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.