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The controversial history of the Museum of London’s theatrical collections

The theatre, dance and performance collections of the Museum of London today are rich and varied.

Adelaide Robinson

Curatorial Operations Coordinator

22 April 2021

We are lucky to have in our possession such gems as costumes worn by Victorian actor and theatre manager Henry Irving, Elizabethan props from lost theatres, and of course, Anna Pavlova’s famous ‘Dying Swan’ costume (you can watch the costume being cared for in our latest Conservation in the City episode).

Theatre costumes worn by Henry Irving, an elaborate copper alloy wire headdress and the costume worn by Anna Pavlova in The Dying Swan

Theatre costumes and props

Image 1: Costume worn by Henry Irving as King Lear in 1892 at the Lyceum. Image 2: An elaborate copper alloy wire headdress found on the Thames foreshore, similar to headdresses ordered for the Rose Theatre in 1606. Image 3: The costume worn by Anna Pavlova in her signature solo, The Dying Swan.

Sadler’s Wells playbill

A nineteenth-century Sadler’s Wells playbill from our collection

However, London’s rich history of theatre and performance has not always been such a feature of the museum. It was not a priority of the museum workers tasked with opening the first London Museum to the public. The London Museum was commissioned by George V and originally opened in the state apartments of Kensington Palace in 1912. In 1965, the collections of the London Museum were amalgamated with those of the Guildhall Museum to form what would become today’s Museum of London. It is surprising that the original London Museum had few theatrical and performance collections, since in 1911, it was given a major opportunity for acquisition by one Mrs Gabrielle Enthoven.

Known as ‘the Grand Old Lady of London theatre first-nighters’, Gabrielle Enthoven was a prolific member of theatrical society and a devoted collector who, in her lifetime, amassed over 80,000 pieces of theatrical ephemera including playbills such as this (from our own collection).

Enthoven was determined to use her vast collection to establish a national theatre collection in England. In 1911 she began writing to various newspapers with her campaign to encourage theatre-related collecting in London’s museums. In December of that year, Sir Guy Laking, first keeper of the London Museum, registered interest in Enthoven’s collection and in a possible theatrical section of the museum.

Guy Laking was an art historian who specialised in European arms and armour. He had a mammoth task ahead of him in 1911; to create the initial museum collection that would put the London Museum on the map. He needed to collect and acquire the most interesting objects from around London and to create a narrative of London’s history that would engage the public. One of his earliest ideas was the possibility of creating a theatrical exhibition in the museum, to highlight and reflect London’s iconic West End and all of the theatrical work the city produced. This idea was exactly what figures such as Enthoven and Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, actor-manager of His Majesty’s Theatre in the West End, had been campaigning for.

In December of 1911, Enthoven published a letter in the Pall Mall Gazette in which she wrote:

"My object is to appeal to the many possessors of theatrical treasures who have supported me in my endeavour to establish a National Treasure House of such things. I feel sure that they will see, as I do, that Mr Guy Laking’s offer is the best possible accomplishment of our efforts, and that we owe the Trustees of the London Museum a great debt of gratitude as well as Sir Herbert Tree, Sir George Alexander, and the other managers who have taken an interest in the matter." Pall Mall Gazette - Saturday 02 December 1911

It seemed as if the Enthoven collection had found a good home in the London Museum. Beerbohm Tree continued to call for the public to donate items of interest to the planned exhibition. Laking made enquiries about theatrical artefacts around London, and apparently bought a ‘number of articles of costume’ from a sale at Christie’s auction house in December of 1911. The Evening Mail describes one such piece:

The most curious of all (the lots) was a pair of jackboots with spurs, temp. William 111., which sold for 26 guineas; a bull coat, the sleeves embroidered with silk lace, English, early 17th century-6S guineas; another with silk tabs and laces down the front.

The sale also included pieces of regimental costume and weaponry that Laking, a specialist on historical armour, would no doubt have been very excited to purchase for the museum’s early collection.

A regimental sword and its hanger, and a silk net sash (this uniform and accoutrements were the property of Lieutenant-General Richard St. George, of King George II’s forces – 90 guineas) (…) and a helmet of yellow cloth, embroidered with a peacock and viscount's coronet, inscribed " Oxfordshire "—18 guineas. These were all purchased for the London Museum. Evening Mail - Wednesday 20 December 1911

From all this activity, Enthoven and her associates evidently believed that the future of the national theatre collection was assured. A grassroots campaign by devoted theatre fans had found success with the new museum, and all seemed to be progressing well. The London Museum opened to the public on Easter Monday 1812 and had a popular and busy first day, despite a few challenges at the start as recounted by the Evening Mail:

After a fortnight’s delay, due to the recent disturbances by militant suffragists, the London Museum was opened to the public on Monday morning. Throughout the day Kensington Palace was besieged by a large crowd of visitors and it was estimated that at least 13,000 people passed through the various galleries and the annexe in which the exhibits are housed.Evening Mail - Wednesday 10 April 1912

The writer for the Evening Mail tells us that “special interest was shown in the Royal relics, which were surrounded throughout the whole of the day. The “Scenes of Old London” and the Roman boats in the annexe also attracted a large number of visitors.” But what of the theatrical collection that Enthoven and others had worked so hard to advertise?

Crushingly for its advocates, the theatrical ‘exhibition’ had not come to fruition. One disgruntled member of the public wrote to the Pall Mall Gazette with this rather damning review:

SIR, - Will you allow me to express the disappointment which it is impossible for any one interested in such matters not to feel on seeing the “Theatrical Relics” at the London Museum in Kensington Palace? One has heard much talk of what was to be done in this direction, and, at least, some sort of small record of the English stage, both past and present, was looked for.

At a sharp turning on the top of a stair-case may be found a case with some few objects arranged inside; a print of the old Opera House, some china figures, and other oddments seem to complete the collection. Those looking for enlightenment must go away sadly baffled, and those who, having a regard for the sentiment and charm of what such a collection should be, must blush indeed as they see this scanty, mediocre, and careless assortment. To think of Paris and that wonderful collection in the little museum of the Opera House may be demanding too much; but, at least, one may demand a little interest and a little respect.Pall Mall Gazette - Wednesday 24 April 1912
Staffordshire ware figure of Othello and Iago and a print of Italian Opera House (Her Majesty's Theatre)

China figures and opera print

Two examples of objects that may have been on display in 1912: on the left, a Staffordshire ware Shakespeare figure; and on the right, an 1828 print of the Italian Opera House (Haymarket Theatre).

A storm erupted among Ms Enthoven and her friends. Ellen Terry, the leading English actress of the period, noted her disappointment publicly, drawing even more attention to the discrepancy between the proposal of December 1911 and the exhibition of April 1912. In response, Guy Laking issued this statement to the Pall Mall Gazette:

Nothing of interest, however, he says, is refused. Indeed, he mentions certain things, like the costume which Sir Herbert Tree wore as Cardinal Wolsey, that have been accepted, and with regard to the relics mentioned by Miss Ellen Terry, “We shall only be too delighted if she will come forward with them, and we shall do our best for their display.”Pall Mall Gazette - Wednesday 03 July 1912

A costume worn by Ellen Terry in ‘Olivia’, 1885

A costume

Worn by Ellen Terry in ‘Olivia’, 1885

This did not go down well with Ellen Terry. Speaking on her behalf, her daughter Edith Craig issued their own statement to a Pall Mall Gazette ‘special’ in July of 1912.

“Whilst,” she said, “Mr. Laking states that no official request has been made for any relics because the space is so cramped, at the same time he says they will be very happy to accept them. Does he mean that they would be kept in a cellar? If he has not the room, why want them to come?”Pall Mall Gazette - Wednesday 03 July 1912

Guy Laking was never able to provide a satisfactory answer to Ellen Terry, Gabrielle Enthoven, or any of the dedicated theatre archive hobbyists who had so hoped to see London’s thriving theatre district represented in its new museum. The Enthoven collection was eventually accepted by the V&A museum and today forms the basis of its world-renowned theatre and performance collection.
The Museum of London would have to wait – its richly diverse collection of artefacts from the world of theatre and dance only began to be seriously formed under the stewardship of its pioneering curator Colin Sorenson. Our New Museum at West Smithfield (opening in 2024) will display the best bits of London’s long history of entertainment.