University of Bristol Theatre Collection Display

The Art of Innovation: Experiencing Nineteenth Century Theatre and Performance

Wednesday 1st September 2021 – early 2022

In the nineteenth century, theatre and performance satisfied the public thirst for novelty and sensation through highly innovative practices and inventions. These were colourful, exciting and spectacular. As a vital part of a wider innovative popular entertainment landscape, theatre drew on technological advancements and adapted developments used in other popular entertainment forms to appear new.

Much of this technological innovation was pioneered in popular performance such as melodrama, pantomime and circus. The introduction of gas, in particular, made lighting more controllable, allowed darker colours to be seen effectively. Gas brightened the middle of the stage, creating intense illusions through theatrical technologies such as stage traps.

We invite you to imagine yourself as an audience member through the objects on display: to consider yourself as part of an active theatrical culture that extended performance beyond the theatre, to view colourful popular designs as art. There are strong similarities between the nineteenth century visual revolution and our own digital revolution. The nineteenth century visual entertainment landscape comprised optical toys, painted panoramas, and developments in printing that influenced posters, the illustrated press and periodical publishing. Our own digital revolution centres on digital screens and we invite you to use your own screens to look again, differently, at the objects presented in this exhibition.

This exhibition is one of two curated by the AHRC funded Theatre and Visual Culture in the Long Nineteenth Century project. It is linked to an exhibition at the Bill Douglas Museum entitled Transporting and Evolving Views: Nineteenth Century Ways of Seeing, running from Friday 13 August 2021.


Long CaSE 1:

Active Audiences

Photograph of long case

Ninteenth century popular audiences were not passive consumers, they enthusiastically took part in active hands on activities that extended their theatrical experiences beyond the auditorium or theatre building. Many of these activities became more popular as the lowering cost of print and improvements in print technologies enabled higher proportions of the public to afford theatrical ephemera.

1. Mr Howell (MM177) & 2. Mr Honner (MM176) as Harlequin Tinsel Prints
‘Penny plain’, or ‘tuppence coloured’, tinsel prints provided audiences with the opportunity to ‘tinsel’, or decorate, images of actors at home. The focus on named actors in dramatic poses makes tinselling an early fan activity that demonstrates how engaged audiences were with performers. The print of Mr Howell demonstrates the tinsel print before embellishment and the print of Mr Honner the end result created by a theatre fan.

3. Madame Auriol as Columbine Penny Black & Tuppence Coloured (MM/TH/SU/PA/2)
Although it is more common to find men the subject of tinsel prints, these examples demonstrate female stars were also the subject of fan activity. Tinsel prints provided the same image in a number of different formats according to the fan’s expendable income.

4. Pantomime Audiences (MM/REF/TH/SU/PA/12)
Being part of a theatrical audience involved responding to the action individually at the same time as enjoying a communal experience. Popular productions made audiences feel a host of strong sensations, causing them to laugh and feel tense at the unfolding stage events. Is it any surprise that audiences were so frequently represented in the illustrated press?

5. Toy Theatre Figures:
Pantomime Princess Beauty & Ogre Frosty Toes (MM/REF/TH/SU/PA/2), Pantomime Harlequin (MM/REF/TH/SU/PA/3) &
Circa Early Twentieth Century Reproduction of Pantomime Pantaloon originally published by Benjamin Pollock Ltd
Toy theatres gave another opportunity for children to engage in wider theatrical culture. Although printed stories often came with toy theatres, children often combined sets and costumes to create their own stories. Toy theatres remained popular well into the twentieth century. (If you look closely, you’ll notice that, like the tinsel prints, the Harlequin displays celebrity as this image is described as showing ‘Mr Ambrook’).

Short Case 2:

Theatrical SteroscopY

Photograph of small case

6. Stereoscopic Viewer (MM/O/27/9)
Viewing stereo cards was a hugely popular pastime that exploited emerging scientific knowledge on vision to create 3D images. 3D images were created taking two images that focused on the same spot but taken at a distance that roughly equated to the distance between the left and right eye. A stereoscopic viewer used magnification and the blocking off of external stimuli to enable audiences to adjust their gaze to see the 3D effect.

7. Pantomime Audience Stereo card (MM/REF/TH/SU/PA/11)
Recalling the experience of being part of the audience is the novelty displayed in this card. To get a sense of the 3D, take a look at this gif created from the left and right image.

Gif made from a stereo card of a Pantomime Audience
Gif made from a Stereo card of a Pantomime Audience, University of Theatre Collection, ref: MM/REF/TH/SU/PA/11

8. A Winter’s Tale Stereo card, 1856 ‘arranged by Mr Ryder’ at the Princess’s Theatre (MM/REF/TH/LO/PRS/4)
Viewers could reimmerse themselves in the scene of a play they had watched in the theatre through cards such as this. Again, this gif gives a sense of the 3D effect created:

Gif created from A Winter's Tale stereo card
Gif created from A Winter’s Tale Stereo card (1856), University of Bristol Theatre Collection, ref: MM/REF/TH/LO/PRS/4

9. The Shadow Dance, Scene from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream as produced by C. Kean Esq at the Princess’s Theatre, 15 October 1856 Stereo card (MM/REF/TH/LO/PRS/4)
Not only was this about reexperiencing a scene you enjoyed, it was also a marketing tactic used by managers at theatres like the Princess’s. Here is a gif created from this stereo card image:

Gif created from The Shadow Dance stereocard
Gif created from The Shadow Dance, Scene from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream (1856), University of Bristol Theatre Collection ref: MM/REF/TH/LO/PRS/4

For more on stereocards, visit the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, our other partner archive on this project.

Large case 3:

Reimagining historical performance & innovative spectacular effects

10. Copy of a painting of a stage lighted from the sides showing the performance with and without stage lighting, artist Andrea Sleigh, 1889, published in Magazine of Art (RS/51/100 & RS/51/101)
Innovations in lighting revolutionised the stage during the nineteenth century. This started with Argand gas lamps and achieved more flexibility with gas light due to its ability to illuminate the centre of the stage more clearly. This difference is visible when you contrast these images. Among other things, brighter gas lighting freed actors from performing at the footlights and enabled them to move around the stage. Electricity continued this process into the early twentieth century.

11. Dioramic backcloth of a Woodland Scene for A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1901) (RS/64/59 & RS/64/61)
With more controllable light came the opportunity to use light to demonstrate changes in time. In this case, it was by altering the direction of light through fabric that enabled either a night time or day time scene to be presented. These distemper sketches, possibly by Henry Hawes Craven, shows the effect achieved through lighting the transparency cloth: lit from the front the lighter scene appears and lit from the back the darker scene appears.

12. Pantomime Behind the Scenes – The ‘Star Trap’ at the Princess’s Theatre’ drawn by F Villiers for The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 14 March 1874 (MM/REF/TH/SU/PA/8)
Gas lighting enabled the centre of the stage to be lit and with it a range of stage traps could be innovated that actors could appear or disappear through. The star trap catapulted a performer through on to the stage to spectacular effect. However, it had to be carefully handled because the force was so extreme that it could kill or maim the performer. To explore the mechanism of a star trap more closely, zoom in on this photograph of a trap held by the collection:

University of Bristol Theatre Collection Star Trap
A Star Trap from the University of Bristol Theatre Collection (TC/M/306)

The hand written notes were likely made by either Raymond Mander or Joe Mitchenson, from whose collection this item comes. Mander and Mitchenson were prolific collectors who wrote books on nineteenth century theatre and performance. The Mander and Mitchenson Collection, held by the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, is a major international theatre holding.

13. Copy of a Ground Floor Plan of the Richmond Theatre, Yorkshire, as it was in 1788, drawn by J Ravens (RS/42/254)
A stage could have a variety of different traps built into it. Traps could also tour with a production, presumably leading to a stage being sawn up for a blockbuster production such as The Corsican Brothers, which gave its name to the Corsican Trap. (This trap made the performer float upwards onto the stage as a ghostly effect. For more, see this YouTube video about the Isle of Man’s Gaiety Theatre which still has a functioning Corsican Trap.)

Wilhelm (John Charles Pitcher) designs

Together these designs give an impression of how vibrant and spectacular late nineteenth century performance was.

14. Theatre Model Box (TC/O/M/8) with Model Scenary from Aladdin (TC/O/M/9)
Take the audience view by looking at this wide angle photograph, taken using a GoPro of the inside of the model box Wilhelm used in creating his designs:

Wide-angle photograph of Wilhelm Model Box & Designs
Wide-angle photograph of Wilhelm Theatre Model Box (Ref: TC/O/M/8) with Model Scenery from Aladdin (Ref: TC/O/M/9) courtesy of the University of Bristol Theatre Collection

15. Costume Designs: (Heather Bell (TC/D/C/402), Poppy (TC/D/C/400), Snowdrop (TC/D/C/401) & Marigold (TC/D/C/397))
These designs echo the woodland themes of the set box, giving a sense of what this production might have looked like. These particular designs were made for a production at the Prince’s Theatre which opposite the Theatre Collection (where the Esso Garage now stands) from 1867 to 1939.

16. Paintbox (HN/O/1)
When looking at the designs for Aladdin and Ali Baba their detail and vibrancy makes them appear as artworks in their own right. It is easy to forget the artistry that went into creating popular performances. This paintbox was the one Wilhelm used to create beautiful designs such as the ones presented here.

17. Print entitled A Triumph of Stage Mechanism – The Chariot Race in “Ben-Hur”, published in the Daily Mail, 03 April 1902 (RS/51/74)
The film version of Ben Hur is known for its visceral chariot scene but this stage version must have been incredible to witness as this innovative mechanism enabled the horses to race in the same space as the audience.

18. Red Riding Hood, Bristol Theatre Royal Stage Manager’s Promptbook, 26 December 1859 (TC/W/PB/3)
These pages detail the spectacular transformation scene that featured in this pantomime and that involved spectacular theatrical effects. In this case, the effects detailed took place on the Bristol Theatre Royal’s stage, showing that theatre audiences enjoyed spectacle beyond London’s main stages. Instructions for the transformation appear at the bottom of the page and reads:

left pageright page
[circle crossed through with a line] Pull for Cloth to use
Work lights up
Pull for fans to sink =
Lattices work down =
Pagodas work to wings =
Pull for Cloth to rise = set piece to sink =
Fairies at back to rise = set piece/ [?]/to rise and sink

Why not let us know what you thought about this exhibition by writing in the comment book, tweeting us @theatviscult or writing a message via our contact page.

Visit the University of Bristol Theatre Collection website to find out more about their fantastic resources on British theatre and live art.

The linked Bill Douglas Cinema Museum display Transporting and Evolving Views: Nineteenth Century Ways of Seeing runs until November 2021.