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John D. Noble, 80; Toy and Doll Expert Helped 2 Museums Develop Collections

October 14, 2003|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

John Darcy Noble, a leading expert on toys and dolls who was also the founding curator of the toy collection at the Museum of the City of New York, has died. He was 80.

Noble died Sept. 21 of complications from diabetes at his home in Vista, Calif.

In his 24 years as curator for the museum, Noble built up the collection to include more than 20,000 pieces. After retiring and relocating to Vista in 1985, he was an occasional guest curator at the Mingei International Museum for folk art in San Diego.

"John Darcy Noble was the foremost authority on the dolls of the world," Martha Longenecker, president of the Mingei Museum, told the Los Angeles Times this week. "He was singular in his field."

One of the most recent exhibits he curated for the San Diego museum was "Dolls, Mirrors of Humanity," in 1997. The title of the exhibit suggested Noble's view that toys are important cultural artifacts.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 15, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Noble obituary -- In a display quotation that accompanied an obituary of John Darcy Noble in Tuesday's California section, Jane Radulovic was identified as the current curator of toys at the Museum of the City of New York. In fact, Radulovic left that position in 1992.

"Toys of yesteryear tell us a lot about history," Noble said in an interview with the Washington Post in 1980. "How they were made, who made them, who played with them tell us a lot."

French- and German-made dolls of the 18th century were intended for the amusement of adults, not children, Noble told the Post. Some of them showed off the latest in women's fashions and included moving parts so that they could be used in puppet-like shows.

The first talking dolls were made in Germany in about 1770 and were particularly popular with royals, Noble said. In 1878, Thomas Edison, inventor of the electric light bulb, built a talking doll that contained a tiny phonograph, Noble explained.

Noble began collecting antique toys at the age of 6 when he traded one of his new puzzles for a vintage china whistle. Years later, when he wrote books and articles about antique toys, he often used items from his personal collection as a starting point.

"I believe that play is a natural human activity, and what's wrong with this world is that people have stopped playing," Noble said in an interview with The Times in 1990. "I have never stopped playing since I was a child."

The son of a blacksmith, Noble was born in London. He attended the Goldsmith College of Art in London where he developed a flair as a painter in the British Romantic style. He continued to paint with oils and watercolors throughout his life.

After graduation, Noble worked as a costume designer for theater, ballet and opera in England. He also helped organize exhibitions of toys and dolls for charity fund-raising events. One of these exhibits featured the dollhouse collection of Vivien Greene, the wife of novelist Graham Greene.

In 1955, Noble went to work at Pollock's Toy Museum in London, which was founded by British toy manufacturer Marguerite Fawdry, to help build a permanent collection there.

He moved to New York and helped the Museum of the City of New York catalog its toy collection before he became its first curator in 1961.

As curator, Noble attracted attention in 1977 with an exhibit of historic dollhouses from the museum's permanent collection. One of the houses, dated 1863, included a number of black servants. In an interview with the New York Times, Noble said the house had long been displayed without the dolls, for fear of offending museum-goers. He returned them to the house. "Now we show them taking their true place in history," Noble said.

"His whole philosophy was that each toy contained part of the history of the society that made it," said Jane Radulovic, who was the assistant curator of the museum's toy collection under Noble. "John Noble saw toys as serious artifacts." When he retired, Radulovic replaced him. He had been her mentor and they remained friends.

Noble was knowledgeable about the broader history of dolls and toys, but he was most fascinated by 18th century creations. "I get excited about 1860, and 1820, I'm jumping for joy, but 18th century and I'm humming like a top," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1985.

In his personal collection, his prize possession was a tiny French kitchen made in the 1850s, with a paper stove that opened up, paper saucepans, paper dinnerware and a paper doll cook with a removable chef's hat.

Noble designed and built his own paper dolls in his free time. One of the dolls he made was modeled after an acquaintance who loved cats. At her wedding, she proceeded down the aisle with a cat riding on the train of her gown.

"There was a great sense of whimsy about John Noble's art," said Gene Maiden, a paper-doll collector who lives in Thousand Oaks. "John incorporated humorous events from his own life into his art."

He is survived by his life partner of 44 years, Robert M. Clement.

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