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A  Lenci Dolls Collector article--for Lenci doll collectors



The Destiny of ?Una bambola e altre creazioni?


The long life of the Lenci felt dolls .

By Rosita Siccardi

This article has been translated from the original Italian by Patricia Hayes

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The above quotation meaning " A doll and other creations" comes from the title of a small book by Madame Lenci (who was in fact, known by the name Madame Lenci). Elena Konig Scavini's german nickname was 'Helenchen' (ref. A brief history of Madame Lenci), later contracted to 'Lenci', from which the acronym, and Lenci company motto: "Ludus Est Nobis Constanter Industria" was formed. The acronym translated as "Play is our constant quest" suggests the life long commitment evidenced by Madame Lenci's own lifestory; an incessant artistic research led by that same commitment, with the intensity of a child at play.

It is not by chance that her favorite "children" are "pouty", with "en coin" side-long glances. Those eyes and expressions, so very dear to collectors, reminding us that childhood is anything but the enchantment invented by adults. Such fleeing, intense childhood, focused on its own thoughts, unselfconscious, clothed in bright colors, in a happiness negated by the facial expression (see Image 1 "pouty" in green, yellow, orange, 1925). Those fleeting childhood moments will no longer be captured for us, and impressed into felt toys: the workshop on San Marino Street has closed.

Lenci dolls: from 1919 to 2002

A long life indeed, even if less so than the german Kathe Kruse's and Steiff's, both of which have been producing cloth toys from the early 1900 to the present day.

Most notable, among Lenci's 83 years of history, was the period between the two World Wars. Those years were marked by the artistic genius of the founder, which continues to shine over the works of later years. Madame Lenci was never a solitary genius, during her Bohemian period in Germany her workshop opened to other artists, such as Dudovich, Riva, Sturani, Chessa, Sandro Vacchetti, Formica, who met there to fill albums with their sketches (Image 2, drawing by Dudovich for the doll shown in picture 1, Fallimento Bambole Italiane).


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The first exhibition of the dolls made in felt, that " was not woven cloth, but many short, woolen hairs pressed together" (from the book mentioned above) was held in Zurich. Madame Lenci said: "I had to show San Marco Square full of people: common women strolling with embroidered shawls on their shoulders, little scoundrels and caricatured Englishmen" (Image 3 from the1923 catalog ).

An exhibition in Paris followed, where Madame Lenci made friends with Josephine Baker, whom she would later portray as a doll (Image 4, workshop drawing for Baker doll ). Mistinguett, the "World's finest legs" (ibid.), also had her portrait doll, (Image 5, from the catalog "Novelties of 1924"), as did Rudolf Valentino (Image 6 from the 1927 catalog, and Image 7).

Madame Lenci subsequently exhibited in Rome and Milan, at the Monza Biennial Exhibition, where Mussolini congratulated her. Queen Elena of Savoy herself visited the factory: "She too wanted my dolls to make presents of". (ibid.).

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Even a delegation from Japan came to visit (there would be another visit in June, 2003, by the Japanese national TV broadcasting company and Mrs Kanetaka Kaoru, journalist and president of the Doll Museum in Osaka). Lenci dolls are well regarded in Japan, and so it was in the past.

A series of Oriental dolls are seen from 1925 to 1927 (Image 8, of the 1925 catalog), the first of which appeared in 1923 with the "Fumatore d'oppio" doll (Image 9,).

Madame Lenci refused an invitation to transfer her business to Japan and stayed in Turin, even if she was growing worried about her company's fate.

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Success implies imitation: since 1927 Lenci dolls were imitated everywhere, from Turin to Florence, and then in Germany, France, and England. Imitation dolls were cheaper and competition caused serious problems for the Lenci company, all this while the economic crisis that reached an apex in 1929 was already taking place. The company could recover only by adding the production of ceramics to that of toys (Image 10, workshop drawing for ceramics).

The new ceramics were a huge success; however some artists began to leave the company to establish their own workshops. While the Lenci company had more than 600 workers during the '30s, it was also deep in debt and a partnership became a necessity. The new partners became sole owners after 1937, and Madame Lenci only worked as the artistic director until December of 1940, when she finally left the company she did not own any more; a company that at that time marketed her dolls in reduced format using a new name, Ars Lenci.

 When one considers that sad farewell, on the verge of World War II - which would heavily damage the company's archives and storehouse - one feels like surrounding Madame Scavini with a collection of her characters, milestones of her artistic career: the 1923 Pierrot doll by Dudovich, sold in a box designed by Gigi Chessa (Image 11); the Veneziana doll, a lady doll that appeared in the 1924 Novelties catalogue (Image 12); the 1925 Fukuruco, the chinese god of fertility,longevity and wisdom (Image 13); the 1926 Mimy doll (Image 14) by Dudovich, better known as "Dietrich" (although the Mimy doll was created years before "The Blue Angel" ).

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The 1929 Kigan doll, the laughing samurai (Image15); a 1929 tennis player doll wearing a blouse with an embroidered monogram, LS (Lenci Scavini, Image16); a 1930 cowboy wearing with a felt and leather costume and a cartridge belt but no weapons (Image 17); The 1931 little gentleman, who carries a walking stick but has no silk hat (Image 18); finally Madame Lenci's last creation, the 1939 Gioia doll, a washable baby made of felt and light fabric covered with cellulose, and made with japanned hollow body and limbs, with several paint layers on a very light fabric structure, which makes this doll unique ( Image 19). 

Washable dolls are a passage and continuity mark between the first and the second period in Lenci company's history.

At the end of the war the plant in Via Cassini was still standing, along with a part of the storehouse that bombs did not destroy. The new ownership lacked both the artists and designers that partnered with Madame Lenci, and the knowledge needed for the old processing, but it had large quantities of unfinished pieces: dolls, bodies, costumes, molds, and the hollow punches to make them. At first, between the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Ars Lenci company made new outfits for the old undressed dolls that remained in stock, they decorated the unfinished dolls and put them in boxes. Those new boxes no longer resembled the cheerful ones made by Gigi Chessa, with their trees, small houses and landscapes on a white background; the new boxes were bare except for the the word 'Lenci'. By the end of the 1950's somebody rediscovered the washable dolls and started to reproduce the Pupo model, made of thick celluloid and marked "Lenci" on its stomach and nape of the neck (Image 20).

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These new Pupo dolls were appealing, had brightly colored costumes and even had a velvety finish (Image 21, "peach skin" version ): made by spraying felt fibres onto celluloid, which made the doll unwashable again. In reality a misnomer: the "washable" Lenci dolls actually never were so. Initially made of felt and japanned fabric, and later with velvet finished celluloid, and finally in painted celluloid, none of them were waterproof.

As for their popularity, even a granddaughter of Madame Lenci told me she had one when very young. In 1965 the building in Via Cassino was sold and the storehouse hastily abandoned, while the plant was moved to Via San Marino. The production of Lenci cloth dolls started again only in the 1970s, and continued until the company went out of business in 2002.

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Photographic credit
Photo 1, from 3 to 21 by Rosita Siccardi

1- Pouty in green and yellow '25, private collection
2- Drawing by Dudovich, Fallimento Bambole Italiane 
3- Piazza San Marco, Lenci 1923 catalog, private collection
4- Design by Lenci for Josephine Baker doll, private collection
5- Mistinguett , 1924 catalog, private collection
6- Rudolf Valentino 1927catalog, private collection
7- Valentino face, private collection
8- "Oriental" dolls 1925 catalog, private collection
9- Opium smoker of '23, private collection
10- Lenci workshop design for ceramic, private collection
11- Pierrot in box , G. Chessa, '23, private collection
12- Veneziana,'24, private collection
13- Fukuruko, '25, coll.privata 
14- Mimy, '26, private collection
15- Kigan, '27, private collection
16- Tennis player with monogram LS(Lenci Scavini), '29, private collection
17- Pouty cow boy, '30, private collection
18- Pouty little gentelman, '31, private collection
19- Bebé lavabile Gioia, '32, private collection
20- Bebé lavabile Pupo, anni '50, private collection
21- Bebé lavabile Pupo "pelle di pesca", anni '50, private collection

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