Michael Diamond’s collection of nineteenth-century theatre ephemera is a treasure trove for scholars and an invaluable source of information about the entertainment culture of this period. His fascination began when, as a boy in Somerset, he was given a small collection of Victorian theatre programmes. Moving to London in 1966, he was able to begin collecting in earnest, hunting for new additions that would reveal a lost world of music hall and melodrama. Michael estimates that the collection comprises tens of thousands of items, including programmes, music hall songs, postcards, and posters. The material covers most of the century, but Michael’s main interest now is in the colour lithographic posters that were used to advertise melodrama productions between c.1890 – 1910, when the technology to produce large-scale colour images first became available.
These strike a contrast with the theatre posters we are most familiar with today, designs by celebrated artists such as John Hassall or Dudley Hardy, which exemplify the modernist concern with flatness and decorative qualities, and refer to the play they advertise only obliquely. These were known in the nineteenth century as ‘artistic posters’ and were collected by connoisseurs from the start; they have thus taken their place in many museum collections and over the years have featured in exhibitions of poster art. For Michael, however, they are less interesting than what were sometimes known as ‘commercial posters’, often showing the ‘sensation’ scene of a melodrama, or sometimes combining several key scenes in one design. While the ‘artistic poster’ may have appealed to the tastes of West End theatregoers, it is this type which dominated the market, and which, it was thought, appealed most strongly to the imaginations of East End, transpontine, or provincial audiences. While they are generally regarded as aesthetically inferior to ‘artistic posters’, for Michael, these are of far greater interest because they tell us more about the play, the manner in which it was staged, and also about the desires and expectations of spectators.
In this interview Michael talks about what drew him to collecting, why he chose to focus on melodrama posters, and what he thinks this material can tell us about the popular culture of this period. He also gives us an insight into collecting as an activity, telling us about what drives his passion to collect, and sharing some thoughts about the ones that got away.
I asked Michael how the collection began.
I started with programmes – Victorian theatre programmes were very easy to find in the 1960s – and soon collected music hall songs, which for a long time were the main interest, particularly songs with words offering social and political content. Then came postcards, above all those which offer poster images reduced to postcard size. Lastly posters, because for many years I did not think that I could afford them. When I came to London in 1966, I was very attracted by some melodrama posters on sale down the Portobello Road. But they were £6 each, which, I decided, was too much, as I was earning about £1500 p.a.. I suppose I was right, but have often wondered what happened to them. My first melodrama poster was a framed one of The Wandering Jew, which I bought for £5 on the Portobello Road, but that was before I started collecting such posters seriously.
Where does the material come from?
In the 1960s specialist dealers had shops. There was John Hall in Harrington Road, Kensington; his collection of Victorian music sheets would be impossible to assemble, now, although, I suppose, so would mine. For programmes, the main man was Andrew Block of Barter Street; he used to charge £1 for anything before 1914 and 10 shillings for anything after. I also bought a lot of very rare pantomime texts from him, and still add to this collection from time to time. The best-known dealer in theatrical ephemera was David Drummond of Cecil Court; I have bought all kinds from him. He retired a few years ago, and, although the shop still exists, run by his sons, it now specialises in sixties ephemera. Now the main sources are the ephemera and book fairs; people who have met me through them also offer me stuff from time to time.
What qualities draw you to a piece of theatrical ephemera?
What I look for above all is an item which I can learn from. I also bear in mind that the collection is willed to the V&A (except the music hall songs, which are going to the Museum of London). So if John Hassall’s famous poster of The Only Way were available, I would not be interested, because (1) I know the V&A has it, and (2) the image is so familiar that it could teach me nothing.
How did your wife, Bell, feel about your collection?
My late wife, Bell, enjoyed the collection very much, although she would not come with me to buy, as she disliked the necessary haggling. She had been an actress, as had her mother in South Africa. In fact her mother had had small parts when English stars toured South Africa, supported by local casts. Some of the shows she appeared in date back to the nineteenth century and feature in a small way in the collection.
Was there another collection that you modelled yours on, or do you feel that you’ve taken a unique path?
I have not looked to any other collection. If you have limited means, the only way of building up something of the highest quality is to find a field which has not attracted rich people. This is why the melodrama poster collection is the most important part of the collection as a whole, although there cannot be many collections of music hall songs to rival mine.
Is there a community of collectors that you feel part of, or is it more of a ‘lone wolf’ activity?
I have got to know some of the dealers quite well; one is even named as an executor in my will, because she is the youngest person I know who understands the material. The only collector who is a good friend has a first class collection relating to dramatisations of novels by Dickens, which he is leaving to the University of Kent. He too, has chosen a field which has been otherwise neglected.
You’ve written two books on the nineteenth century, Victorian Sensation, or, The Spectacular, the Shocking, and the Scandalous in Nineteenth-Century Britain and “Lesser Breeds”: Racial Attitudes in Popular British Culture, 1890-1940. What is it about this period (and, in particular, its performance culture) that fascinates you?
I have always been interested in the Victorian period, partly because I love the literature, and partly because the history of Victorian Britain is also world history. I learnt about many of the subjects in my book Victorian Sensation through wanting to understand the topical references in Victorian songs. As now, many subjects created a huge furore for a short time, and were then forgotten. To revive them is to get some of our social history back. Similarly, the melodramas whose posters I collect are an important part of our social history because they were seen by so many people. One learns so much about the past from its popular culture. Perhaps more of today’s popular culture should enthuse me more; alas, it does not, but I know that historians of the future will find it as fascinating as I find that of the Victorian period.
Some Further Reading:
Laurence Senelick, ‘Signs of the Times: Outdoor Theatrical Advertising in the Nineteenth Century’, Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film, 45.2, Winter 2018 (forthcoming, but available through OnlineFirst: https://doi.org/10.1177/1748372718818192).
Michael Diamond, ‘“Finest Printing on the Road”: The Importance of Poster Advertising for Touring Theatre Companies Around the Turn of the Century’, Theatre Notebook, 66.1, 2012, 26-47.
Michael Diamond, ‘Theatre Posters and How they Bring the Past to Life’, Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film, 39.1, Spring 2012, 60-77.
Patricia Smyth, ‘Beyond the Picture-Frame Stage: Late Nineteenth-Century Pictorial Theatre Posters’, Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film, 37.2, Winter 2010, 4-27.