This small black lacquer and papier mache box is an early example of the sort of tie-in merchandise that now appears in connection with just about every mainstream movie, TV-show and musical group that comes along. In this instance, the design is derived from the hugely successful stage comedy Paul Pry, which first appeared at the Haymarket theatre in September 1825. The play was allegedly performed to some 200,000 people in a mammoth first season that ran for well over a year. Performances were sold out months in advance, with touts selling tickets for seats in the pit at prices that one would normally expect to pay for a private box. Within a year of its first appearance in London, Paul Pry was also being performed in New York and by the end of the decade had reached as far afield as Sydney, Australia.
Paul Pry’s popularity rested upon the audience’s love of the eponymous lead character – a bumbling busybody, who was forever sticking his nose into other people’s business and offering advice where it wasn’t wanted. The figure of Pry became instantly recognisable thanks to his trademark umbrella (an item which he often deliberately left behind him in order to provide an excuse to call back on an unsuspecting host) and use of the catchphrase “I hope I don’t intrude!” The character was initially performed by the great comic actor John Liston (1776 – 1846) and it was Liston’s mannerisms and choice of costume that would define representations of Paul Pry for the next fifty years.
Pry’s image was reproduced extensively on all manner of consumer goods, including caricature prints. Caricaturists appear to have been especially fond of Pry, using him as both a comic device within the narrative of their own designs and an emblem of the satirist’s own desire to ‘pry’ into affairs of state and the lives of those who moved in London society. The caricaturist William Heath family adopted Paul Pry as a pseudonym and began signing his prints with a small picture of Pry, umbrella in hand.