This playbill in Worcester City’s collection forms part of a set from the historic Worcester Theatre Royal and the current Swan Theatre. The collection includes playbills, posters and programmes, many of which date from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. The playbills in the collection are generally smaller than the posters and their uses were more varied. Some would have been posted up and displayed, particularly the larger ones and those on thicker paper, but most would have been given away for free. They were often used as publicity flyers before the show, particularly by actors trying to sell tickets, and were also given out to playgoers on the night as makeshift programmes of the evening’s performance.
This particular playbill takes us back to Thursday 30 January 1890. With just a few nights of the pantomime ‘Forty Thieves’ left to run, Mrs Gomersal – a retired actress who still occasionally performs – is having her benefit night. Accompanying her onstage is her daughter Louise, who later married the actor WJ Manning and would continue her career in his theatre company. Also joining the troupe is Fred Acton, playing Ali Baba in this production, a regular performer in Gomersal’s pantomimes who most often played the Dame.
Built on Angel Street, Worcester and opened in 1781 by actor-manager James Whitley, the first Worcester Theatre was a small, plain, sturdy brick building. It enjoyed nearly a century of production in the initial building, during which it was permitted to call itself Theatre Royal in 1805. By 1874 however, it was proving too small and cramped for the increasingly elaborate Victorian productions and was re-built by the renowned theatre architect CJ Phipps, in a similar style to that of a Venetian palazzo. It now had up-to-date facilities both for actors and scenery, and a larger and more comfortable auditorium which seated 1600 and had perfect acoustics.
After many decades of entertaining the people of Worcester, the Victorian theatre closed in 1955 and was demolished in 1960 due to fire damage – happily, the Swan Theatre was opened in 1965 and has continued the tradition of theatre in the city ever since.
Holte was born in Worcester in 1829. A well-read man and an accomplished public speaker, Holte considered standing as a Member of Parliament, but his creativity got the better of him and he decided instead to pursue a career as an artist.
Most of his works were landscapes of his beloved Worcester and the neighbouring county of Warwickshire where he died in 1907. He also favoured the views of Wales after residing in Betws-y-Coed for several years. Amongst his friends were the artists David Bates, David Cox and Benjamin Williams Leader.
Among the Bluebells at Crown East was painted in May 1880 and was presented by the artist to the City of Worcester in the same year. An art critic in the 1930s wrote of the painting:
The picture represents a scene of a spring day in the woods of Crown East. One of its most striking features is a large group of scotch firs; which occupies a prominent place in the foreground. The atmosphere of a fresh spring day is skilfully suggested by the deep shadows under the foliage and the rolling sky above the trees.
This beautiful blouse in Worcestershire’s collection is one of several that the museum acquired from W. H. Lamb of Pump Street, Worcester when it closed its doors for the last time – the price tags and sales labels are even still attached to the clothes. All dating to the 1920s and 1930s, the items are a wonderful snapshot of a bygone age and can be used to indicate some important changes which were happening in society at the time.
Gone were the restrictive Victorian crinoline, bustle and intricate boned corsets. Instead, women wore loose-fitting clothes which reflected the freedoms they were experiencing in other parts of their lives at this time.
The owner of a blouse like this may well plan to wear it with a pair of trousers – a revolutionary step for women in this period. Loose ‘Bloomer’ style trousers had been invented in the 1850s and later became popular for women wanting to ride bikes and join in sports more comfortably, though this often attracted criticism from commentators at the time. It wasn’t until the 1920s and 1930s when traditionally ‘masculine’ clothing was used to emphasise the move towards gender equality in society and it became more accepted for women to wear trousers as leisure wear.
Museums Worcestershire’s origins lie with the Worcestershire Natural History Society who set up Worcester’s first Museum. On 8 April 1833 Worcester City Museum was officially opened, the 6th oldest museum in Britain. One of the founding members of the Society, Charles Hastings (also the founder of the British Medical Association), wrote of the importance of studying the natural world around us to enjoy “the great delights that man experiences in contemplating the works of his Maker.”
From the 1830s the collection inspired Worcester residents by teaching them about the natural world around them. As well as plants, minerals, fossils and mammals, the Society collected almost 1300 bird specimens that formed the core of Worcester’s museum collection and enable researchers now to learn much about how Worcester’s biodiversity has changed over the last two centuries.
The juvenile starling and wood pigeon that you see pictured here are still regular sights on even the most built-up streets, with the starling’s distinctive chattering song and the pigeon’s owl-like hooting familiar sounds even in the city.
This atmospheric watercolour, in Worcester’s collection, by Worcester-based artist Henry Harris Lines (find out more about HH Lines in a previous post here) is titled Bron Y Voel, Uchaf, An Ancient British Town on the Western Slopes of Moelfre.
It pictures the ruins of an Iron Age or Romano-British village on Anglesey (now commonly spelled with an F rather than a V), a scheduled ancient monument because of the important evidence it gives us of an ancient field and settlement system. Cadw believes that the surrounding wetlands may still potentially hold archaeological and environmental information that could add to our knowledge of this late prehistoric period.
For the Victorians, and HH Lines, the site was identified with the ancient Celtic druid myths such as the Mabinogion, one of the earliest pieces of written literature in Britain, compiled in the 12th century from oral storytelling. Lady Charlotte Guest, an expert linguist and patron of the arts (as well as having nearly married Benjamin Disraeli in her youth and in later years managing her first husband’s ironworks and her second husband’s political career!) published a Welsh and English translation of its eleven stories full of romance and tragedy. These seven volumes, printed between 1838 and 1845, became hugely inspirational to nineteenth-century artists such as Lines.
This rather lovely plaster model of a spider in the middle of its web is an intriguing object from Worcestershire County Museum’s collections. It is thought to have been designed by either Walter Gilbert or his son Donald, who both produced designs for the Bromsgrove Guild.
The Bromsgrove Guild of Applied Arts was founded in 1898 with the aim of promoting high quality workmanship in many artistic fields including metal casting, wood carving, embroidery and plasterwork. The pre-war period was the heyday for the Guild, with high profile commissions such as the Buckingham Palace gates and the Liver Birds for the Royal Sun Alliance Building in Liverpool.
The First World War proved to be a difficult time for the Guild. Despite securing contracts for the war effort, their debts mounted. A bittersweet relief came when their finances were saved by the demand for war memorials after 1918. However, the Guild’s plaster department, which had produced models and finished pieces of plasterwork, was one of the departments that suffered the most and it was formally closed in 1919 and the Guild started to move away from luxury goods, despite their continuing exceptional craftsmanship.
This cheery little scene entitled In Happy Woodland from Worcester City’s collection was painted by Charles Henry Clifford Baldwyn (1843-1943).
Baldwyn’s father was a Worcester piano tuner and skilled musician, but from a young age Charles’s talent lay in art rather than music and he began working at the Royal Worcester porcelain factory at just fifteen. His passion from early on was local birdlife, spending hours in the countryside with other members of the painter’s shop sketching birds in the wild, and buying captured birds to study.
His paintings of swans in flight on Royal Worcester vases quickly became Baldwyn’s signature pieces, along with birds in moonlit scenes. The designs were so distinctive and synonymous with his name that no other decorator was allowed to paint them during his employment at the Worcester factory.
His popularity and success led to him being known simply as ‘Charley’, and he was allowed to sign his designs at a time when most artists were forbidden from doing so.
Even despite his success, the late Victorian period was a difficult time for the Royal Worcester company so Charles would supplement his income by doing private commissions on canvas. He sold many paintings but also submitted work to the great Victorian exhibitions and several of his paintings, mainly of birds, were shown at the Royal Academy in London.
From Worcester City’s collection of theatrical posters and playbills, this is the poster for a Swan Theatre community play about Vesta Tilley – Worcester’s Music Hall Superstar.
Born in Worcester in 1864, Vesta Tilley was one of the greatest stars of the Music Hall. She was a male impersonator, performing in a masculine persona, her songs making gentle fun of various male ‘types’ – the soldier, policeman, the man-about-town, the dandy. By the 1890s she was England’s highest-earning woman.
She took scrupulous care with her costumes and mannerisms to achieve the perfect, accurate image of the men she portrayed, and this gave her a freedom both to take on these masculine roles and to mock the absurdities and follies of men. Of course, this playful ambiguity of gender could only happen when she was on the stage: in late Victorian Britain with its very strict rules about gender and sexuality, she had to be careful to avoid accusations of immorality. Therefore in her off-stage life, she was always very careful to manage her image, to present herself as a happily-married woman, and to dress in a highly feminine style. This strategy worked – the only notable scandal that she caused was at the 1912 Royal Command Performance when Queen Mary was so shocked at the sight of a woman wearing men’s trousers that she covered her face with her programme and commanded her ladies-in-waiting not to look at the stage.
Vesta Tilley was a trailblazer, playing with ideas of gender at a time when it was thought dangerous to question them. Her legacy continues in a modern form – she was mentioned in an episode of the UK version of the popular TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race, showing Vesta Tilley is an inspiration to a new generation of LGBTQ+ performers.
Suz Winspear, Worcester Art Gallery & Museum
Benjamin Williams Leader was one of Worcester’s most successful artists – you can read more about him in this previous post. In his prime, at the start of the twentieth century, he was known as the most expensive painter in England. Because of this success, faked Leaders are not uncommon and we see quite a few at Worcester City Museum. Usually these are landscapes by lesser artists just attributed to Leader at some point in their history.
The best way to uncover a real Leader painting is when it comes with a provenance that can be checked against the events of Leader’s life – ideally this will be documentation showing who bought it from whom. Sometimes stickers or notes on the back of the painting will give further information about the painting’s history. The signature can also give us clues as to whether a work is an authentic Leader or not.
Here are some of the things we look out for:
Leader signed with a brush (as do most painters) and the end of his strokes is clearly defined. His signature is in capitals, and includes dots between each section and a dot at the end. Both the W and the R are curved, and the D is quite square. Leader also gave his 8s and 3s a flat top.
Here are some signatures from paintings in Worcester City’s collection that we know are definitely by BW Leader – can you spot the characteristic elements?