Toy story: a costume designer launches a museum dedicated to children’s games | Toys

John Bright is an Oscar-winning film costume designer whose talent for creating period clothing is well known to Emma Thompson and Judi Dench, or fans of Downton Abbey and Pirates of the Caribbean. But it’s his collection of antique toys and puppets that is about to take center stage.

This week, hundreds of highlights from the 82-year-old’s vast personal collection – including rare wooden dolls from the 1800s, a Steiff riding elephant and a train last seen in the adaptation of BBC’s Borrowers – will go on display for the first time at a nearby museum and puppet theater he founded in East Sussex.

Dench and Thompson, along with Stephen Fry, Hugh Bonneville and Richard E Grant, are among stars who have pledged their support to the Barn Museum and Theater near Hastings, which will be run by Bright’s charity, The Luminous Foundation.

More than 50 old dolls will be part of the museum’s permanent collection, as well as richly decorated dolls’ houses with their old furniture, a real pond with toy boats and suspended planes, an agricultural area with century-old toy animals, eight sizes of toy trains, a handful of working antique trains – including a 1920s model of what is now the London Underground’s Metropolitan line – and at least 100 antique puppets from around the world.

John Bright has worked on many period dramas and founded his own costume house. Photograph: Cosprop & Biltmore Estate Historic House Museum

Thompson applauded Bright’s decision to celebrate the history of free play and nurture the creativity of future generations, while Grant confessed that he too has a puppet collection, “that’s what inspired me to become an actor when I was little”. Fry described Bright’s toy collection as “amazing”.

Bright began his career as a costume designer in the late 1970s and, along with Jenny Beavan, won an Oscar in 1986 for costumes he designed for Helena Bonham Carter, Dench and Maggie Smith in A play With A sight.

He is the founder of Cosprop, now a world-renowned theater costumer, and started 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 clothing to accessories,” he told the Observer. “I had seen quite a few shows where, especially the dolls, they were totally wrong about the rules. And I realized that maybe that knowledge that should be there wasn’t there.

Helena Bonham Carter and Julian Sands in A Room With a View, for which Bright won an Oscar.
Helena Bonham Carter and Julian Sands in A Room With a View, for which Bright won an Oscar. Photo: Goldcrest Films/Allstar

But when he lent his old toys to a TV production, “they came back pretty depressed. So I quickly stopped that.

He continued to collect toys, however, partly to immerse himself in the worlds he created costumes for and to touch the real objects that people who lived in the past used to touch. “I guess I was fascinated,” he said.

Bright began collecting puppets when he was 15, making costumes for them and putting on shows. The Bright Foundation will present free puppet shows and other performances and workshops at the theater 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 pathways of creative careers to those living in disadvantaged communities.

“Hastings is one of the most deprived areas in the country,” he said. “Children react so extraordinarily to toys and they have to be given the opportunity to do so.”

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