The Many Lives of Performance

As part of the Wellcome Trust funded project Challenging Archives: Delivering research access, public engagement and the curatorial care of the Franko B archive, writers-in-residence Mary Paterson and Maddy Costa are engaging creatively with the Franko B archive as it is catalogued, conserved and made accessible. This is the second in a series of blog posts that will reflect on the complex set of challenges the Franko B archive poses, the archival process and Franko B’s artistic practice which explores issues such as the limits of the body and the human condition, dealing with pain, suffering, abuse of power, empathy, eroticism, and sexuality in contemporary culture. In navigating these issues there may be references which some readers find upsetting.

 

 

The many lives of performance

by Maddy Costa with Katrina Fray, Ash Rowbin and Mary Paterson

 

I come to Franko B’s archive without prior first-hand experience of his work, and whenever I feel anxious about this (I ought to know more), I reassure myself that I’m akin with the students, researchers or otherwise curious parties who might encounter it in future. There’s a pleasing detective quality to piecing together knowledge from the stuff of the collection, as though all those years spent watching Moonlighting and Murder She Wrote didn’t go to waste.

For this blog I wanted to talk to students already using the archive for their research, tangentially or directly, to begin to build a sense of the relationships circling around it. Katrina Fray was introduced to me by Julian Warren, Keeper of Digital and Live Art Archives at the Theatre Collection in Bristol; she’s a recent student in the History of Art department at University of Bristol, and focused her dissertation on live art documentation. Ash Rowbin is someone I’ve met at various discussion and performance events in London, and long admired; a BA Drama student at Queen Mary University, he’s writing his dissertation on the political economy of live art, and will be starting a Live Art MA this autumn. Our conversations raised a number of new questions for me, which I’ve addressed at various points to Mary Paterson to consider alongside me.

 

1. Beyond the object

The helmet sits silent at the far end of the table. Round shape, like a bowl made by children, fingers sticky with glue as they attach squares of papier mache to a balloon. This helmet moulded from canvas, canvas dripped with blood. The stains brown, spattery, more like paint now than bodily fluid, mouthing the words to a story, the story of an art work.

Katrina wrote her final year dissertation on performance documentation, taking as her starting point Peggy Phelan’s much-quoted assertion that: “Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations: once it does so, it becomes something other than performance.” I’m immediately charmed by this, because Mary and I have used the same quote both to name and as an ongoing source of inspiration for Something Other, the experimental writing/performance platform we co-nurture with artist and academic Diana Damian Martin. Katrina doesn’t dismiss Phelan’s statement altogether, but instead wonders how the performance, as primary source, can be “amalgamated with all of the other documentation, so you get a better, holistic view of the performance and the different meanings and facets it takes. Photographs, oral history, background things like the tech spec: all of those can tell you something different about the performance.”

This language of “primary source” is, Katrina tells me, typical of the ways in which art historians approach their subjects. “Art history as a discipline can be very, very object-focused,” she says; and, worse, “stuck in a traditional rut”. Its processes are designed for paintings, sculptures, and don’t work for live performance: “You’re completely stumped if you don’t see a performance, or there’s no documentation of said performance.” She wants to see the theory of performance studies infiltrate the study of art history, but also believes that “art historians have a really important part to play in archives and how objects are perceived and dealt with”, that there is much that performance studies can learn from the visual analysis practised in the study of fine art. In other words: “Let’s stop putting boundaries on everything.” Which sounds like something Franko would say.

A similar argument was made by art historian Jonah Westerman in a paper he wrote in 2015 for Tate Research: “Performance happens at the threshold of action and image. That place is impossible to identify definitively, to cordon or sequester, and this is why even the most sophisticated attempts to define performance as a thing in itself end up either submerging it beneath unknowable depths or conflating it with the forms with which it travels.” He resists Phelan’s statement because it creates a definition that works against the radical potential of performance art to resist definition.

Something I particularly enjoy, as I get to know Franko’s work better, is noting the ways in which he resists definitions being applied to his work. On the table before me and Katrina sits a helmet Franko made in 2003 in protest against the Iraq war. Made using canvas from Franko’s “bleeding performances”, it prompts a conversation between the two of us about how art historians might differentiate between “remnants from the performance, and whether you count those as a document or a leftover” – and how this in turn might help to disrupt the term “documentation” itself, which Katrina finds “really problematic”, etymologically too enmeshed in authoritative ideas of proof and instruction. The helmet is engaged in what Katrina calls a “cyclical process”, each new construction creating the means for the next but also looping back to the initial performance. I read in that cyclical motion another resistance, of the linearity and propulsive drive of capitalism, always seeking new markets, new conquests.

Mary, I’m curious where this overlaps with or differs from your own experience, as someone who studied the history of art. What do you still apply from that study, in terms of approaches, questions, principles or practices? What have you since rejected or found to be unhelpful?

 

2. Serendipity

A sheaf of papers, the yellow-brown of dying leaves. The text typewritten, from the days before ubiquitous computers. Franko’s undergraduate dissertation, starkly titled: The Sadomasochistic Nature of Society. On the third page, a dedication: to my friend Dave. Murdered on 16/8/89 by his next door neighbour, for being a homosexual.

In a box of materials related to Franko’s student years at Chelsea College of Art and Design, Katrina and I stumble across his undergraduate dissertation – written at roughly the age Katrina is now. Scanning its opening pages, I’m struck by the ways in which the questions he raised then – relating to sadomasochistic relationships, private and public expressions and performances of sexual desire, and where these intersect with “social, political economical and moral context/discourse”, not least in terms of classifications and legislation relating to obscenity – are the same questions being raised now in relation to his work and his archive. It’s as though, in that moment of discovery, I have gently pressed my fingers to Franko’s neck and found his pulse.

But perhaps it is Franko’s archive itself whose pulse I’m finding. It seems to grow each time I return to it, and so there is always something there to surprise me.

Mary, one of my favourite stories you’ve told me of your life before I knew you is of being a student in Edinburgh and discovering feminist performance art in the archive. Is this something you went looking for? Or something that found you?

 

3. Preceding the live

There are papers, perhaps. Someone has them. Perhaps many people have them. But for now the table is empty. For now.

From his undergraduate dissertation onwards, Franko is explicit in articulating another “cyclical process”, that which connects his life, including the politics within which he has lived, and his work in a series of self-informing reinforcing loops. (“The reason I have chosen to write on this subject is because it is the foundation of my very existence, work practice (generally) and sexuality.”) Within the study of art history, however, Katrina identifies a quite separate “taboo”: that against looking at an artist’s intention. “If you’re doing your visual analysis properly,” she reports the thinking, “you shouldn’t need to know it: you should be gleaning everything possible from the object itself…”

As she says this, I see what she means about the “traditional rut” of art history. The object as singular corresponds with the idea of the artist as singular, both in the sense of unlike other (ordinary) people and working alone. I’m still mulling on the implications of this when I meet Ash, who is writing his undergraduate dissertation on the political economy of live art, “the infrastructure or social relations that allow it to happen”. He came to Franko B’s archive in search of a case study: “Historically archives have been a place of acounting and proof [that etymological root of documentation again], and often that’s where the correspondence exists that is especially useful for me.” The academic Diana Taylor, he tells me, writes in her book The Archive and the Repertoire that “what’s found in the archive tends to exceed the live” – which makes me think of Phelan’s somethings other, her differentiation between the ephemeral live act and the effects that exceed it, are excessive to it. Ash’s interest, however, is in the archive as the place where he might find “the things that tend to precede the live: all the things that happen prior – funding applications, blueprints for the set-up – in order for the thing to be made”.

He left Franko’s archive surprised, that it didn’t contain what he was looking for, except in fleeting glimpses. “The archive is always a fragmentary, partial history, as any history is,” he acknowledges. But what does it mean that the partiality of Franko’s archive is so particular? There is very little documentation here relating to the mechanics of staging Franko’s work: the sourcing of canvas and cannulas through which his blood could drip, the labour of the person responsible for painting his body white, for his care following a blood-letting performance, for tidying up the gallery afterwards, all points Ash raises in relation to Franko’s 2003 work I Miss You at Tate Modern.

I remember, on first meeting Julian Warren, him talking about exactly this: his wish that the archive would hold not merely photographs and videos documenting performance – creative remnants, if you like – but everything administrative relating to each performance too. Soon after meeting Katrina and Ash, I have a conversation with a friend, a performance artist, about Beyonce’s film Homecoming; she’s frustrated by how little it shows of “how she actually makes her work. I wanted to hear about the budget! I wanted to see mood boards, things that were cut, how it was cast! Genius is mundane in practice, show me those bits.” As K Austin Collins writes in his review of Homecoming for Vanity Fair:

“Look at the ellipses in how Beyoncé narrates the design of the show itself. […] ‘Every tiny detail had an intention,’ she says. Yet the film never explores those intentions. I wish it had; Homecoming made me long for more of the boring procedural stuff—the meetings, the decision-making, insight into how Beyoncé thinks and feels that’s distinct from how she narrates the story of herself and her intentions. […] Like so many up-close-and-personal looks at Beyoncé, this new special is better at signifying genius than at letting us come close to the real thing.”

Without administrative documentation available alongside creative, Ash argues, the archive risks giving the impression that only the intention of the artist is relevant to the making of the work. “Art histories, especially about performance artists, tend to uphold the idea of the autonomous artist,” Ash suggests. “They tend to give the impression that art just happens and is this autonomous thing that has a life of its own. You don’t get the sense that anyone else was really involved in the creation of the work, of the layers of labour and the divisions of labour that would have had to be in place to do it.”

Mary, around your creative practice you also work as a producer, in finance, on the board of a National Portfolio Organisation: that is, you do a lot of the invisible work that goes into making performance happen. I’m interested in two things here: the ways in which a neoliberal culture deploys invisibility, often to make invisible both the workings of its own power and the machineries of inequality; and also the invisibility of care that makes capitalism possible, whether it’s care for children or those who are too old or too sick to be part of the capitalist machine. You and I have talked about the feminisation of care, and how that is integral to its eradication from view within a patriarchal culture. I’m curious how we can make all this visible in our project, as writers-in-residence with Franko’s archive, how we can question these absences – but also how we can make sure we see them, given their absence, their seeming invisibility.

 

4. The body as fetish

A diary. Square, chunky, thick cover, pastel coloured, the kind given by an aunt or cousin who doesn’t really know what to buy you for Christmas. Paintings inside the left-hand pages, drawn from Tate’s Impressionist collection. Handscrawls barely legible, phone numbers, appointments, a year demarcated into tasks and commitments. An open window, ground level, no curtain or fencing. Stealing into another’s life.

In his search for emails, financial documentation, technical specifications, the behind-the-scenes necessary for performance to be made, I see Ash looking beyond the body: the body of Franko and his body of work. In Ash’s view, this documentation of the social, political and economic infrastructure within which performance sits also consitutes the performance – or what he calls “one of its many lives”. But the fact is, emails and invoices are much less sexy than the body; and I do use the word sexy here deliberately, in the casual sense of alluring, but also with an awareness of the ways in which Franko has always foregrounded sex and sexuality in his work.

Ash tells me of another book, Isabelle Graw’s High Price: Art Between the Market and Celebrity Culture, which “talks about what happens when an artist moves away from making object-based work and the body becomes material. It doesn’t actually lead to the defetishisation of the object: what happens is that the body becomes the fetish.” Given the ways in which Franko explicitly addresses fetish in his work, there’s something deliciously self-reflexive in this. But it also prods me to question my own feelings in relation to the archive, written to some degree into the first blog post with Mary: of encountering Franko’s body in the archive but wanting to feel connected with it in the flesh. And again, given the ways in which Franko’s work navigates the line between the body as flesh and the body as representation, this desire feels like one he has always deliberately courted, provoked and questioned.

Opening a box from the “Personal” series in the archive, Katrina and I find one of Franko’s diaries, for the year 2005. It’s quite an ordinary day-to-day appointments diary, not a journal of private thoughts but a messy collection of notes and telephone numbers and reminders that the gas man is coming in a frame containing the word IMPORTANT!, so mundane it’s beguiling. We turn the pages of it with as much care and respect as we might a precious sketch book, noting the number of staples slicing into its pages, where Franko had once attached additional notes, enjoying his disregard for date lines and the ways in which he has casually defaced its reproductions of traditional oil paintings, trying to decipher his scrawly handwriting. On our favourite page, Franko has drawn in the white space below a particularly woozy set of Monet water-lillies, two blocky figures captioned with the words “The Nigth of The gNifes”. These are my favourite encounters with the archive: those moments when Franko isn’t in control of his image, when everything becomes slippery.

The final question for now, Mary. How do we guard against our own fetishisations as we approach the archive from a multiplicity of angles, holding Franko at the centre of our inquiry?

 

Notes and links

The Helmet mentioned in part 1 is catalogued as part of Artwork in the Artwork & Objects series, ref no FB/9/2/10. A digital image of it is available here.

Franko’s undergraduate thesis is from box of Material relating to Chelsea College of Art and Design – BA Mixed Media 1987-1990, ref no FB/1/1/2.

The diary is from the ‘Personal’ series, ref no FB/10.

Jonah Westerman’s essay Between Action and Image: Performance as “Inframedium” was published as a Tate Research Feature in January 2015, and can be read here.

K Austin Collins’s review In Homecoming, Beyoncé Is Closer and More Unknowable Than Ever was published by Vanity Fair in April 2019 and can be read here.

Challenging Archives – Writers in Residence Mary Paterson and Maddy Costa

As part of the Wellcome Trust funded project Challenging Archives: Delivering research access, public engagement and the curatorial care of the Franko B archive, writers-in-residence, Mary Paterson and Maddy Costa are engaging creatively with the Franko B archive as it is catalogued, conserved and made accessible.  This is the first in a series of blog posts that will reflect on the complex set of challenges the Franko B archive poses, the archival process and Franko B’s artistic practice which explores issues such as the limits of the body and the human condition, dealing with pain, suffering, abuse of power, empathy, eroticism, and sexuality in contemporary culture.  In navigating these issues there may be references which some readers find upsetting.

 

The Challenging Archives project team in Franko’s studio. L-R: Mary Paterson, Sian Williams (project archivist), Julian Warren (Keeper of the Digital and Live Art Archives), Maddy Costa (with Suki the dog), Franko B

 

Throughout their residency, Maddy and Mary will be writing in dialogue: sometimes addressing correspondence directly to each other, sometimes, as here, presenting the text unattributed.

 

Part 1

What is the body of the archive? Where is the body of the archive? Where is it felt? Where does it sag? Where does it leave its mark? Where does it leave its traces? Who traces it? Who traces it with her finger, choosing between its pages, hesitating beneath a word?

Where do you hesitate when you’re looking at another body? I mean, someone else’s body? I mean someone else’s body of work, which does not exist in material but in memory? Is there a difference between a body and a memory? How is it felt, this difference? Where is it held, this difference? Where do you hold your memories? How do you hold your body? How do you remember bodies you have never held? What is there to hold on to?

What is there to hold onto from the past? From yesterday, or the day before, or the un-photographed moments in the days before that? What can you touch, and what touches you? What touches you like a handshake or a brush of the hair or a drop of something warm and sticky and hard to keep a hold of? I mean, what is touching in a memory? What is physical about it? What is a physical memory – like a mould, or a fingerprint or a photograph; and what is physical about memory – like the imprint it leaves on your muscles, the feeling it pierces into your skin?

And now?

Do you think there is something made (up) in the acts of preservation?

Do you think about the possibilities, the potential meetings, the speculative meanings, the retrospective knowledge, the collaborative documents, the modern memories, the new histories, the re-readings that are created from the acts of preservation? What is made with this care, this consideration, this meta data, this record keeping, this safe pair of hands? How does it feel to handle someone else’s memories? What does it mean to make available someone else’s life, their work, their life’s work? When it comes to someone else’s life’s work, what is available? What is available and what is always unavailable? What is always unavailable but can be imagined: summoned up in the space between photographs and flyers and a drop of something that was once contained within a body?

How do you preserve this feeling, wrap it up in acid-free packaging and keep it safe?

What is safe?

What is safe-keeping?

What is being safe and what is keeping?

What is lost? What is a challenge? What is challenging about safety, about memory, about preservation? I mean, what is a challenge to keep safe? And what is it about this material, this body, this bodily material, that is a challenge?

What is a challenging body (of material)?

What is a threatening body (of material)?

What are the threats of the body (of the archive)?

What are the threats to the body (of the archive)?

How can a body (of work) be a threat, and how can it be a possibility?

How do you find its possibilities? How do you trace them with your eyes, your fingers, your memory? How do you encounter them? How do you start the encounter, how does it take shape, and who makes the shape (in)visible? Does it make sense to call the shape of this encounter alive? Is it a life? Is it a living thing? Is it a dangerous thing? Is it possible to have a dangerous encounter with a body of work that is being held for safe-keeping?

What kind of future are we saving (ourselves) for?

 

Before repackaging: The original boxes donated by Franko B in 2008

 

Part 2

I am thinking about Franko’s body. The tattooes that clamber across his face and tuck themselves beneath his clothes, hidden, alongside the scars. I’m thinking of the needles that pricked his skin to create those tattooes, the scalpels that sliced through epidermis, dermis, maybe reaching hypodermis too, in his willingness to let the violence of the world imprint itself visibly on his body. I’m thinking about the hidden scars of a body that grew in difficult and inhospitable environments: an orphanage run by priests, an aggressive family home, a Red Cross boarding institition where some staff were kind and some were bullies. Scars that trace the nervous system, felt inside the body as an electric pulse.

I am thinking about the warmth of Franko’s body. The warmth of his voice when he speaks, the purr of it, a cat demanding attention, the burr of it, the pronunciation of English words catching on his Italian accent. A resonance at once high and low, the treble of energy, excitement, indignation, the bass of sensuality, viscerality, self-possession.

I am thinking about the charm that is held inside that body. The charm of Franko the storyteller as each photograph in the archive prompts a reminiscence, a story. The charm of the conjuror playing games with time, so that when we speak it is at once now and then, the time of the archive, the document, the record, and the time of the work being made and performed or presented. The charm of the politically motivated and marginalised, of the activist who doesn’t want your approval but knows it will come eventually because he is right.

I am thinking about the history that is held inside that body. The history of social services and care provision for children. The history of mental health diagnoses. The history of homophobia. The history of right-wing politics. The history of authoritarian abuse. None of these things are history, and not just because their scars trace the nervous system inside the body. Each one is still a scalpel, slicing through the skin of culture to the person beneath.

I am thinking about Franko’s body as it is contained inside two of the temporary boxes in the archive. One of the boxes is made of grey cardboard and carries a sticker with the words “Warning: contains items with bodily fluid, including blood” printed on it in bright red ink. One of the boxes is plastic and carries a sticker with the single word “Exibhition” hand-written in bright red marker pen. I am thinking about how the warning sticker pushes me away, gives rise to a feeling of anxiety. How the hand-written sticker with its jumbled spelling pulls me close, gives away something about vulnerability that inspires a feeling of care. And yet the box that carries the warning, holding blood and skin cells, traces of DNA, might bring me closer to Franko’s actual body. While the box that carries the exibhition sign holds only images, distance, remove.

I am thinking about the difference between meeting a body in person and meeting them through images and words. For years now I have “known” Franko through images and words: photographs of him performing, word-of-mouth description, critical appraisals of his work. I haven’t known his work myself because I felt anxious about the warning signs, the bodily fluids, the blood. And so I’m thinking about the assumptions that attach themselves to words and images, which might have nothing to do with their subject, the person or body, and everything to do with the gaze and understanding of the audience.

I am thinking about us, as the audience of this archive. What are we listening for, as we look? Do we need Franko present to tell us his stories, or can we read those stories into the archive ourselves? What difference does it make that you have encountered his work in person, seen the blood as it drips bright red from his body to the canvas, and I see only the canvas stained with his dried brown blood? What is, as a result, visible to you that might be invisible to me? What is, as a result, audible to you that might be inaudible to me?

I am thinking about entering the archive as an act of unfolding, each discovery opening up a new possibility, a new question. I am thinking about thinking, the complexity of thought that goes into any single action, the movement of thought through blood and bodily fluid, unseen, but making action possible.

 

Boxes from the original accession

 

Digital objects

3D digital models of selected objects from the Theatre Collection can now be viewed on the website of 3D photogrammetry specialists, Cyreal.  By exploring the 3D Gallery, you can discover items from the Franko B Archive, mouldings from the Oliver Messel collection, ceramics from the Mander and Mitchenson collection, as well as costumes and set models.

3D digital representations can be tilted and turned with the movement of a mouse and easily manipulated so every angle can be observed.  The large number of photographs taken during the process creates such a high-quality model that you can zoom in to explore the fine detail of an object, such as the pattern on Stephanie Cole’s dress from Tenko or see close up how Franko B used canvas from his performances to create objects for exhibition.  With objects that are particularly fragile or intricate such as the mouldings from the Oliver Messel collection or the set model of Cinderella’s coach, this technique provides a permanent digital representation of the object that can be viewed instantly with no constraints on time or the need to follow Reading Room handling procedures.

If you want to find out more about the 3D photogrammetry process, read our previous blog A Cyreal Day.

We are keen to hear your reactions to these digital models, what other items from the Theatre Collection would you like to see as 3D digital models? Tweet us @UoB_Theatre_Col or email us at theatre-collection@bristol.ac.uk.

Censorship and the Stage

In 1968, towards the end of a decade renowned for its artistic and musical experimentation, the British stage was, extraordinarily, still bound by strict censorship laws. The Theatres Act 1843 gave the Lord Chamberlain the power to ban any play that may be considered detrimental to ‘good manners, decorum or the public peace’ or heavily modify it, meaning many plays that had had successful runs on Broadway, or elsewhere in the world, could not transfer to the West End.

The Lord Chamberlain’s involvement with the country’s entertainment goes back several centuries. Under the reign of Henry VIII, his job was to run the royal household, arrange royal weddings and funerals, administer palaces and look after royal parties. His deputy, the Master of the Revels, was put in charge of in-house entertainments and theatre. In 1737, the Theatres Act devolved censorship directly to the Lord Chamberlain, and in 1843, the Theatres Act declared that one copy of every new stage play be sent to the Lord Chamberlain for review. If it was deemed acceptable, it would be granted a licence like the one below.

Lord Chamberlain’s licence, allowing the performance of ‘East of Ludgate Hill’ at Theatre Royal, Windsor, in 1950

 

The act was vague and the censor was inconsistent, but there were a handful of themes that were absolutely off-limits: God and royalty, it seemed, could never be portrayed. 1.

Plays featuring homosexuality could only be performed in clubs, rather than licensed theatres. The Royal Court Theatre attempted to play the system by changing its status to that of ‘club’ in order to show A Patriot for Me and Saved, but the Lord Chamberlain was incensed and took legal action, winning his case. His victory, however, ultimately led to his demise: the case restarted the debate around the appropriateness of theatre censorship. On 26th July 1968, Royal assent was given to the Theatres Act 1968 which abolished censorship of the stage in the UK, and on 26 September, it came into force.

A year later, Bristol University Drama Department produced The Cornish Ordinalia, three medieval mystery plays, at Piran Round amphitheatre. The Creation play featured God, who was, finally, allowed to be depicted on a UK stage. He is presented as a being with an egg-shaped head, surrounded by a golden crown.

 

God’s Head, as depicted by UoB Drama Department

 

  1. Changing Stages: A View of British Theatre in the Twentieth Century, Richard Eyre and Nicholas Wright,  Bloomsbury, 2001

Lella Raymond’s Letters

A few months ago, my cousin handed me a folder containing letters that she had inherited from my late Aunt Lella in 2011. My Aunt was an upright, formal woman, all tweed and tradition, with a passion for the arts that often inspired her to write letters to actors, playwrights and authors she admired. Many high-profile figures responded, and their return letters, dating from 1927 to 1993 are now The Theatre Collection’s newest accession.

They range from short, perfunctory replies from JB Priestley – ‘Many thanks for your letter and I am glad to learn from it that you have enjoyed “Instead of the Trees” so much. It was good of you to write’ – to longer replies from actresses including Peggy Ashcroft, who thanks Lella for sending in a script for critique – ‘Dear Miss Raymond, Thank you for letting me have the script on “The Bronte Affair”. If I may I will keep it and suggest it again to the Apollo Society. It might well be an Aldwych Theatre Project.’

Other letters from non-theatre stars, kept with the collection for the sake of provenance, include a notecard from Jessica Mitford complaining of the earthquakes in Oakland, California (below), and one from writer Vera Brittain, stating ‘I hope you are liking your nursing work better than I liked mine. The day may still come when your experience will be similar to mine – though I hope not!’

Other correspondents offering their greetings, thanks, and interesting tidbits from their lives include Evelyn Waugh, Celia Johnson, Cicely Courtneidge, Sybil Thorndike, Wendy Hiller, Miles Malleson, John Betjeman and Rachel Kempson.

It is a lovely collection, and it is a pleasure to think that the fruits of my aunt’s dedicated letter-writing career might go on to inspire and inform researchers well into the future.

 

By Helen Kavanagh, Keeper of Theatre Archives

 

Don’t Mess With Messel

One of the things I love about volunteering at the Theatre Collection is handling some of the artefacts held in its keeping. Yes, it can be a little chilly when working in the temperature-controlled strongroom, but as my mum used to say, I can ‘don a thermal vest‘.

Lately, in the more balmy surroundings of the reading room, I’ve been working through boxes of the Oliver Messel Archive, undertaking biographical research of his associates. I’ve gained knowledge about some of the 20th century’s notable personae and insight into Messel himself. A man I hadn’t heard of before I started working with the material – and there is plenty of material! He didn’t seem to throw much away but we’re richer for it.

Amongst myriad papers, there is treasure: yellowing press cuttings; black and white photographs of Bogart and Bacall, printed telegrams and letters (glorious, handwritten letters that Messel and his friends exchanged). Handwriting is becoming a dying art and it’s wonderful to see this tangible connection and imagine a pen – or pencil – scuffing across paper. Messel demonstrated that a well thought-out response, even in disagreement, carried more weight than a vitriolic key-bashed Tweet. He also came across as a man of principle and a couple of items in particular reveal this.

Firstly, a letter he wrote to Kay Graham of the Washington Post.  In January 1977, the newspaper published an article about Theodore R Britton Jnr, the first black American ambassador in the Caribbean. It claimed Britton was being, “probed on incompetence charges.”  Messel, then resident in Barbados, did not like the tone or content and sent a delightful riposte, praising the ambassador’s achievements. He was also unequivocal about why, in his view, Britton was being investigated: “…You cannot convince me that there has been no racial motivation in all of this from the start; of course there has! Envy that a man who is black should be in a coveted position, that he should also have compelling charm and intellect.”

A second example illustrated that Messel’s loyalty extended beyond his acquaintances. In September 1970 the Performing Arts Council Transvaal, wrote to him about mounting a production of Sleeping Beauty in Johannesburg. They requested use of costumes and décor that Messel had designed for the production when it was performed at Covent Garden.

I almost whooped, ‘Good man, Oliver!’ when I read Messel’s reply. His firm refusal was from the heart. Referring to the poisonous regime of apartheid, he made clear that there weren’t any circumstances in which he would accede to the request. ‘I could not wish to accept any hospitality from a country whose laws and principles are to me so utterly abhorrent.’ He continued, ‘that you all live blind-folded through the selfish greed of a white minority appears tragically short-sighted.’ He was, he said, ‘revolted by separate audiences.’

I’ve discovered that the Messel Archive isn’t only about what one man left behind. It’s also a glimpse of what was happening in the world: what’s changed and, unfortunately, what hasn’t. I wish I could have met him, though what he’d have thought about my thermal vest, I can only guess.

 

By Natalie Smith

A Cyreal Day

A couple of weeks ago, the Theatre Collection was offered the opportunity to trial 3D photogrammetry on selected objects from the collection. This opportunity was courtesy of Cyreal, a company who specialise in this process, creating accurate digital 3D models of objects for the cultural heritage sector.  The Theatre Collections team selected objects to photograph from the Oliver Messel Archive and the Franko B Archive; two collections which include a variety of different objects, art works and costumes. Also included were examples of ceramics (from the Mander and Mitchenson collection), costumes (including Stephanie Cole’s costume from the TV series Tenko) and set models for Cinderella and Look Back in Anger.

Oliver Messel was one of the most famous (and highly paid) stage designers of the early twentieth century, working with actors including Vivien Leigh, Diana Duff-Cooper, John Gielgud and Ruth Gordon and dancers including Margot Fonteyn, Robert Helpmann and Tilly Losch. Messel designed for theatre, opera, ballet and film, with the Oscar-nominated Suddenly Last Summer his last film. In between these productions he also designed fabrics, publicity material, furniture and interiors. Notably, in the 1950s Messel designed two sets of rooms for the Dorchester Hotel, a bedroom suite which became the favourite hotel suite of stars like Elizabeth Taylor and Marlene Dietrich and a set of function rooms on the eighth floor. On moving to Barbados in 1966, Messel began a further career as an architect, designing many villas in Barbados as well as setting the direction for the design of the nearby island of Mustique with his design for many of the villas as well as the Cotton House hotel and proposing designs for village houses, shops, churches and schools on the island. The items photographed by Cyreal from the Personal Archive of Oliver Messel represent various aspects of his career including a Hungarian folk costume, acquired by Messel during a research visit to Budapest in the 1930s while working on the Ivor Novello production Glamorous Nights and examples of the moulds he made to illustrate his architectural proposals.

The Franko B Archive covers the last 30 years of the work of internationally renowned performance artist, Franko B, forming part of the Live Art Archives of the Theatre Collection. The archive contains material related to Franko B’s intense body-based live art performances, as well as his visual art, exhibitions, screenings, publications, collaborations and his work as a mentor.  Donated to the Theatre Collection by Franko B in 2008, the archive is a complex mixed media collection including audio-visual material, photographs, posters, printed reviews and over 30 objects that featured in performances or exhibitions.  Three objects were selected from the archive to photograph, all of which have featured in exhibitions, including a Helmet and Coat Hanger, created with canvas from bleeding performances, such as I Miss You (1995-2005) and Still Life (2003-2006).  Also chosen, were a Pair of Boots designed by Lee Benjamin and featured in Oh Lover Boy: The Exhibition (May-Jul 2002).  The boots form part of the collection of Haute Couture clothing (1998-2008) created in collaboration with designers utilising the canvas from Franko B’s bleeding performances.  Other items of clothing from the Haute Couture collection are also part of the archive and could be 3D photographed in the future if an opportunity was to arise.

The 3D photogrammetry rig featuring multiple DSLR cameras, turntable, backdrop and lighting was set up at the Theatre Collection by the Cyreal team. The mobile rig could easily be reconfigured depending on the size of the object.  After placing an object on the turntable and a few clicks of a mouse, the fully automated process begins.  With each move of the turntable, the DSLR camera shutters are triggered, which is repeated until a full rotation of the turntable is complete.  The process takes around five minutes for each object rotation, which was repeated for certain objects to ensure all angles were captured.  Within that short amount of time the cameras capture all the data required to create an accurate digital 3D model or in the case of some of the costumes, a 360° image.

These digital representations of the Theatre Collection objects can now be viewed online via the 3D Gallery on the Cyreal website.  Each object can be rotated and manipulated so every angle can be viewed.  This photographic technology allows for much wider engagement with the collections beyond the Theatre Collection’s Reading Room.  The trial allows us to show costumes from all angles as well as allowing viewers to tilt and turn set models to examine them from angles we simply couldn’t allow with the original object. Digital representations have the potential to be used in multiple platforms such as Virtual Reality or Augmented Reality, which could be used as an innovative teaching resource, with every student in a classroom able to access and interact with a digital 3D version of an object via a phone or tablet.  This trial offered us the opportunity to see how 3D photogrammetry works and how it could be used to create a new level of engagement with the collection.

The personal archive of Oliver Messel was purchased by the Theatre Collection in 2014 with the help of grants from the National Heritage Memorial fund, the Friends of the National Libraries and others. It is currently undergoing cataloguing and conservation thanks to generous grants from the Heritage Lottery fund, the Linbury Trust and others.

Cataloguing and conserving the archive of Franko B has been made possible by a Research Resources grant from the Wellcome Trust awarded earlier this year. The project, Challenging Archives: Delivering research access, public engagement and the curatorial care of the Franko B archive will run for two years, culminating in a public exhibition and symposium in 2020.

Oliver Messel sketch – ‘The Mask of Comus’

This month’s object of the month is a costume sketch by Oliver Messel for the 1940 Sadlers’ Wells ballet The Mask of Comus.

This is a drawing for the costume of the water sprite Sabrina from the 1942 production of The Mask of Comus by the Sadlers’ Wells ballet. Based on a masque written by John Milton for John Egerton, first Earl of Bridgewater and first performed in 1634, Comus was reworked as a ballet by Robert Helpmann for the Sadler’s Wells Ballet in 1942. It starred Helpmann as the eponymous Comus and Margot Fonteyn as The Lady. Oliver Messel took time from his war-time duties to design the sets and costumes.

 

The plot concerns a virtuous lady who, becoming lost in the woods, meets Comus, the son of Bacchus who leads her to his castle where she is imprisoned by his enchantments and tempted into intemperance, sensuality and vice. The lady’s brothers, on trying to rescue her, are helped by a magical attendant who conjures the water nymph Sabrina who finally frees the Lady. For the costume of Sabrina, Messel uses his quintessential skirt of layers of painted gauze fabric to form a light floating, nymph-like costume rather than the more familiar stiffened tutu. He also designs a head-dress to resemble the “twisted braids of lilies knitting The loose train of thy amber-dropping hair” that Milton describes in the poem. The character of Sabrina also provided the inspiration for the title character of the 1954 Billy Wilder comedy Sabrina Fair, starring Audrey Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart and William Holden.

The drawing comes from the personal archive of theatre designer Oliver Messel. Oliver Messel began his theatrical career in the 1920s by designing masks for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and for the annual theatrical revues of C.B Cochran. He moved on through the 1930s to designing stage productions, working with theatrical greats including Vivien Leigh, John Gielgud and Michael Redgrave. As well as designing for theatre and dance productions, Messel also designed nine films, the first being The Private Life of Don Juan with Merle Oberon and the last being Suddenly Last Summer with Katherine Hepburn, Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor.  During the Second World War, he worked as a camouflage officer, using his famed ability as a theatrical designer to disguise pillboxes as barns and haystacks as well as using painted canvas to create fields of fake lorries. Following the war, Messel returned to stage design with the Royal Ballet’s famed production of Sleeping Beauty.  Throughout the 1950s Messel continued to design for theatre and opera before moving to Barbados in 1966 where he embarked on an additional career as a designer of houses and villas in Barbados and nearby Mustique.

The cataloguing and conservation of the Personal Archive of Oliver Messel has been generously funded by grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Linbury Trust, the Friends of the Theatre Collection and others.