“There Will Be Fun”, promises the British Library with its new exhibition on the world of Victorian Entertainments. And so there is – plenty of it. The material is drawn mainly from the Library’s Evanion Collection, an extraordinary archive of five or six thousand ephemeral nineteenth-century items – posters, flyers, handbills, advertisements, programmes, tickets and so on – put together by Londoner Henry Evans (1832?-1905) – better known as “Evanion”, conjurer and ventriloquist, and quite a star of the variety halls in his prime. In old age, in ill-health, and down on his luck, he apparently sold the entire collection to the British Museum in 1895 for a pound – any more than that, it seems, and the purchase would have had to be approved by the trustees, who would undoubtedly have said no. The value, foresight, imagination and instincts of private collectors and the purblindness of the great and good appointed to boards of trustees seem to be eternal verities.
Evanion would no doubt been better offering his collection to Clara Millard (see previous post), who herself had connections to this Victorian world of theatre and illusion – but more of her next week. The exhibition is built around five larger-than-life characters of the period – first of all Evanion himself, and a career and a publicity machine built on what was perhaps a single a royal performance. Next up is John Nevil Maskelyne (1839-1917), rather more famous as a magician and illusionist than Evanion and, much to his credit, a scourge of cardsharpers and fake spiritualists. Originally trained as a watchmaker – his partner George Alfred Cooke (1825-1905) was a cabinet-maker – Maskelyne was a master of the mechanical. Their tenancy of the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly ran from 1873 to 1905 and throughout the period this was “England’s Home of Mystery”, the home of stage magic and in particular “Psycho” and “Zoe”, Maskelyne’s card-playing and portrait-drawing automata. Maskelyne is claimed to have invented the trick of levitation and, on a more prosaic level, he patented a coin-operated lock of the type still in use in the public lavatories of my childhood.
“Something new under the sun twice daily” was the tag-line of “Lord” George Sanger (1825-1911), greatest showman of the age, master of the travelling circus, and later the tenant of more permanent theatrical arenas, including the famous old Astley’s Amphitheatre in London. His autobiography was simply called “Seventy Years a Showman : My Life and Adventures in Camp and Caravan the World Over” (1908). Helen Peden, the British Library curator in charge of the exhibition, drew our attention to a passage recounting a bloody battle on the public highway with a rival travelling troupe, each group intent on reaching the best pitch first. Sanger’s murder in 1911 made national headlines and thousands attended his funeral.
Annie de Montford (1836-1882) was variously billed as “the psychological star”, “the most renowned lady electro-biologist of the age”, and “the most powerful mesmerist in the world – the marvel of the two hemispheres”. Originally a millworker but carried along by her belief that powers of the mind can enable you to become anything that you want to be, she was part scientist, part variety turn. The “Midland Examiner” (18th March, 1876) gave an account of her “Two Hours in the World of Wonders” show: volunteers were mesmerised and made to believe they were being chased by wasps, that they had been shipwrecked, that they were circus performers, or soldiers, or members of Parliament, or dentists, etc. She closed the eyes of members of the audience with sounds and no matter how hard they tried they could not open them again until she released them from her spell. And she turned a man into a corpse of suspended animation, placing him between two chairs, supported only by his neck and feet – “while in this position a young man stood on his legs without the least emotion on the part of the inanimate and without his knowledge entirely. His eyes were totally deprived of sight and the limbs rigid marble”.
The fifth and final colourful character is of course Dan Leno (George Wild Galvin, 1860-1904) – quondam clog-dancer, comic singer, pantomime dame and comedian, billed as “the funniest man on earth”. He is plausibly thought of as the inventor of stand-up. With the possible exception of the immortal Marie Lloyd, there was no greater music-hall star in late Victorian England.
Alongside the exhibits, there are five video clips of specially commissioned original performance pieces inspired by collection and in part recreating the acts of the pivotal figures. In addition, the “There Will Be Fun Repertory Company”, organised, like the performance pieces, by entertainer and co-curator Christopher Green, will be giving live Saturday afternoon performances, and there is a full programme of special events, all in the cause of “bringing the British Library’s collections to life”.
I have nothing against any of this, and will probably be turning up for a performance or two. Christopher Green is an interesting and thoroughly engaging man and I was still humming his “There Will be Fun” song (“There is Learning – For the Discerning”) – to myself several days after our guided tour. But I do begin to wonder if this ubiquitous quest to “bring collections to life”, is actually starting to deflect attention away from the material itself. Nothing needs resurrection if it is not actually dead – and these collections certainly aren’t.
I say this because there are whole parallel narratives to this exhibition. It is a celebration of the performing arts, certainly, but without the noise and the razzamatazz, it is also a perfect feast of Victorian commercial printing (click on the images to enlarge). It is a tale of the emergence and rapid universality of colour printing. It is a specific chapter in the history of design. It is the story of a new breed of specialist theatrical printers. It is a full report on the birth of modern advertising. As that doyen of bibliographers, G. Thomas Tanselle, put it long ago, the exhibits themselves “are there, holding clues to their own history, and we must try to learn all we can from the physical evidence they preserve. They are, after all, the primary evidence … physical objects that are themselves pieces of historical evidence”.
There are other lives here – ones not so readily accessible on Wikipedia. For the historian of print, there are colour printers unknown the historian of colour printing, Robert M. Burch – a couple unknown even to his successors, Wakeman, Bridson and Gascoigne. My suspicion is that colour-work for book illustration was lagging well behind the work of these poster-printers.
There is eye-catching work, for example, by” J. Weiner Ltd.”, the London offshoot of a long-established international firm, with offices also in Vienna and Paris, and later New York. A firm awarded first prize in the English Section at the “International Exhibition du Livre”, held in Paris in 1894. They were represented in London by the young “art printer” Joseph Weiner (1868?-1941), son of Jacob Weiner, the founder. The firm were advertising contractors too, owning advertising sites, including a monopoly of the iron pillars used for advertising in Vienna. The firm was floated on the London Stock Exchange in 1895 and the prospectus carries a glowing report. The work is of the highest quality and represented on almost every hoarding. Their poster for the London, Chatham, and Dover Railway “is itself a work of art, and admitted by those connected with the trade one the most artistic placards ever exhibited”. One popular poster was turned out in four-and-a-half days from the placing of the order, a feat which “cannot be matched by any other firm in London”. Their works in Acton Street are conspicuous for cleanliness and order, the machinery maintained in splendid condition (St . James’s Gazette, 8th August 1895).
But there was a darker side. It came to light in 1898, when Joseph Weiner (not for the first time) was prosecuted under the Factory Act – eight counts of employing women at night after the legal period of employment, and two of employing women before the legal hour. The eight young women began their shift at 8 o’clock on a Friday morning and worked through until 6.20am the next day. They then rested until 8 o’clock, when they began their Saturday shift, continuing until 1pm – the normal time to finish on a Saturday. The facts that the women had volunteered to get out 50,000 copies of something in a hurry to help out an old customer, that they were given rest-breaks and refreshments, that the work was light and they were paid double-time, cut no ice at all with the magistrate, who regarded it as “a very bad case” and imposed a stiff fine (Morning Post, 19th August 1898).
In another bay there is a lovely and restrained poster, technically highly accomplished, for E. L. Blanchard’s production of Cinderella at the Crystal Palace – the Blanchard who turned up in a post here on the blog in a different context only a few weeks ago. The poster is quite unlike anything else in the exhibition. It was designed and lithographed by Thomas Way (1837-1915), the man who brought art back into harness with lithography, taught Whistler the technique, prepared his stones and printed his work. It dates from 1874 – and in terms of technique and design, with its echoes of William Morris and foretaste of art nouveau, it is perhaps twenty years ahead of its time. Surely worth a caption?
This Sanger poster is by the prosperous Theophilus Creber (1845-1902) of Plymouth, who described himself as a “show printer”. Brought up in Devonport Workhouse (not as an inmate, his father was the teacher), he was a man in love with his work to the extent that he took his own lease on the old Olympia Theatre in Plymouth and re-opened it in 1887 as a Theatre of Varieties, promising “first class entertainments … free from anything objectionable in the slightest degree”. By 1898 he had taken over the Theatre Royal at Eastbourne, spending a fortune on refurbishing it.
An account in “The Era” describes the work carried out in elaborate detail (see illustration). He also owned Fred Ginster’s Circus, which was put up for auction, lock, stock and barrel, later that year – possibly to pay for the refurbishment: “The Circus Plant is in First-rate Condition, and is now Travelling, and will be up to Day of Sale. It comprises the following :– 100 Horses and Ponies, Procession Carriages, Living Waggons, Luggage Waggons, Pony Traps, Splendid Sets of Red and Blue Leather Harness, Waggon Harness, &c.; very Large Two-Pole Tent, with Wallings and Seating Complete; Horse Tents, Dressing Tents, Property Tents, Procession Dresses, Shields, Banners, Flags, &c.; Twenty-five of the Best and Cleverest Horses in the Circus Business; Four Black Hungarian Horses, Performing Together, and to do Separate Trick and Menage Acts; Dignity and Impudence, the Big Horse and the Little Pony, which do Three Acts; Ten of the Best Ring Horses in the Business, go to every Act; the Smallest and Prettiest Ponies, Two White Sacred Mules, 17h. high, &c” (The Era, 17th September 1898). His business survived until 1932 when it merged with the Salisbury Press.
Well represented with a number of posters (e.g. the first Sanger poster above) is James Upton (1821-1874), the “famous colour printer” of Birmingham, who also had some colourful moments in his own life. He was embezzled by his book-keeper to the tune of hundreds of pounds in 1861. He was eye-witness to a grisly incident headlined “Terrible Fight with Leopards in a Menagerie” by the press in 1869 – it was Upton who alerted the keepers. He was bankrupted and forced to hand over the running of his business to trustees in 1872, but was back in business, creditors paid in full, and prosperous once more by 1874.
He died a few months later, the business continuing in his name under his son William Albert Upton (1860-1908) and grandson James Baskerville Upton (1891-1973) in turn. The firm was still in business (as the Upton Printing Group) recently enough to have printed the sleeve for the Rolling Stones’ “Let it Bleed” album, which represents rather a delightful continuity in the marketing of popular entertainment. The fiftieth-anniversary invitation card comes from Richard D. Sheaff’s wonderful sheaff-ephemera.com website (link in the blog-roll), which I thoroughly recommend to anyone interested in printing ephemera (especially American).
Aside from the posters, flyers, tickets and so on, I spotted some lovely music-covers by the best-known printer of such things, William Thomas Stannard (1815-1895) of Poland Street, son of a London postman. Trading with Francis Dixon as “Stannard & Dixon” until that partnership was amicably dissolved on 30th June 1868, Stannard was later joined by his son, William Stannard, as “Stannard & Son”, until that partnership too was dissolved on 19th November 1891. He was employing thirty hands in 1881. He often worked with the great commercial artist Alfred Concanen (1835-1886) – “The most painstaking of the Pre-Raphaelites must fail beside Concanen!”, averred Sacheverell Sitwell. Stannard was another colourful printer and something of a master of illusion himself – he turns up in two quite different places on the night of the 1871 census. He appears to have been maintaining two separate domestic establishments, the family home in St. Pancras, and another in Battersea with his mistress Selah Sands and her infant daughter. He is described as deaf on one of these returns, but I suspect he may simply not have been answering questions that night.
In 1896 the firm of “C. J. Culliford & Sons” advertised itself as the oldest firm of theatrical printers in Great Britain, established in 1837. To judge from the various examples of their work in the exhibition, they were, to my eye at least, also the best – the colour work clean, crisp and intense (see the “The Mahatmas Outdone” poster above). Charles John Culliford (1816-1893) also frequently acted as his own artist and designer. He was born in Bath and I think was probably a younger brother of (James) Edward Culliford, also a draughtsman and lithographer. Edward Culliford was imprisoned for debt in 1836, 1839 and 1842, and then sentenced to twelve months for forgery in 1848 – but he was also at one time the lessee of the Fitzroy Theatre. Charles John Culliford was himself imprisoned for debt in 1852 and declared bankrupt in 1862. Life was clearly precarious in the world of theatrical printing, but on this occasion Culliford successfully applied for discharge almost immediately.
In 1863 he advertised the largest poster ever executed and by 1871 was employing five men and two boys. Joined in time by his sons Charles Stewart Culliford (1855-1914) and Henry Thomas Culliford (1862-1935), by 1889 he could advertise in “The Stage” that a new twenty-four sheet poster would be the finest of his career. But for all his effort, skill and perseverance, when he died in 1893 his estate was valued at a meagre £130.11s.11d. The younger son had by now gone into a separate partnership with Herbert Clement Haycock as “Culliford & Haycock”, but the original business continued (until 1925) and was responsible for one of the earliest cinema posters – a charming 1896 poster advertising John Nevil Maskelyne’s “Animated Photographs” at the Egyptian Hall. Maskelyne, working with his son of the same name, had patented an improved projector known as the Mutagraph, pictured in the corner of the poster, in that year.
There may have been some opportunities missed in terms of explanatory captions, but this is a glorious exhibition. Do go and see it. It’s free. It’s on until 12th February 2017. Details here at http://www.bl.uk/events/victorian-entertainments-there-will-be-fun. But please don’t think that it’s all about the luvvies. These exhibits don’t need bringing to life, they are shouting for attention. Get there as soon as you can.