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85/1042 Toy theatre, 'La Pleine Mer, Scenes Maritimes en Action', paper / cardboard / textile / metal / timber, designed by Charles Letaille, published by J Pintard, Rue Saint-Jacques, Paris, France, 1836. Click to enlarge.

Childrens toy theatre 'La Pleine Mer' (The Open Sea) by Charles Lataille

This extremely rare, hand-coloured, French children's toy theatre 'La Pleine Mer, Scenes Maritimes en Action' ('The Open Sea, Maritime Scenes in Action') dates from 1836. The theatre comprises an ocean backdrop, a middle ground of waves and foreground of a South Pacific island reef. Numerous cardboard pieces of French ships, long boats, a drowning sailor and a shark attack can be slid in and out of the scene. By means of a booklet of seven short melodramatic plays (in French), to be read aloud …


Object No.


Object Statement

Toy theatre, 'La Pleine Mer, Scenes Maritimes en Action', paper / cardboard / textile / metal / timber, designed by Charles Letaille, published by J Pintard, Rue Saint-Jacques, Paris, France, 1836

Physical Description

Toy theatre comprising 27 printed and hand-coloured lithographic cardboard pieces, in a South Pacific setting. When assembled the theatre comprises a painted backdrop with two ships under sail flying French colours, a longboat pulling away, more ships in the background and a blue sky with clouds. Between this and the proscenium are five ranks of waves (two of which have wooden runners to support the moving pieces).

The foreground features lush tropical vegetation and a reef battered by breakers. It is in three parts with a base showing the shore and large pieces which are installed at the left and right composed of trees and rocks. There are seven separate lithograph boats, one for each of the plays, with a further six separate pieces to be added in where instructed in the script. The scenes are either fixed into slots in the foreground or locked into a balance placed on wooden runners obscured by the middle waves.

The script comprises a 32-page booklet designed to be read aloud by an adult or older child while the different scenes are activated. The plays depict customs of the Solomon Islands, Natives of New Guinea and Tahiti, whaling activity in the South Pacific and landing in New Zealand.


The preface of the script is signed 'C.L.'. The foreground of the theatre is signed 'Letaille invt. et delt.'



320 mm


704 mm


85 mm



According to the 'Bibliographie de la France', this toy theatre was produced by J. Pintard on 10 December 1836. Pintard's other toy theatres had titles including 'Le Theatre Enfantin', 'Le Spectacle Asiatique', 'Ou Danse et Voltige sur La Corde' and 'La Voiere'.

In keeping with most toymakers of the period, Pintard produced a variety of toys and related material aimed at educating children in art, geography, scripture, history and natural history. Advertising his stock at the conclusion of the 'La Pleine Mer' script, he claimed "L'enseignement de la moral la plus pure forme la base de tous ces petits ouvrages instructifs" ("The moral teaching in its purest form is the basis of all these little educational works").

This toy theatre, 'La Pleine Mer', includes seven plays written by Charles Letaille, who also produced the lithography. Letaille collaborated with his publisher to produce other children's material during the 1830s and 1840s. The first play is entitled 'The Sea, The Birth of Navigation' and describes the simple craft of the natives of New Holland (Australia) and concludes with an account of the carved and outrigger canoes of New Guinea and Tahiti.

In the more dramatic second play, 'The Whale', native canoes are replaced with a spouting whale and a long boat from the whaling ship 'Albatross'. The narrative begins in a bay of the Chilean coast and concludes with a whale-hunting drama. The play instructs children about the uses of whale products, (whale rib bones for umbrellas and whale fat boiled on board in large vats for oil) and includes a gruesome description of the sailors climbing over the carcass of the whale while tied to the side of the ship to remove the ribs, skin and fat.

The third and fourth plays, entitled 'Man Overboard' and 'The Rescue', describe an unlucky sailor falling overboard from the ship and being thrown a woven cane life preserver. In the meantime the ship is brought into the wind and the long boat launched for the sailor's rescue.

The next play 'The Shark' begins with the deceptively calm description: "We are aboard the American three-master 'Oceanic' the sea breeze was barely enough to cause the waves to break on the nearby beach". The pace picks up quickly with nail biting anticipation as it is revealed the ship's master is repeatedly diving from the ship and hauling himself up on a rope to cool off from the heat while a short distance away a shark's fin creates a "frothing shimmering wake". Climbing into a small boat, the sailors go to his rescue. Gripped with fear they 'could all foresee the struggle that was about to take place between themselves and the shark; a terrible struggle with a man as the contest'.

In the final play, 'Putting in at New Zealand', native figures are slotted into the foreground and a longboat is set into the waves. The play relates the meeting between French sailors and friendly Maoris. After an exchange of branches, the natives return with the sailors in their canoes and a priestess is invited on board ship. Attempts to rub noses with the ship's steward end in chaos when he makes a sudden movement dislodging his wig and frightening the priestess into believing that he is a sorcerer.

According to Louise Mitchell in her article 'La Pleine Mer Sailing over a cardboard sea' many of the original details in the lithographs seen in this toy theatre can be traced to paintings, books and journals of the period. For example, the lithograph depicting New Holland natives tumbling from their capsized canoe while spearing fish, can be traced to an illustration by the Scottish engraver and miniaturist, John Heaviside Clark (c.1777-1863). Clark had never seen Australian aborigines but adhered to the popular European imagery of them as being noble and savage sportsmen. The illustration appeared in a book published in London in 1813 with the title 'Field sports … of the Native Inhabitants of New South Wales', reprinted a year later as a supplement to 'Foreign Field Sports, Fisheries, Sporting Anecdotes, etc'.

Several of the script's plays can be traced to a journal entitled 'La France Maritime'. The shark attack lithograph was derived from an American romantic horror-painting of 1778 by John Singleton Copley (1738-1815) 'Watson and the Shark'. In the toy theatre play the man overboard facing a shark's jaws of death is pulled to safety. Ironically, the victim in the play ends up being the 16-foot shark which is split open by the ship's cook. In a scene which initially evokes terror the mood is transformed into humour when the sailors discover that a man's otter-skin hat belonging to the ship's doctor is inside the shark's stomach. (Clothes and belongings hung over the side of ships were regularly eaten by sharks).

Other illustrations can be traced to 'Le Voyage Pittoresque Autour du Monde' also published in 1836 by the French explorer of the South Pacific renowned for his seamanship, Jules Dumont d'Urville (1790-1842). A canoe from the Solomon Islands and a Tahitian sailing boat are directly derived from d'Urville's book.

By the 1830s Europeans were familiar with many popular accounts of seamen's journals of scientific and exploratory maritime expeditions. Suitable pictorial material was also available from the atlases of the Pacific voyages of Cook, La Perouse, d'Urville and others, and were reproduced extensively in all kinds of publications.


Credit Line

Purchased with funds donated by the Patrons of the Powerhouse, 1985

Acquisition Date

26 June 1985

Cite this Object


Childrens toy theatre 'La Pleine Mer' (The Open Sea) by Charles Lataille 2023, Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, accessed 30 May 2023, <>


{{cite web |url= |title=Childrens toy theatre 'La Pleine Mer' (The Open Sea) by Charles Lataille |author=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences |access-date=30 May 2023 |publisher=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, Australia}}