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The D’Arc Family

The D’Arcs are thought to have come to England from Lorraine in the 1860’s, for in January 1863 Lambert D’Arc advertised himself as a Waxwork Modeller from Paris, who had worked with Springthorpes of Hull for a year. In December 1865 he was in Cheltenham exhibiting his waxworks at St. George’s Hall. The programme was presented during the following months and was similar in style to that of Springthorpes. Although well received at first by 22nd April interest had weaned and D’Arc left the hall. In the summer of 1867 D’Arc was showing the waxworks at the Natural History Rooms, Worcester. By September 1868 D’Arc was exhibiting in Dublin at the Rotundo Rooms and describing the exhibition as:


Comprising Figures of all Nations attired in their correct costumes in which they had lived.
The collection consists of above 100 full sized Figures of the most noted Kings and Queens, Statesmen, Orators, Eccentrics, Theatrical and other Popular Characters, etc.”

On Saturday July 10, 1869 it was announced:-

“Tenth Month of the Season
For the first time will perform in the above Exhibition
Mons D'Arc's Mechanical Automatical Figures. The most
numerous Vandevilles, interesting spectacles, Comique
Burlesques, Acrobats, Contortionists, Jugglers, Bell Ringers,
Transformation and a variety of Grotesque Figures
and Nondescripts, and will commence first with the
affecting play of THE BABES IN THE WOOD: or the Cruel Uncle;
embellished with beautiful scenery, mechanical effects
Robin Redbreasts, Serpents, etc, etc.

Morning performances every day at Two o'clock and Evening at Eight o'clock.
Carriages ordered at Ten. Admission to reserved seats 1s, second seats 6d, promenade 3d: Children half price. Artist and Sole proprietor Mons D'Arc: Machinist - Mr. M.C. Donnelly: Musical Director - Mr. J. Beard.”

On 25th September 1869 the title of Mons D’Arc’s “French Waxen Marionette Exhibition” was used for the first time with “a grand new stage double the size it was formerly. New Scenery, new act drop represents the Castle of St. Angelo and St. Peter's Church at Rome painted by a most eminent artist”.

By all accounts the D’Arc marionette stage was extremely elaborate. It incorporated flying (whereby scenery is lowered from above) and grooves in the stage for sliding scenery in from the side. All kinds of trick scenery and transformation effects including water falls, rolling seas and shipwrecks. D’Arc was always quick to embrace the new and in a bill dated 26th October he adds electric light to the attractions. This was a real novelty, for at the time even the live theatre did not readily embrace the electric light preferring to stick with limelight. Early forms of the incandescent filament lamp had been made in France and Russia, and also by Sir Joseph Swann in England, but they had proved unreliable. The form of electric light employed here may have been some form of arc lamp. Carbon arcs were noisy however and produced a flickering light source. This may explain why there are no further references to D'Arc’s use of electric light. D’Arc also employed “Rimmell's Patent Vaporiser” to perfume the exhibition. Throughout their occupancy of the rooms at the Rotundo, and later, the Victoria Hall, at Cardiff, where they were to remain for forty-six years, D’Arc’s always added new attractions to the waxworks, often with a strong local appeal.

By mid-April D’Arc’s boasted of being patronised by the Royal Family of France and performed not the usual fairground style version of “Doctor Faustus” but “Faust and Marguerite” with “Dioramical Effects” and concluded with the pantomime for which Thomas Holden, the most famous of all Victorian marionettists, was to become particularly known, “BEAUTY AND THE BEAST”.

D’Arc’s had actually been at the Rotundo for an uninterrupted period of just under twenty-three months, which was evidence of their success. They were to continue there for another thirty-seven months, making a total of five years in all. Clearly the great advantage of staying so long in one place was that they were able to develop ever more elaborate productions. The story is that they had fifteen manipulators with “another fifteen in case they got drunk!”

In April 1871 it was again announced that the stage had been enlarged – “to double its former size, and the greatest care has been taking in forming the pieces so that the morals of the younger branches may not be injured, and yet the mature witness the performance with pleasure.”

D’Arc’s left the Rotundo in June of 1873 and set up their waxworks in Chester. When D’Arc’s opened at Cardiff in April 1884 it was as “Mons. D’Arc’s Grand Waxwork Exhibition, Cosmoramic Views and Waxen Marionettes”.

In 1885 Lambert D’Arc’s “Palais de Fantoches” was touring in France and Belgium in competition with John Holden. The marionettes returned to Cardiff to perform “Bluebeard” and then in February 1886, “The Basket of Flowers, or Truth Rewarded” specially written for the marionettes. This was followed with further performances of the Fantoccini and Christy Minstrels and in May with “the pretty comedy of FORTUNE’S FROLIC; or ROBIN ROUGHHEAD”. This latter play is also known to have been performed by Thomas Holden and Middleton's. The 1887 Pantomime was Beauty and the Beast and the following May “MARIA MARTIN” was playing. From this date the chief attractions include new further additions to the waxworks and illusions, several of which the D’Arcs claim to have invented, until, in May 1895, “Just returned after eight years' tour of the Colonies GEORGE D’ARC’S WORLD FAMED MARIONETTES”.

In the summer of 1893 Lambert D’Arc had died aged 69. His son, George was now 25 and he did not stay long in Cardiff but returned to the scene of earlier family triumphs, the Rotundo, Dublin, to perform the Christmas Pantomime of Robinson Crusoe. He seems to have left for Asia in February. He and his wife Agnes are believed to have performed before the Royal Family in Siam (Thailand) and travelled to China with the express purpose of making a model of the Empress Dowager of China and studying Chinese effigies. So impressed with Peking were they that they decided to stay there. From here they moved on to Japan and stayed there until they returned to the UK in the summer of 1895. No other European Marionette Company is known to have reached Japan at this time and two woodblock prints are evidence of their success and popularity there. A Triptych by Oji Kochoro – Kunisada III, shows five Kabuki actors including Onoe Eisaburo as a foreign woman. Onoe Kikugoro V as an Englishman (Drunken stilt walking clown), Onoe Ushinosuke (infant child’s stage name of Kikugoro VI), as skeleton and Nakamura Fukusuke as a foreign woman. The other print, a single woodblock print by Tsukioka Kogyo (1869-1927) who made a specialism of Noh theatre prints, showing the proscenium and stage of the D’Arc marionette theatre on which a drunken stilt-walking clown is seen in performance. There is a small panel on the top-right of the print showing dissecting skeleton.

In 1900 George D’Arc and his family (they had a daughter, Grace) were caught up in the Boxer riots. George served as a Frontiersman. Afterwards, they gave up entertainment to run a hotel in Tientsin, where George died in 1924.

Following the death of Lambert D’Arc, the waxworks had become known as “Madame D’Arc’s”. Another son, William and his sister, Ethel, toured the halls in the early years of the 20th century with puppet impersonations of music hall stars including Harry Lauder in 'She’s ma daisy', May Henderson with a big boot dance, Victoria Monks and R.G. Henderson - all easily recognisable to audiences.

One of the D’Arc brothers visited Australia in 1892, and again in 1912, although it is not known whether it was William or George, as with so many of the marionette family dynasties it is often difficult to distinguish the movements of individual family members.

Although D’Arc’s performed their marionettes for a relatively short period of five years at Dublin they appear to have made an enormous impact, both on the local population and on other marionettists. Richard Barnard notes in his memoirs that nearly all the major marionette troupes of the time had operators that had worked for D’Arc. They were certainly adventurous in their choice of plays and seem to have lavished a great deal of care on their productions. The Era Almanack for 1886 contained among its advertisements one for

“Mons D’Arc’s Fantoches.
The Grandest and Largest in Existence.
Over One Hundred Figures Get through a performance.
 They are Models in Wax. The Oriental costumes are of the costliest description. Pronounced by the press on the Continent as unsurpassable and a Marvel of Splendour. They do not represent Mechanical Wooden Dolls. They look like Living Lilliputians.
The whole scenery changes Mechanically. Over Three Hundred Figures in Stock. Perform Pantomimes, Dramas, Comedies and Operas.”

As Proprietor of both Waxworks and Marionettes only the eponymously named “Old Waxy” or “Waxy Doodle” in Sunderland produced a greater number of marionette plays within a similar period, but nothing is known of the quality of his performances. Companies such as the Holdens, which were continually touring, had less time to develop new material but were renowned for the skill of their manipulation. The Middletons performed their marionette shows over a longer period than any other family of marionettists, but D’Arc’s strength must have been in their artistic background and craft skills associated with the waxworks. This, allied with the ability to develop such an extended repertoire during their years at Dublin, their eagerness to experiment with new technical devices and use specialists to provide expertise they did not themselves possess, their ability to catch the popular imagination with the use of plays with local colour, the manipulative skill of the people they employed, and later that of George and William, must explain their importance as perhaps the leading, and certainly, the most influential, of Victorian Marionette Companies.

Additional research taken from “D’Arc’s in Dublin” by John Phillips from Theatre Notebook 1994 Volume XLVIII Number 1