In Margery Williams’s classic children’s book The Velveteen Rabbit, a stuffed bunny is transformed by the Nursery Fairy into a real rabbit for having earned the love of a child. In his new book Much Loved, Irish photographer Marx Nixon captures in all of their raggedy, tattered beauty the beloved stuffed animals that the Nursery Fairy didn’t rescue: toys with no destiny but to fade.
Properly enough, a beloved stuffed bunny very much like The Velveteen Rabbit was also the impetus for Nixon’s Much Loved series. Watching his son Calum at play one day, Nixon was stuck by the love a child bears a cherished toy, and suddenly remembered one from his own youth. “I was struck by how attached Calum was to his Peter Rabbit,” Nixon tells Co.Design. “The way he squeezed it with his thumb, and how he just had to sleep with it every night. I remembered having similar childhood feelings about my own stuffed Panda.”
After rediscovering his own forlorn Panda, Nixon put the call out for people to bring their own toys into his studio, the more unloved, unwashed, and bedraggled the better. Nixon was not prepared for the response: instead of children, Nixon’s studio was suddenly inundated with adults bringing him the treasured, threadbare toys they had kept secretly squirreled away for years.
What surprised Nixon most was the depth of feeling most adults still had for the toys of their childhood. “While they were waiting, people would tell me stories about their teddies–how a toy had almost been lost was a common theme–or would speak emotionally about what their stuffed animals meant to them,” says Nixon. “These stories became integral to my photographs. It is the memories of their owners that bring these toys to life.”
Some of these stories were hilarious. One radio broadcaster who brought his teddy into Nixon’s studio joked the bear was the third person in his marriage. Others were bittersweet: an elderly woman in her 60s said that she planned to be buried with her toy so that they could continue their journey together. Even U2 frontman Bono provided a teddy bear to Nixon.
“I received a teddy from Bono, of all people,” says Nixon. “It had belonged to a friend of his, Greg Carroll, who died in a motor accident in the 1980s. At Greg’s funeral a mate of his gave Bono a memento: Greg’s one-eared teddy bear. U2’s song ￢ﾀﾜOne Tree Hill￢ﾀﾝ from their album The Joshua Tree is dedicated to Greg.”
According to Nixon, he believes that the affection most of us have for our childhood stuffed animals is a deeply rooted psychological phenomenon. “There’s something really primal about a cuddly toy,” says Nixon. Stuffed animals are transitional objects to most of us; a first possession that weans us from an utter dependence upon our mothers, but from which we ourselves can never entirely weaned. As The Velveteen Rabbit and now Much Loved shows, to truly love a toy is an immortal thing.
A collection of Mark Nixon’s Much Loved photographs is now available in hardcover from Harry N. Abrams press.