An unforgettable year: 2014

A very happy new year; on behalf of the Special Collections & Archives, I’d like to wish you a successful, peaceful and happy 2014. We finished 2013 in celebratory style, with two book launches for the ever talented students of Simon Smith’s The Book Project module, and a festive get together for our volunteers. Now back at the Templeman Library, we’re getting back into the flow of things, with the reading room back to our normal opening hours, ahead of the start of term on 20 January.

And what a term it’s likely to be! To start with, we have our first exhibition of 2014 opening in just a week’s time, on Friday 17 January. ‘The Bullet is Stronger than the Ballot‘ will explore cartoons of political assassinations, in collaboration with The Beaney, who are 15884 croppedhosting Manet’s ‘The Execution of Maximilian’, as part of a season looking at political assassination, as far back as Thomas Becket. Drawing on a wide range of cartoonists’ work since the Second World War, ‘The Bullet is Stronger than the Ballot’ will be on display in the Templeman Gallery until the end of February. Dr. Nick Hiley, Head of Special Collections and Curator of the British Cartoon Archive, will be giving a talk about British cartoonists and political assasinations at the Beaney on Thursday 20 February.

Exhibition launch 2013We’ll also be heavily involved in teaching this term, particularly with the Drama department, whose ‘Victorian and Edwardian Theatre‘ module has become a huge success. This involves intensive teaching in Special Collections, encouraging students to analyse the rare and unique performance materials we hold, and culminates in an exhibition curated by the students in the Templeman Gallery in April. I’m sure I will be blogging much more about that as we get closer to the time.

With the Templeman Development Project now well under way (foundations and ground floor level now visible), we’re starting to see our planned changes coming into effect. The first impact is going to be the closure of the Templeman Gallery space in the summer of 2014. This means that our final major exhibition, for the time being, will also be our first public presentation of the Kingsley Wood papers, in May 2014. The exhibition will open with the launch of historian Hugh Gault’s new book Kingsley Wood: Making the Heavens Hum. We can’t wait to see the results of all Hugh’s hard work, and many hours spent poring over cuttings in the reading room!

Section of Kingsley Wood's election poster for 1918.

Section of Kingsley Wood’s election poster for 1918

In addition, we still have two talks to come in this year’s Special Collections & Cathedral Library Lecture series – in February, Diane Heath will be telling us all about the monsters and beasts in medieval books, followed by Olly Double guiding us through the giggles of popular comedy, from music hall to standup in June.

Of course, we’ll also be doing all of our normal work cataloguing, processing and caring for collections, helping you with enquiries and research and in particular preparing for the University’s 50th anniversary celebrations next year. And that’s not to mention the start of the 4 year World War One centenary commemorations, or the exciting prospect of watching the Templeman extension – and the new Special Collections basement, offices and research and teaching space – take shape.

All in all, I think it’s going to be a very exciting and busy year!

It’s Behind You!

Book of Words for the Lyceum pantomime 'Queen of Hearts', 1927-1928

Book of Words for the Lyceum pantomime ‘Queen of Hearts’, 1927-1928

Oh no it isn’t…oh yes it is!

I’m sure you can guess exactly what I’m about to blog about, but just in case you hadn’t noticed, with Christmas coming fast upon us, we will soon be well and truly in pantomime season. Here at Special Collections & Archives, we’re already getting into the panto spirit – but don’t worry, we’ve not been dressing up as animals, attempting to purchase magic beans or waiting for our fairy godmothers to complete our exhibitions. No, instead we have teamed up with the Gulbenkian to create a fittingly bright and cheerful tribute to the pantomimes of yesteryear in our latest exhibition, It’s Behind You!

Pop into the Gulbenkian foyer to take a look at some replicas our the magical, marvellous and multicoloured treasures in our Theatre & Performance collections, which date back to the heyday of pantomime.You can see costume designs from pantos of the 1880s, posters for productions at Drury Lane, the Lyceum and provincial theatres and some of the ‘books of words’ created to go alongside later productions.

Behind you: the history

Photograph of Nellie Farren, principal boy c.1880s

Photograph of Nellie Farren, principal boy c.1880s

Early nineteenth century, performances of harlequinades harked back to the Italian Comedia dell’arte, with their slapstick and transformational scenes rather than the modern pantomime. By the end of the century, however, theatrical tycoons such as Augustus Harris at Drury Lane were staging the opulent and comical productions which we would recognise today.

Indeed, it was during these formative years of the pantomime that interest in their stage magic and heroic tales exploded into the popular imagination. Costumes, sets and settings were bold, exotic and expensive to draw in the crowds. Magazines and newspapers dedicated whole issues to pantomime, reviewing productions, explaining stage transformations and, of course, interviewing the stars of the show. The female stars in the roles of principal boy and girl were often as much of a draw as the men who played the dames.

Illustrations of costumes from Aladdin at Drury Lane, produced 26 December 1885

Illustrations of costumes from Aladdin at Drury Lane, produced 26 December 1885

It’s Behind You! will run until 10th January and is freely accessible in the Gulbenkian foyer, so do take the opportunity to have a look before the end of the term and let us know your thoughts. Feel free to Tweet us @UoKSpecialColls, or drop us an email via specialcollections@kent.ac.uk.

A flurry of events

Hot on the heels of my last post, announcing the short-term DocExplore exhibition and Harry Bloom Centenary display, we have some more exciting events to tell you about.

National Theatre display

National Theatre display (Templeman foyer)

Firstly, our third exhibition of the month, which joins in with the National Theatre’s 50th anniversary celebrations, is now on show. This small exhibition takes pride of place in the Templeman Library’s foyer, and contains gems from our collections which span the National’s life. Some of the highlights include the programme for the first production staged at the National, Hamlet, with Laurence Olivier as director, Chekov’s The Seagull, starring Judy Dench and Bill Nighy and materials relating to one of the National’s biggest successes, The History Boys. Do take a look if you get the chance, and tweet your thoughts to @UoKSpecialColls, using the hashtag #nt50.

Finding the funny posterI’m also delighted to announce that the new series of Special Collections & Archives and Cathedral Library lectures, will be opened by Pip Gregory on 26 November. Pip is in her second year of a PhD with the School of History, and is making intensive use of the British Cartoon Archive to examine humour in British and German cartoons of the First World War. On Tuesday 26, she will be sharing some of her discoveries and the challenges of studying humour when it comes to the First World War, in her talk: ‘Finding the Funny: humour in First World War cartoons’. There will be refreshments available from TR201 in the library from 5.30, with the talk starting at 6. The event will finish by 7.15, and we do hope to see you there.

Next on our radar is a celebration of pantomime, but I’ll let you know more about that as it occurs.

 

A melodramatic celebration

Can you believe it? We’ve just passed 100 posts on the blog! Over the last two and a half years, we’ve been bringing you all the exciting news and updates from our treasures in the Templeman; I hope you’ve been enjoying the posts so far. I am honestly surprised that it’s been quite so long, but they do say that time flies when you’re having fun.

To mark this impressive milestone, I thought I’d tell you about some new additions to the archival materials we now have available online. The eagle-eyed amongst you may already have noticed (if you’ve happened to type ‘Melville’ into our Special Collections search), that it’s not just digital images of playbills which now accompany our catalogue records. Type ‘Bad Woman’ into the search box, and you will now be greeted by images of black and white publicity postcards from the melodramas of the Melville family.

The Beggar Girl's Wedding publicity postcard

Publicity postcard, c.1908

You’ve probably read about the Bad Women dramas here before; they are one of the most popular parts of our Theatre Collections, but also sadly underresearched. Created by Frederick and Walter Melville, two brothers from the theatrical Melville dynasty, the Bad Women plays were stock melodramas, dealing with all kinds of concerns of their day, the early 1900s. The majority follow an upright hero and an innocent heroine (a ‘good’ woman) whose honourable intentions are usually impeded by a villain and the trademark villainess, the ‘bad woman’ of the title.

During my time in Special Collections, we have been able to purchase a number of these postcards which still survive, resulting in a gradual increase in our understanding of these unpublished plays. Every time we get a new delivery, it feels a little bit like Christmas to open the envelope and take a close look at the wonderfully posed and illustrative scenes from each individual play. Our latest acquisition increased the number of cards we have from ‘The Female Swindler’ from two to eight, opening up this little known play without reading the whole text.

I must confess that I haven’t read very many of the Bad Woman dramas (much as I would love to spend the time doing so!) Aside from the exciting theatrical read-through which we did with the Melodrama Research Group, to my knowledge these plays haven’t been performed for around 100 years, so the postcard images are a valuable insight into performance styles, set and costume at the turn of the century. It’s also always a bit of a challenge to look at our whole stock of cards for any given melodrama (the most we have for one play is currently eleven for ‘The Bad Girl of The Family’) and try to piece together the narrative. Of course, we don’t know whether we have a complete set of any of these, we can only build them up as we go, which means that the order in which the postcards are catalogued doesn’t necessarily reflect the story!

The Bad Girl of the Familt publicity postcard

Publicity postcard c.1909

We are also lucky enough to be involved in the Melodrama Research Group which specialises in cross-faculty research on this performance style and has broadened our understanding of where the Melville melodramas fit into the popular tastes of the time. Linking quite neatly with this, we do have some (non-Melville) filmic postcards available in the Templeman Gallery space advertising the Melodrama Group and its activities – do feel free to pop in and pick one up!

As for the Melville postcards, it’s a delight to be able to share them with you, and I hope that they will inspire some new interest in melodrama and the Melvilles, who have been sadly forgotten today.

More Dickens Digitised!

After lots of hard work by a number of volunteers, I’m delighted to announce that we have now digitised almost all of our playbills for productions of works by Charles Dickens.

Although the bicentennial of Dickens’ birth was back in 2012, we have continued to work on this collection and, over the last few years, some very committed volunteers have made a wonderful contribution to this work.

Playbill advertising 'A Christmas Carol' at the Royal Victoria Theatre, December 1862

Playbill advertising ‘A Christmas Carol’ at the Royal Victoria Theatre, December 1862

Christopher Hall and Marjolijn Verbrugge spent a significant amount of time digitising all of our smaller playbills, which are now visible on our website. More recently, Elizabeth Grimshaw, who is completing an MA in Dickens Studies here at the University, has spent hours cataloguing our Dickens ephemera, and digitising the remaining (rather large) playbills as well as some illustrations. The digitisation involved Elizabeth painstakingly reconstructing the complete playbill in digital form from several digitised pieces, matching sections carefully to create an almost seamless effect. Matching up text and ensuring that the angles are correct is difficult at the best of times, and even more challenging with Victorian playbills and their miniscule text. Although a handful of the last playbills were digitised on the newly working oversize scanner, the majority of the credit for this work must go to our hard working volunteers!

The Dickens Collection has been assembled over many years and includes bibliographic gems, such as the nineteenth century part issues of Nicholas Nickleby (1838-1839), pieces of ephemera, such as some twentieth century ‘Pickwick’ playing cards, and illustrations. Amongst this assembly is a significant collection of Dickens theatrical material, particularly Victorian and Edwardian programmes, postcards and playbills.

Playbill for Oliver Twist, 1838

Playbill advertising ‘Oliver Twist’ at the City of London Theatre, 11 December 1838, staged while the serialisation was ongoing.

Dickens was something of a sensation in his day (to put it mildly) and it wasn’t long before theatre managers decided to cash in on the popularity of his serialised works. Borrowing heavily from the books, the unofficial productions of lengthy works such as Oliver Twist included tableaux taken from the published illustrations and adapted the stories to suit their needs. In fact, the craze for all things Dickens was so great that hack playwrights, such as Edward Stirling and William Moncrieff, would make up their own endings for serialisations which had not yet been completed. With a lack of copyright protection, or an ability to police every theatre in Britain (never mind the spin-offs put on stage in America), there was little which Dickens could do about these plagerised versions but rail against them in prose.

In any case, the risks paid off for the theatre managers in early years, with Dickens’ first full length works immensely popular on stage. Around the time of Martin Chuzzlewit’s appearance, appetites for Dickens on stage appear to have abated somewhat, perhaps due to the fact that productions of Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickelby and The Old Curiosity Shop were all still being performed, as well as A Christmas Carol, which was published in December 1843, part way through Chuzzelwit’s serialisation. Of course, even limited success for performances of Dickens’ work on stage still proved profitable, with Dickens later cashing in to produce ‘official’ versions of his works in an attempt to limit plagerism. Even today, with television largely occupying the space which the Victorian Theatre filled, adaptations of Dickens’ works are widely popular.

We’re delighted that such an important section of the Dickens Theatrical Collection is now available on our website, with full zoom functionality, and would like to thank our volunteers for all their hard work.

If you’d like to learn more about performances of Dickens’ stories, take a look at our Dickens on Stage index.