Puppeteer to the Stars

28th February 2019

His was a career cut tragically short by the Second World War, but in today’s anti-waste society, puppeteer Robert Whiting would surely have fitted in.

Turning to clay modelling during a long convalescence, Whiting (from Devon), made pottery for tourist visitors to his home town of Newquay. But he drew national attention by making puppets and models of famous people, utilising chicken wishbones that he obtained from a local potted meat factory – some 15,000 a year. So unusual and imaginative were his designs that he twice featured on Pathé News (in 1937 and in 1940), and exhibited his work at the 1939 Ideal Home Show. His popularity was such that he was hired by musical theatre star, Jessie Matthews, to decorate her Devonian farmhouse with a series of dramatic murals.

A long-standing illness meant that Whiting was not called up for national service at the start of the war, but instead volunteered as an auxiliary fireman. Nine of the fire team from Newquay were called to Plymouth on the night of 23rd April 1941 at the height of the Plymouth Blitz, but before they could even reach the pumps, their tender received a direct hit from a parachute bomb, killing five of them and injuring two others. Whiting was the youngest victim at just 28, and was one of 17 firemen who lost their lives, along with 590 civilians, during five nights of bombing in Plymouth between April 21 and 29 1941.

His death cut short a promising career in the arts, with his whimsical models all but forgotten with the passage of time. A selection of his wishbone models, including depictions of Terry Thomas, Sir Malcolm Sargent, Clement Atlee, Ernie Bevan and Sir Anthony Eden, are being sold at auction on 20th March 2019 - lot 138.

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