THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

76 posts categorized "Exhibitions"

11 July 2018

Cataloguing James Berry

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By Callum McKean, Curator of Contemporary Literary Archives and Manuscripts. The James Berry Archive, which was acquired by the Library in 2012, is comprised of twenty-eight boxes containing drafts, notebooks, diaries, correspondence and audio-visual material spanning Berry’s fifty year career. Further details about the acquisition can be found here. A conference on Berry’s work will be held in the Knowledge Centre on 5th October 2018, with information and tickets available here. Details about the exhibition, Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land, containing items from the James Berry Archive, can be found here.

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James Berry’s earliest short stories are not often read together. Despite being published in various popular magazines in the late fifties and early sixties under the name J. Raglan Berry, they remain uncollected and disparate, available only to those proficient in database searches or willing to trawl through microfilm reels. For a cataloguer, tasked with describing a large cardboard box filled with stacked manila binders, each containing annotated typescript drafts of this early work, the experience is very different. Rather than reading each story as a distinct, atomised unit, a structure starts to emerge as they are read one after the other. The familiar rhythm of something being compulsively worked out, again and again, begins to take hold. These are stories about new arrivals to the so-called Mother Country, what they see and how they are seen. But, perhaps more fundamentally, they are stories about encounters; personal, cultural and material collisions parsed out with emotional incisiveness and critical intelligence. In one story, a young factory worker is paralysed by memories of her home island as she stands on the precipice of a cavernous canteen in her new place of work with all eyes on her; in another, a West Indian cricket player becomes an inadvertent focus for English gawkers as he prepares for a match; and in yet another, a young family moving in to a west London flat are met with their new neighbours’ quintessentially English hostility – at once veiled and virulent. One thing which makes these stories of cross-cultural encounter uniquely Berry's, though, is a hard-won commitment to progress; a need to move beyond identifying friction towards something like easing it. In these early stories such a zealous commitment to resolution can sometimes come at the expense of realism: factory workers, cricket players and new neighbours all turn out to embrace the newcomers, in different ways and on different terms, in the end. The short story form – crammed into the columns of popular magazines – is sometimes felt to bring everything together too quickly and easily for Berry’s sense of the complexity of these meetings.

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A selection of marked-up typescript drafts of James Berry’s early short stories, submitted to various magazines, most notably Truth, under the name J. Raglan Berry.

Given space, though, Berry’s later work takes a different approach, particularly in his most famous and final poetry collection, Windrush Songs (2007) – now on display in the Library’s Entrance Hall as part of the exhibition which echoes its title, Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land. In this collection, taking on this most mythical of cross-cultural encounters, Berry manages to maintain a voice which is gritty, complex and poly-vocal without ever losing his commitment to resolution, however difficult. If the metonymic ship in the collection’s title (and on its front cover) is ever to plot a successful course for the future, it must first take detailed readings of the past and present in order to adjust for the direction and speed of present travel. The ship’s on-board instrument, language, must then be wielded with extreme sensitivity and acuity. In this way the elegance of the slim volume published by Bloodaxe betrays the massive volume of draft material, amassed over a period of more than ten years, which went into its production. The reams of draft material for Windrush Songs, present in the archive, reveal a practice which was both precise and open-ended. Individual poems are revised daily in a routine which comes to resemble the mantric, meditative practices which interested Berry so much throughout his life and which he wrote about in his personal diaries and notebooks. But as well as being precisely constructed these poems are also amorphous in draft form, blending into one another, taking on new titles, merging, exploding in size and significance only to fade into the background and re-emerge later, recognisable only as a trace. This combination of fluidity and fastidiousness can make the cataloguer’s job more difficult but, as is so often the case with creative archives, what is most difficult for a cataloguer to pin-down often proves to be of the greatest interest to potential researchers.

 

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Various drafts of Windrush Songs, comprising notebooks, annotated print-outs, and handwritten notes.


As well amassing his considerable literary output, Berry’s archive is also a fascinating piece of social history for those interested in the generation of people who left the Caribbean for England in the late forties and early fifties. (Berry himself left Jamaica on the ship after the Windrush, the SS Orbita). In the Library’s exhibition, a photo taken from Berry’s archive showing him at work as a labourer in the United States during the Second World War is intended to unravel the idea of the rural islander travelling for the very first time to unknown shores – Berry and many others from the Caribbean had visited and lived in the US, Canada, and even England before the Windrush set sail. Although the notebook which he carried during this period -- which he thought of as representing the birth of his impulse to write -- does not survive, his pocket-diary from this period does. This little leather-bound pocket-book gives a unique insight into the places Berry lived, the people he met, as well as providing some personal ruminations on life in America. Equally, long-form personal letters from family members in Jamaica, sent after Berry moved to London, provide comments on his burgeoning writing from a Caribbean perspective, send personal encouragement, give news, and fill out a deeply intimate sense sense of the ways in which familial closeness was maintained over long distances during this period of mass migration.

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James Berry’s personal pocket diary, kept during his time spent living in the United States.


These highlights only scratch the surface of Berry’s archive, which also includes correspondence with key figures in Caribbean literary circles, unpublished or hard to find non-fiction essays , talks for TV and radio, as well as material related to his prolific childrens’ writing and his time as a writer in residence at Vauxhall Manor School. All of the material highlighted here, and much more, will be available to researchers in the Manuscripts Reading Room in early 2019.

 

 

22 June 2018

Introducing the Women of Windrush

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Beryl Gilroy - Crop
Guyana-born writer and teacher Beryl Gilroy with her pupils, image courtesy of the Estate of Beryl Gilroy.

On Monday 25 June the British Library in association with Wasafiri, the Magazine of International Contemporary writing, will be hosting Windrush Women: Past and Present. When the Empire Windrush sailed from the Caribbean 70 years ago, there were 257 female passengers on board, 188 of whom were travelling alone. There are many stories missing from the Windrush narrative, not least those of bold and pioneering women, leaving everything behind, to better their own and their family’s lives. This evening of poetry and readings will launch the latest issue of Wasafiri, which features a special section on Windrush women from across the generations.

Wasafiri's Editor-in-Chief, Susheila Nasta, says: ‘For better or worse, the stories of the post-war Windrush generation have become more than evident in recent months. Though little known, there were women on board the SS Windrush as well as the other boats that sailed after the second world war. The experiences of the women were as varied as their ages and backgrounds. Join Wasafiri, the Magazine of International Contemporary writing, to hear the voices of Windrush women across the generations and find out more about their lives as well as the complex challenges they continue to face’.

Appearing with Susheila on Monday will be Valerie Bloom, Jay Bernard, Maria del Pilar Kaladeen, Alison Donnell, Hannah Lowe, Catherine Ross and Susheila Nasta. Tickets are still available from the British Library Box Office. As an introduction to Monday’s event, we are publishing here an excerpt from Susheila Nasta’s editorial from Wasafiri No 94.

If this whets your appetite for Caribbean women’s writing, there is more to see (and hear) in the Library’s free exhibition Windrush: Songs in a Stange Land which continues in the Entrance Hall Gallery until 21 October. On display are Beryl Gilroy’s long-lost manuscript for her novel In Praise of Love and Children (1996), Andrea Levy’s working drafts of Small Island (2004) and Jean Rhys’ revisions to Wide Sargasso Sea (1966); plus migration memoirs from Floella Benjamin and Verona Pettigrew and performances by poets Louise Bennett (reading her brilliant patois poem ‘Dry Foot Bwoy’ about a haughty Caribbean man putting on an upper class English accent), Grace Nichols, Hannah Lowe, Maggie Harris, Kim O’Loughlin, Marsha Prescod and Merle Collins. These literary legacies of Windrush are interspersed with recordings of Caribbean women speaking about all aspects of their lives, from working in the NHS to the difficulties of courting in England compared with back home, and music too – there is much in the exhibition to investigate, explore and be inspired by.

 

Excerpt from Wasafiri No 94 (2018):


‘History, as James Baldwin once famously observed is not the story of the past but the present. Coinciding with the seventieth anniversary of the docking of SS Empire Windrush at Tilbury in June 1948, this issue shows us how the many global intersections of Britain’s mixed cultural past continue to reverberate in today’s migrant present. When Andrea Levy’s award-winning historical novel, Small Island, first appeared in 2004, it was applauded for its fictional portraits of the forgotten voices of ‘Windrush’, for bringing the nation’s post-war migrant history centre stage and its timely intervention into what had largely been a male founding narrative of arrival and settlement. Reviewers were often unaware of earlier Caribbean and black British fictions of this era; whether classics, such as The Lonely Londoners (Sam Selvon, 1956), The Emigrants (George Lamming, 1954) or, more significantly here, given the objective of our special section focussing on ‘Windrush women’, Beryl Gilroy’s belatedly published 1950s novel, In Praise of Love and Children (1994). Despite such gaps, the appearance of Small Island was significant; not only was Levy, herself a daughter of Windrush, presenting her story through a range of narratives – male and female, Caribbean, Irish – but its engaging depiction of Britain’s diverse migrant histories began to touch a wide public readership — I once saw over five people reading the paperback version in one carriage on the London Underground just after the novel’s winning of the Orange Prize was announced. Interestingly Levy’s title, which playfully signalled Britain’s shrinking post-war global status – once ‘great’ empire, now ‘small island’ – was not only powerfully ironic but remains prescient, especially given ongoing Brexit debates over a decade later around ‘Englishness’, national identity, the rights of belonging or leave to stay. There is no doubt, as Grace Aneiza Ali and many of the other contributors to this issue differently observe, that migration continues to be the ‘defining moment of the modern era’ and ‘few’ can be ‘untouched’ by its ‘sweeping narrative’.

‘Highlighting the diversity of the period of migration following ‘Windrush’ and looking within and outside the parameters of what still figures as a powerfully constructed icon, this issue brings together Caribbean and black British voices from across the generations. Loosely defined here as the ‘Women of Windrush’, our special section comprises a range of genres and a mix representing the contemporary writing and works from past generations. It is a small sample which is by no means representative or comprehensive. Hannah Lowe’s feature-interview with three contemporary poets (Grace Nichols, Karen McCarthy-Woolf and Jay Bernard) points to the icon of ‘Windrush’ as ‘that huge fiction of a ship’ (Jackie Kay), a fiction which continues regardless to impact on many imaginations. In interrogating the enduring legacy of this myth, we feature an extract from Beryl Gilroy’s pioneering novel, In Praise of Love and Children, as well as providing the transcription of two interviews, originally conducted at the ICA in 1986, to celebrate the publication of Gilroy’s Frangipani House and a first novel, Timepiece by Janice Shinebourne. Like the 2004 moment when Levy’s Small Island was first published, the mid-1980s was a critical period for the publication of black and Asian women’s writing in Britain. Publishers influenced by the success of African-American writing in the US began to see the migrant black experience in Britain as a potentially profitable market. And it was at this moment that adventurous publishers such as Virago and the Women’s Press began to commission anthologies such as the groundbreaking Watchers and Seekers (edited by Rhonda Cobham and Merle Collins, Women’s Press, 1987).This volume of stories, essays and poems, featuring only the work of women, included, amongst many others, now well-known writers such as Collins herself, Amryl Johnson (who sadly died in Britain in 2001), Meiling Jin and Valerie Bloom. Above all, it was a moment when black women writing in Britain began to get the long-awaited recognition they deserved. Too often anthologised or out of print, the many women who contributed to such vital anthologies are not always remembered. Moreover, as Maria del Pilar Kaladeen’s memoir ‘Windrushed’ painfully evokes, amnesia was generated not only from without, but from within, as some of the older generation chose to sidestep their own histories, shrouding their own pasts from their black British offspring.’

 

 

30 August 2017

‘Candle in the Wind’ and the Cultural Legacy of Princess Diana’s Death

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by Dawn Foster

On the 20th anniversary of Princess Diana’s death, the British Library is putting on display, for the first time, the original handwritten lyrics to Candle in the Wind. Following Diana’s death Sir Elton John, a close personal friend, asked his collaborator Bernie Taupin, to adapt the lyrics of Candle in the Wind, originally written as a tribute to Marilyn Monroe, to reflect the Princess’s life and death. The new version of the song, which opens with the line ‘Goodbye England’s rose’, was sung by John at Diana’s funeral, watched by an estimated 2 billion people. Here, Guardian journalist, Dawn Foster, provides a personal reflection on the memory and legacy of Diana’s death.

 

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Flowers and tributes outside Kensington Palace after the death of Princess Diana, 31st August 1997

Credit: By Maxwell Hamilton from Greater London, England United Kingdom (Flowers for Princess Diana's Funeral) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

My mother woke us at 5am and said “She’s dead.” Hours later, when we came downstairs for breakfast, she was glued to the television. The next few days were an uneasy haze: news updates were delivered hourly as the public waited for details on how the crash had occurred and they scrutinised the reactions of the Royal Family. Crowds of mourners fed a sea of flowers, toys and trinkets that surrounded Kensington Palace. 

Even at the age of nine it was clear immediately that the death of Princess Diana on the 31st August 1997 was an historic moment, not just in terms of the death of one of the most famous people on the planet, but culturally. Diana’s death raised questions about the media’s behaviour and approach to personal lives, the role of the Royal Family, and how British people saw themselves. Daily newspapers seemed dated when they failed to carry the most recent twists and turns of the mourning period: the public hunger for information birthed rolling news in a quick, makeshift fudge. Radio and television kept up with announcements and developments more swiftly than print could manage, and small snippets of news took precedence over the more contemplative and authoritative polished segments in news bulletins. 

Coming shortly after New Labour swept to power in May of the same year, Diana’s death and the unprecedented public reaction to the tragedy signalled changing British sensibilities. Diana had become a public individual via her work on campaigns and charitable causes while the Royal Family remained distant authority figures. Deference to the Royals seemed outdated after the divorce of Charles and Diana. Many older friends told me women were emboldened by Diana’s decision to divorce and talk openly about the decision, showing that, even in the highest strata of society, it was becoming accepted that remaining in an unhappy marriage didn’t need to be the norm.

Her relationship with the gay community, too, signalled slow but growing acceptance of different sexualities in Britain. The British Library’s current exhibition, Gay UK: Love, Law and Liberty, charts the legal changes and cultural shifts that characterised Britain’s attitudes towards gay relationships - from open contempt and criminalisation to a begrudging acceptance - since the 1967 Sexual Offences Act partially decriminalised homosexuality following the recommendations of the Wolfenden Report ten years earlier. The exhibition includes a 2016 cover from the gay magazine Attitude featuring Prince William. Diana was both a pin up and a champion for the gay community, and it’s difficult to imagine the Attitude cover without her engagement with gay politics and people. Her work on HIV was part of a celebrity-led effort to increase understanding of the disease, in both prevention and destigmatisation: the fact she shook hands with HIV-positive patients was shocking to some at the time but was a deliberate decision to show prejudiced ideas about transmission were outdated, damaging and needed to be debunked.

As well as her charitable work, her famous friendships with gay figures were notable. When Sir Elton John asked his collaborator Bernie Taupin to rewrite the lyrics of Candle in the Wind to mark her death, he did so not just as a performer attempting to capture the spirit of a nation in mourning, but as a personal friend and confidante of Diana. Performing at her funeral, the mask of the performer slipped as he ended the song. John’s face, wracked with grief, became a conduit for the emotions of the nation. Anything could happen, and the moment felt unprecedented. It was clear a change was occurring in the wake of the tragedy and the cultural character and mores of the country were shifting. 

The perceived reserve of the Royal Family in responding to Diana’s death and the gap between this and the news, celebrity responses such as John’s, and the public’s reaction were stark. John’s song - itself a cover, updated for the death of a close friend, emotional and heartfelt - chimed with the depth of public feeling for Diana and marked a change in British sensibilities which was here to stay.

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Dawn Foster at the British Library’s Gay UK exhibition, 2017 © the British Library

13 July 2017

Gay UK: Love, Law, Liberty and Literature?

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The tag line for the British Library’s Gay UK exhibition is ‘Love, Law and Liberty’. One could add another ‘L’ to the alliterative list and make the tag ‘Love, Law, Liberty and Literature’. Literature, and the way it has been used for and against the gay community is a revealing thread running throughout the show. The very first display case in the exhibition examines the downfall of Oscar Wilde and the way his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray – fit for ‘none but outlawed noblemen and perverted telegraph boys’ in the words of one reviewer – was used against him during his trial for gross indecency. Wilde himself realised he had gone too far in the original version of the story, published in Lippincott’s Magazine in the summer of 1890, and for the first novel publication in 1891 he rewrote the book. In the new version the passionate expressions of Dorian, Basil Hallwood and Sir Henry Wotton are recast in aesthetic terms, removing the original’s emphasis on male relationships. The damage was done though and in the eyes of the prosecution lawyers the Lippincott’s version revealed Wilde’s true, criminal, nature. He was, in their eyes, condemned by his own work.

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(Lippincott's Monthly Magazine, July 1890. The first appearance of Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray in print)

This need to either rewrite a novel, or to modify it in order to avoid moral outrage (or indeed to not publish it at all, as E. M Forster did with Maurice) is a common theme. Radclyffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness (1928) was prosecuted for obscenity, and banned, almost as soon as it appeared. By today’s standards the novel is tame but the line ‘and that night, they were not divided’, which referred to two women, was enough to have James Douglas, editor of the Sunday Express, raging with disgust. He wrote: ‘I would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel’. Further comments by Douglas made a direct link back to Oscar Wilde and the decadence that was a key part of the Victorian fin de siècle – ‘It is a seductive and insidious piece of special pleading designed to display perverted decadence as a martyrdom inflicted upon these outcasts by a cruel society. It flings a veil of sentiment over their depravity.’ The trial caused a sensation, with both sides being easy prey for satirists.

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(An illustration by Beresford Egan for The Sink of Solitude (1928), a satire on Radclyffe Hall, her novel and the case brought against her book. Hall is being martyred on the cross; the Home Secretary Joynson-Hicks looks on; Cupid makes an insulting gesture and Sappho leaps joyously across the centre).

Perhaps Radclyffe Hall’s real offence was to root lesbianism in the English countryside, as much a fixture as the fox hunt and the Saturday-to-Monday house party. She drew attention to it and she defended it. Just as she pointed out and defended the fact that many women ambulance drivers on the Western Front during WWI had been lesbians. This was something a large part of the establishment did not wish to hear; it didn’t tie in with their old-style vision of muscular Christianity and their sense of order.

This open hostility towards literature that addressed gay life lasted well into the 20th century. Terence Rattigan conceived his play The Deep Blue Sea (1952) as a one-act piece revolving around a love affair between two men. Knowing this would never get past the censors however he had little option but to place a heterosexual relationship at the play’s heart if it was to be performed. A few years later however things were beginning to change. Following the publication of the Wolfenden Report in 1957, which recommended the decriminalization of homosexuality, and the subsequent rise in campaign movements and pressure groups such as the Homosexual Law Reform Society, attitudes were finally starting to relax. On 31st October 1958 the Lord Chamberlain issued a memorandum to his staff stating that plays about homosexuality, or including homosexual characters would no longer be subject to an automatic ban. The language of the document is grudging and of its time (“We will not allow embraces between males or practical demonstrations of love”) but all the same it was progress and plays like Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey (1958) soon brought sympathetic portrayals of gay men and women to the London stage.

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(Lord Chamberlain's memorandum from 31st October 1958 outlining what can, and what cannot, be permitted on the stage with regard to the portrayal of homosexuality)

Although the pace of change has been gradual the positive advance in attitudes over the twentieth century is encouraging. Seventy years after the banning of The Well of Loneliness Sarah Waters’ novel Tipping the Velvet (1998) achieved impressive sales and critical acclaim. A racy television adaptation was broadcast four years later. Waters’ novel is immeasurably more daring in its depiction of lesbianism than The Well of Loneliness. It is graphic, sexy, bold, joyous and brilliant. The fact it was also available to buy in high-street bookshops and to borrow from libraries up and down the country is indicative of how far attitudes towards same-sex relationships have progressed since the dark days of Oscar Wilde and Radclyffe Hall.

Gay UK: Love, Law and Liberty runs until 19th September 2017. The events programme to accompany the exhibition can be seen here.

 

 

27 April 2017

John Milton's publishing contract for Paradise Lost

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John Milton’s publishing contract for Paradise Lost goes on display

350 years ago today, the poet John Milton entered into an agreement with the printer Samuel Simmons to publish his epic poem Paradise Lost. Through this publishing contract, one of the greatest works of English literature came into print. The original contract for Paradise Lost is held by the British Library, and has just been placed on display in our Treasures Gallery.

Milton publishing contract

John Milton’s contract for the publication of Paradise Lost, 27 April 1667. British Library shelfmark: Add MS 18861.

The contract between John Milton and Samuel Simmons reveals that Milton was to receive £5 from Simmons immediately for Paradise Lost, and a further £5 once 1,300 copies of the poem had been sold. There was potential for Milton to earn an additional £10 if two further editions, also of 1,300 copies each, were sold. Unfortunately Milton died shortly after the second edition was produced in 1674, and so received only £10 for his masterpiece.

On display alongside Milton's contract is the first edition of Paradise Lost, which Simmons duly printed in 1667. It is in ten ‘books’ or sections, and contains over ten thousand lines of verse. Simmons did not include his own name on the title page, but listed the three London booksellers who acted as wholesale distributors of the book.

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The first edition of John Milton’s Paradise Lost (London, 1667). British Library shelfmark: C.14.a.9.

Milton’s poem, on the subject of the temptation of Adam and Eve and their banishment from the Garden of Eden, had occupied him for many years before it was finally published. Having lost the sight in both eyes by his early forties, he had to dictate the work laboriously, line-by-line, to an assistant.

The publishing contract is believed to have been signed on Milton’s behalf by an amanuensis. Milton then affixed his seal to it. This is the earliest known example of a contract between an English author and their publisher.

by Sandra Tuppen, Lead Curator, Modern Archives & Manuscripts 1601-1850

10 February 2017

Jane Austen Among Family and Friends

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curated by Sandra Tuppen, Lead Curator Modern Archives & MSS 1601-1850

This year marks the bicentenary of the death of one of our most-loved writers, Jane Austen. To mark this anniversary, we have brought together writings from Austen’s formative teenage years for the first time in 40 years, from the British Library and Bodleian Library collections, plus family letters and memorabilia as part of a temporary display in our free Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery. Austen’s treasured notebooks contain stories and poems she wrote to entertain her family and close friends and are accompanied by other items showing her strong family and social networks. Together these items illuminate the personal family life of this towering literary figure.

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Jane Austen by Cassandra Austen, pencil and watercolour, circa 1810 © National Portrait Gallery, London

This display also includes one of the Library’s finest treasures – Austen’s writing desk. The desk was given to Austen by her father and might have been the very surface at which she produced first drafts of novels such as Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey. While travelling through Dartford in 1798 she almost lost it when it was accidentally placed in a horse-drawn chaise heading for Dover.

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Portable writing desk, late 18th century, Add MS 86841

We have united the three notebooks that Austen kept of her teenage writings, which include “The Beautiful Cassandra”, a story dedicated to Austen’s sister, and a spoof history of England featuring illustrations of the Kings and Queens by Cassandra Austen. They are vivid sketches which illustrate the monarchs of England looking rather more like common men and women than they may have liked.

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An image from 'History of England' from Volume the Second by Jane Austen and illustrated by Cassandra Austen (Add MS 59874)

The social world which Austen lived in deeply influenced her books. Her family and friends provided inspiration for some of her novels’ characters. Their opinions mattered to her and she wrote down what each person thought of her later novels. In the exhibition you can see Austen's careful notation of opinions of Mansfield Park (1814), capturing some of the negative comments with a certain irony. The following image shows a page of these comments relating to Emma (1815).

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Opinions by various people of Jane Austen's work, 1814?, Add 41253 B

Among the letters on display one tells of Austen’s sorrow on the death of her beloved father, while a poem expresses the joy Austen felt on the birth of her nephew. The letters and manuscripts exhibited give an insight to Austen’s close friendships, explore her romances and reveal the family joys and sorrows which shaped the writer.

The exhibition is free to visit in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery until 19th February.

03 February 2017

Busting the Myths of Music Hall

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by guest blogger Fern Riddell, cultural historian and consultant for the BAFTA award-winning BBC and Amazon drama, Ripper Street

Teaching a British Library Adult Learning course is an absolute joy. This new range of courses brings together Library experts and guest specialists to offer unique learning experiences, using the Library’s rare collections for inspiration. I was invited to design a six-week course to support Victorian Entertainments: There Will Be Fun, a free exhibition showcasing the Library’s Evanion Collection – a unique archive of the ephemera of Music Hall magician Henry Evans, acquired by the Library and rarely seen by the public.

 

  M. Evanion

Programme of M. Evanion's entertainment, January 13, 1893, Copyright © The British Library Board

I started my academic life as a Music Hall Historian. It’s a well-known part of our cultural history, a genre of entertainment we instantly recognise but actually know very little about. For many people, music hall is a sterotype, infantile, full of mother-in-law jokes and something that should never be considered ‘art’. And this misconception is why I chose to focus on the reality of Music Hall, and not out cultural memory of it, with my course Behind The Myth Of Music Hall. Each week we took a Music Hall myth – from the working class identity, to the role of women – and blew it apart. Did you know that Dickens loved the Music Hall? That women owned and ran music halls across the country; that Kitty Marion, one of our most dangerous suffragettes, was committing arson attacks on MP’s houses in-between on-stage appearances? And that the language of the songs, far from being ‘Knee’s Up Mother Brown’ was witty, clever, and occasionally stolen from the poetry of the greats like Byron or Keats. And above all, Music halls educated their audience about personal rights and situation through topical songs. Music halls kept their audience informed of parliamentary bills, changes in the geographical landscape of London, political intrigues, as well as domestic relationships and trials.

By the latter half of the 19th century, there were over 300 music halls licensed in London alone. Syndicated groups began to appear, opening music halls in towns and resorts across the country, and later the world. The Evanion Collection reflects the huge breadth and depth of acts, performers, and locations across the country as well as Music Hall’s influence over the tastes and ideas of their audience. National stars were created, Marie Lloyd, Leona Dare and Dan Leno packed houses to the roof night after night, and all caught Henry Evans’s eye.

 

  Leona dare

 Poster with an illustration of Leona Dare's balloon ascent, Copyright © The British Library Board

From 1852 Music Hall gained a reputation for showcasing something different, something special, and something new. It was a marvel to behold: opulent ceilings, chandeliers, expensive carpets. The middle classes were shocked: why were music hall impresarios going to such expense just to provide entertainment to the masses? Elegant designs and exteriors belonged to those who could afford to have them at home, not just to be visited for pleasure. But this is where the very core of the entire music hall industry ideal exists. It was a world of fantasy; it attempted to create perfection and sold it to the people who would never have enough money to obtain it. It was the modern day celebrity gossip magazine and reality TV star world rolled into one, and appearing twice nightly just down your road.

The Canterbury Music Hall was the first of these, opening in 1852, and then again in 1856, after a significant rebuild to increase seating capacity. Morton built this hall at 143 Westminster Bridge Road, and it signalled the new style of entertainment, specifically for the working classes, in the heart of the city of London. When the cost of Charles Morton's carpet in the Canterbury was revealed to be over a thousand pounds, he was met with derision and disbelief that he would waste such expense on those who were unable to appreciate it. Morton met his detractors with defiance, his manager, William Holland invited them ‘to come and spit on it’ [Busby, Roy, British music hall: An illustrated who's who from 1850 to the present day (Michigan, 1976), 12.].

 

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Canterbury Theatre of Varieties, theatre programme, 1888, © The British Library Board

Historians have argued that the music halls were the first commercial mass entertainment to appear in Britain, they appealed to everyone. In a world that we see as often only operating along strict class and gender divides, the music halls were a place that drew in men and women, old and young, from all walks of life. In the last week of my course, Helen Peden, the British Library’s Curator of Printed Heritage Collections 1601-1900, joined us and brought with her a mesmerizing selection of posters, playbills and other ephemera from the Evanion Collection, which we displayed on tables across two rooms. The joy of seeing students connect to original source material is unparalleled, and by the end of six weeks, my passionate group of historical myth busters set off to explore the rest of the Library’s collections. I can’t wait to see what they find.

 

  George Pike and seals

George Pike's wonderful performing seals, © The British Library Board

For more information on adult courses at the Library, visit www.bl.uk/courses. The exhibition There Will Be Fun is open until 12th March 2017.

21 October 2016

Dan Leno: the original Pantomime Dame

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by Helen Peden, Curator, Printed Heritage Collections 1601-1900 and British Library curator of exhibition Victorian Entertainments: There Will Be Fun.  

When Dan Leno performed as the Pantomime Dame in the 1880s he transformed a previously minor role into the main part and shaped pantomime into the Christmas show we know today.

  Dan Leno

Illustrated cover of the score of My Old Man (1889) H.1260.m.(43

The great clown Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837) had been the star of Regency pantomime and brought the subtle arts of mime and gesture to this popular entertainment. In Grimaldi’s performances the clown was always the main character but after his death these clever skills were lost and soon replaced by the much less finely drawn charms of Principal Boys and Pantomime Dames. Clowns no longer played a pivotal role in the production and returned to the circus leaving pantomime without a main character and in need of a new direction. This was provided through the comic genius of Dan Leno.

Playbill Leno

Foresters’ Music Hall playbill (1885) Evan.611  

On Monday, October 5th, 1885, Leno made his first appearance in London at the Foresters’ Music Hall. Playbills in the Evanion Collection document Leno’s early London success (Evan.611, Evan.1063) and list him as a champion dancer – he had won a world clog dancing competition in Leeds in 1880. His champion clog dance was the main part of his turn at the Foresters’ but his comic song – I’m Going to buy Milk for the Twins – proved more popular with London audiences. Although the words have not survived, we know that Leno rushed on stage in the guise of an ordinary, harassed, yet spirited and resilient woman, and immediately grabbed the attention of the audience with his rapid comic patter in which he revealed the many small injustices of everyday life. Although Leno performed alone on stage the characters he embodied were so well drawn that his stage always seemed to be fully peopled.

Playbill- leno

Oxford Music Hall playbill (1886) Evan.1063

George Conquest, manager of the Surrey Theatre in Lambeth, South London was so impressed by Leno’s performances that he was quickly engaged to play Dame Durden in the 1886-7 pantomime Jack and the Beanstalk. Leno’s Dame stole the show and he subsequently appeared in every spectacular pantomime at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane until the end of the 1904 season.

Mother Goose

Illustration of Dan Leno as Mother Goose. Jay Hickory Wood: Dan Leno. London, 1905 10827.f.24.

The Good Old Original Mother Goose

Leno became the pantomime star of the late Victorian era. The main part of Mother Goose was written for him by the writer J. Hickory Wood for the 1902-3 Christmas season at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. The character went through a number of phases – from poor to wealthy, humble to haughty, plain to beautiful and young to a final incarnation as the good old original Mother Goose, complete with top-knot and bunion.

Mother Goose was Leno’s favourite pantomime role and was considered to be the greatest triumph of his pantomime career.

Visit There Will Be Funa free British Library exhibition on Victorian popular entertainments, open until March 2017, and see many other rare and wonderful treasures from the Evanion Collection.

Helen Peden, Curator, Printed Heritage Collections 1601-1900