John Leonard Insull was
the greatest and most prolific maker of vent figures England has
ever produced. He was born on August 5, 1883. He spent his early
days in Wolverhampton and began his career as an apprentice to a
joiner. However he soon developed a taste for magic and decided to
go on stage under the name of Hinsle, the Comedy Illusionist. He was
often assisted by his wife Gertie Rees, who did a clog dance; and
eventually they toured the world together.
During the 1930's the Talkies accelerated the decline of Variety so
he set up a properties business. He had already been successful with
'Freda the Friesian' made for the Wembley exhibition in 1924. As a
result of a challenge made by Coram the Ventriloquist -- that if he
could make a better dummy than the one he was using, he would buy it
-- he embarked on a venture that would ensure a permanent and
illustrious place in the history of ventriloquism.
News of Insull's work reached Lewis Davenport, who asked Insull to
supply his magic business. He made two basic heads for Davenports: a
No.1 head with three movements: bottom lip, top lip and turning
eyes; and a No.2 head with the above plus two winks, moving
eyebrows, and ears. He also made a series of special figures,
including Archie Andrews for Peter Brough and the first Lord Charles
for Ray Alan.
Leonard Insull worked with his son (also named Leonard Insull) who
specialized more in animated slot machines - although he also made a
range of figures for Max Andrew's 'Vampire Magic'. The collaboration
ended with the death of his son in 1957 aged 43. Towards the end of
his life he had an apprentice called Bernard Maeder who worked with
his partner Andrew Geive for a while but they eventually gave up the
business and moved to Ramsgate where they opened a guesthouse.
Leonard Insull died in 1974. He was still making heads until his
final illness and had orders for more. Between 1952 and 1974 he
produced no less than 2017 items of which: 317 were no. 1 heads and
528 were no.2 heads plus 338 usual bodies, 100 half sized heads, 39
half sized bodies, 80 specials, 32 special bodies, 316 skulls, 50
toby jugs, 16 vest pocket figures, 4 canes and 197 other items.