects the wearer in case of rough-and-tumble usage. The back-legs of the donkey are worked with the legs of the man, but the front-legs of the animal are fitted with crutches reaching from the feet to the knees. On these crutches the man rests his hands and moves the legs about at will. The mouth, eyes, ears, and tail are worked by means of strings communicating with the man’s hands. Other animals are made on similar lines, the elephant requiring two people to work it.

There are many tricks dear to the “knockabout” which make a call upon the ingenuity of the property-man, and in which padded wigs and padded clothing play an important part. One man hits another over the head with a chopper, leaving the latter apparently sticking in his skull. The wig is padded with cork, in which there is a groove, that receives the chopper.

But one might go on enumerating like instances of the skill of the property-man for an indefinite period. To put it briefly and comprehensively, he is always equal to any call  upon his services.

“Preparing the Drury Lane Pantomime.” Illustrated London News and Sketch 25 Dec. 1901: 372. Google Books. Web. 11 Apr. 2017. <https://books.google.com/books?id=I5hRAAAAYAAJ>.

A Papier Mache Chair from 1854

The following comes from “The Illustrated Magazine of Art”, Volume 4, Number 24, page 344, published in 1854. I thought the process they described was interesting. First, it is the first time I’ve heard of using metal molds for papier maché; second, they let each layer dry fully before applying the next (I learned to lay up each layer while the previous is still damp).

The polished French claim the honour of being the original inventors of the papier maché. In Paris the manufacture of the article is carried on very extensively; but far beyond the articles produced there—articles both of utility and ornament—stand those of the Birmingham manufacturers.

The old method of manufacturing papier maché is as follows:

—The paper for use is gray in colour, but similar in texture to ordinary blotting paper. Prior to using it, the paper is well saturated with flour and glue mixed with water, in about equal proportions, and is then laid on the mould of the article intended to be produced. These moulds are of iron, brass, or copper. The mould, coated with the first layer of paper, is then dried for twelve hours. A careful smoothing by a file follows, after which another deposit of paper is made. The processes of drying and smoothing are successively repeated with each additional layer of paper, until the article assumes the required strength and thickness. When the newly-formed article is taken from the mould, the several parts are planed, filed, and trimmed, so as to be quite correct and level. The process of stoving then follows; after which the varnish is laid on, and brought to a smooth, hard, brilliant surface. The article is then coated with several layers of shell-lac varnish, coloured, which, after being hardened, are scraped quite level. The different varnishings and smoothings are carried on for a period varying from twelve to eighteen days, according to the purpose for which the article is required. The exquisite surface is produced by manual polishing with rotten stone and oil; but the finish is obtained by the process of handling alone.

Various alterations and improvements have been made from time to time in the manufacture of papier maché; and sometimes the paper is reduced to pulp, cast to the form required, and then rendered compact and solid.

The specimen which we present is of a chair in papier maché; the grace and elegance of the design deserve especial attention.

Papier Mache Chair
Papier Mache Chair

Papier Mache Chair. The Illustrated Magazine of Art, Vol. 4, No. 24 (1854), p. 344

Milky the Cow

I recently finished some work on a production of Into the Woods at Elon University. The students hired me to build the animals (some may call them puppets). Milky the Cow is one of the main animals, appearing in many of the scenes. I began by sculpting a cow head in white foam.

Sculpted foam head
Sculpted foam head

I gave the head a coating of papier-mâché. The design of the show used a lot of found object and natural material arranged to suggest a forest, rather than attempting a realistic portrayal of one. So the construction of the head proceeded in a manner to highlight the fact that it was a handmade object, rather than attempting to completely mimic an actual cow’s head.

Applying papier-mache
Applying papier-mache

The body was a separate piece; it was just the torso, tail and udder, without any legs. They were basing their design off of the Regent’s Park production (which transferred to the Public Theater this past summer, though I left just before it came).

I started with a structure made of a cardboard tube “spine” and some bent PVC pipe to define the shape. I than began wrapping vines around to create the outer surface. Everything was wired in place, but I also added some twine to make it appear as though it was lashed together.

Body structure
Body structure

Next for the head were some ears. I patterned and sewed them out of muslin, with a piece of styrene inside to give it some stiffness. Once the ears were on the head, I heated them with a hot air gun so I could curl and shape them. When cool, the styrene retained that shape.

Ears
Ears

The head got a coat of grey primer, followed by a dry brush of off-white over top. I glued a dowel coming out of the back of the head so the handler could hold onto it and manipulate it around.

Cow head
Cow head

The udder was a few pieces of red fabric which I patterned, sewed, and stuffed with polyester batting. I lined the inside of the body with some screen material so the actors could throw objects inside as Milky “ate” them, and they would be easy to retrieve after the show. I added some raffia to beef out the body since the vines did not give enough coverage on their own.

Milky White
Milky White

So there you have it; one Milky the Cow!

Models and Mache, 1904

The following is a continuation of a newspaper article about the property shop of E. L. Morse on Twenty-ninth Street in New York City. The article first appeared in The New York Times on May 8, 1904, and Mr. Morse’s property shop is long gone. I have previously posted the introduction, a bit on Morse’s career, a story of a fake fish he built and a run down of all the skills a prop maker must possess.

On the table of the shop is a country kitchen, not over a foot wide and a foot high. Yet in it is every piece of rude furniture which was to be put in the large kitchen on the stage. Not only in general appearance is the model perfect, but in all the smallest details. The kitchen table even has a top that folds back—it is hardly 2 inches long—just like tables which Mr. Morse says are found in obscure farmhouses in New England. The chairs, mantelpieces, window frames—all are exact. The whole thing was whittled out with a knife by the master of the shop himself.

“Why, that would make a wonderful toy for some child,” suggests the visitor.

“Yes, and I’m going to give it to one,” Mr. Morse replies. “I never thought about any one’s wanting such a thing until some one suggested it the other day. I guess I’ll not throw away any more.”

All around the room, on boxes and chairs, sit vases to be used in a musical comedy. They are modeled after some rare foreign pottery. The look of them is so frail that you forget they are not breakable, and tread gingerly in and out among the confusion of obstacles. This amuses the master of the shop.

“Oh, you can’t hurt these things,” he says.

To prove it he playfully cuffs one of the vases off the box and across the room. It falls and bounces up and down like a rubber ball. There is not even a dent, for it’s only papier maché, and you could play football with it half an hour without hurting it.

This article first appeared in the New York Times, May 8, 1904.