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Advert for HMS Pinafore, from the Westminster City Archive

West End Theatre in the 19th Century

Dateline: 11th June, 2010

An exhibition has just opened at the National Theatre which is drawn from the theatre collection in the Westminster City Archives. It provides an opportunity to view material that would otherwise require a visit to the archive which has no regular exhibition galleries but that constitutes one of Britain's largest collections of theatrical material, including more than 15,000 books on theatre.

In the relatively small space of the Olivier foyer there is material that actually ranges wider than the exhibition's title, from Sarah Siddons right through to Norman Wisdom. There is a fascinating selection of prints, photographs, posters and programmes which is varied by the inclusion of a few pieces from the Mander and Mitchenson Collection (another major British theatre resource that has no exhibition), namely some costume designs, red robes that Henry Irving wore as Cardinal Wolsey in Henry VIII and a dress that belonged to Sarah Bernhardt.

Most of the great names are represented, from the great clown Joseph Grimaldi, seen riding a strange coach drawn by dogs with hens sitting on their backs in an entertainment called The Golden Fish, to Leslie Henson. There are Irving and Ellen Terry, of course, William Terris, Lily Langtry, George Grossmith, Herbert Beerbohm Tree, Squire Bancroft, Seymour Hicks and Madame Vestris - there is her contract here as first contralto at the King's Theatre in the Haymarket and you can clearly see the manager had to fork out £700 pounds to get her to sign!

There are theatre plans and theatre pictures - including the 7-tier auditorium of the Pantheon in Oxford Street when it was briefly turned into a theatre. There is the primitive little Royal Orange, the Gaiety (and George Edwardes's Gaiety Girls), Covent Garden, Gilbert & Sullivan and the Savoy, and even the 1844 licence for the Adelphi. One of my favourite images was George Cruickshank's cartoon that he called 'John Bull at the Italian Opera.'

There is even an exhibit on sound effects: coconut shells for horses hooves - but did you know that hollowed blocks of wood were also used to give a different kind of sound for horses' hooves on cobbles? You'll find them too.

Of course, this is only a fraction of what Westminster Archive holds. If you can't get to the exhibit you can see even more of their material in a book co-published by the Archive and Carnegie Publishing: The London Stage in the Nineteenth Century by BTG reviewer Robert Tanitch was also launched at the exhibition's opening. It has more than 220 illustrations and sets out chronologically year by year the daily dates of particular theatrical events with appropriate information, often from contemporary sources, about plays, players and playhouses.

The exhibition continues at the National Theatre until 27th June 2010.

Howard Loxton

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©Peter Lathan 2010