Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

15 December 2022

Character, costumes and comedy: Pantomime posters in the Evanion collection

Henry Evanion (1832-1905) was a nineteenth-century conjuror, entertainer and collector.  His vast collection of ephemera includes local politics, advertisements for household products and theatrical posters including advertisements for pantomimes at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.

A visit to see a pantomime marks the start of the festive season for families across the country.  This Christmas tradition has roots in 16th-century ‘Commedia dell’Arte’.  Innovations to the pantomime tradition in the 19th century included the introduction of outrageous costumes, slapstick comedy and audience participation.

Evanion’s collection of theatrical posters includes three pantomimes staged by Augustus Harris (1852-1896), who managed Drury Lane theatre from 1879-1896.  Harris was a young, ambitious actor and theatre manager.  The pantomimes were the centre of his ambition and the ‘money-making centrepiece’ of the theatre’s season.

 Poster of Puss in BootsEvan.1903. - Augustus Harris's pantomime Puss in Boots, Drury Lane (1887).

Puss in Boots, the pantomime for the Christmas season in 1887 was an elaborate show with Charles Lauri Junior in the title role.  A review of the show in The Penny Illustrated Paper praised Charles Lauri, writing that ‘it would be impossible to excel Mr. Charles Lauri’.  The review went on to praise the ‘richly embellished’ show and ‘attractive charm of the scenery’.

Beauty in a white dress surrounded by roses, with the Beast at her feetEvan.196. Image of Belle Bilton as Beauty in Augustus Harris' pantomime Beauty and the Beast (1890).

For the 1890 pantomime, Augustus Harris staged an elaborate tale of Beauty and the Beast.  The pantomime drew audiences in by casting Belle Bilton as Beauty.  Outside of the stage door, Belle was embroiled in a public drama after secretly marrying Lord Dunlo.  His father (the Earl of Clancy) forced Dunlo to petition for a divorce and attempt to discredit Bilton’s name.  The pantomime built upon public sympathy for Belle by casting her in the title role of the 1890 show.  Just like in the pantomime, Belle got her ‘happily ever after’ when Lord Dunlo defended her in court and the couple were happily married until Belle’s death in 1906.

Augustus Harris’s pantomimes were a staple of the festive season by 1894 and performances of Dick Whittington continued to attract audiences.  Continuing with the tradition of casting popular stars, Dick Whittington featured a core casting of Ada Blanche as Principal Boy and Dan Leno as Idle Jack.  Both actors appeared in numerous pantomimes at Drury Lane with Ada appearing from 1892-1898 and Dan from 1888-1903.  By the 1890s, gender switching was commonplace in pantomimes and the female principal boy and pantomime dame were accepted conventions.  The repeated core cast across the pantomimes meant that audiences knew what to expect from a Drury Lane pantomime.

Ada Blanche as Dick Whittington in a green costume sitting on a swing with his catEvan.4029. Figure of Ada Blanche as Dick Whittington with cat on a swing. The image reads ‘Dick Whittington now in full swing at Drury Lane theatre’.

The pantomime season for 2022 has started and theatres across the country will be full of families enjoying the long-established festive tradition.  The inspiration for the costumes, laughter, elaborate sets and celebrity appearances comes from Victorian pantomimes at theatres like the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.  The Evanion collection is currently being prepared for ingest and display in IIIF on the British Library’s Universal Viewer.

Amy Solomons
PhD Placement Student, Heritage Made Digital

Further Reading:
James Hagy, Early English Conjuring Collectors, James Savren and Henry Evanion (Shaker Heights: Ohio, 1985).
J.P.Wearing, ‘Harris, Sir Augustus Henry Glossop’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004.
The Penny Illustrated Paper, London, Saturday, 31 December 1887, p.423a.
The Story of Pantomime 
Victorian Vaudeville – Tripping the Light Fantastic

Untold lives blog recent posts



Other British Library blogs