Theatrical Portraits: back in the limelightJuly 18, 2012 About my museum job, Blogs, Collections online
Following on from her post last year, Project Assistant, Ellie Miles, continues her work digitising the Museum of London’s theatrical portraits.
“kaleidoscopes of changing pictures, echoes of the past”
This is how Robert Louis Stevenson describes the theatrical portraits he collected as a child. I am working with the Museum’s collection of theatrical portraits, to publish them on Collections Online.
Whilst researching the collection I read a very enthusiastic essay by Robert Louis Stevenson. The essay was first published in April 1884, in The Magazine of Art, and later that year appeared in Stevenson’s book Memories and Portraits. Stevenson’s essay is marked with a bittersweet nostalgia as he recalls the bewildering pleasures of buying, colouring and collecting theatrical portraits:
“To undo those bundles and breathlessly devour those pages of gesticulating villains, epileptic combats, bosky forests, palaces and war-ships, frowning fortresses and prison vaults – it was a giddy joy.” (Stevenson, 1884)
This year the Museum will put a thousand of these portraits on Collections Online. Most include information about the name of the actor and character that they are performing. This information has been digitised so that researchers can quickly look through for individuals.
“Every sheet we fingered was another lightning glance into obscure, delicious story”. (Stevenson, 1884)
In most of the portraits the actors’ features are stylised, and many of the costumes are very similar. The names allow me to find out more about the actors, but the names had a more romantic place in Stevenson’s memory. Stevenson reminds us that: “Names, bare names, are surely more to children than we poor, grown up, obliterated fools remember” (Stevenson, 1884). Anyone who has collected football stickers or other memorabilia will remember the excitement of holding printed names in their hands.
Theatrical portraits were sold either for a penny plain, or two pence coloured. The Museum’s collection includes both, as well as some of the tinsel theatrical portraits I blogged about here. In the essay Stevenson recounts the pleasure of painting in the colours at home:
“I cannot deny the joy that attended the illumination, nor can I quite forget that child, who forgoing pleasure, stoops to tuppence coloured… when all was painted, it is needless to deny it, all was spoiled” (Stevenson 1884)
The Museum has just over a thousand theatrical portraits. They came to the Museum through the family of a London stationer, Jonathan King. He sold the prints and collected examples, but not everybody kept hold of theirs. Although portraits were popular, they became quite scarce. Stevenson wrote: “It may be the museum numbers a full set, but to the plain private person they are become, like Raphaels, unattainable” (Stevenson, 1884)
The Museum’s collection of theatrical portraits will be online soon, and I’ll blog about them again in a fortnight.