John Bright is an Oscar-winning film costume designer whose talent for creating period clothing is well known to the likes of Emma Thompson and Judi Dench, or fans of Downton Abbey and Pirates of the Caribbean. But it is his collection of antique toys and puppets that is about to take centre stage.
This week hundreds of highlights from the 82-year-old’s vast personal collection – including rare wooden dolls from the 1800s, a Steiff ride-on elephant and a train set last seen on the BBC’s adaptation of The Borrowers – will go on display for the first time at a museum and nearby puppet theatre he has founded in East Sussex.
Dench and Thompson, along with Stephen Fry, Hugh Bonneville and Richard E Grant, are among the stars who have pledged their support for the Barn Museum and Theatre near Hastings, which will be run by Bright’s charity, The Bright Foundation.
More than 50 antique dolls will form part of the museum’s permanent collection, as well as lavishly decorated doll’s houses with their accompanying antique furniture, a real pond with toy boats and hanging aeroplanes, a farm zone with 100-year-old toy animals, eight sizes of toy trains, a handful of working antique train sets – including a 1920s model of what is now London Underground’s Metropolitan line – and at least 100 antique puppets from all over the world.
Thompson has applauded Bright’s decision to celebrate the history of free play and nurture creativity in future generations, while Grant confessed that he too had a puppet collection, “which is what inspired me to become an actor when I was a boy”. Fry described Bright’s toy collection as “astonishing”.
Bright began his career as a costume designer in the late 1970s and, with Jenny Beavan, won an Oscar in 1986 for the costumes he created for Helena Bonham Carter, Dench and Maggie Smith in A Room With a View.
He is the founder of Cosprop, now a world-renowned theatrical costumier, and began collecting antique toys 25 years ago after spotting anachronistic Victorian dolls on the sets of much older period dramas.
“Twenty-five years ago I was thinking of expanding Cosprop’s range, from clothes to props,” he told the Observer. “I’d seen quite a few programmes where, particularly the dolls, they’d got the period totally wrong. And I realised that perhaps that knowledge that should be there, wasn’t there.”
But when he lent his antique toys out to a TV production “they came back rather bashed. So I fairly quickly stopped that.”
He carried on collecting toys, however, partly as a way of immersing himself in the worlds that he was creating costumes for and touching the real objects that people who lived in the past used to touch. “I suppose I got fascinated,” he said.
Bright began collecting puppets at the age of 15, making costumes for them and putting on shows. The Bright Foundation is going to present free puppet shows and other performances and workshops at the theatre next to the museum, which Bright hopes will inspire children and young people with a love of puppetry and the creative arts and open up creative career paths to those living in disadvantaged communities.
“Hastings is among the most deprived areas in the country,” he said. “Children respond so extraordinarily to toys and they have got to be given the opportunity to do so.”