The Placement Diaries: Part 2

Time is flying by, and I’m already two months into my placement with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. (Here’s a post with more details about the placement as a whole, and you can read about my first month with the SBT here.) My second month has been even more exciting than the first: I’ve been spending my days getting up close & personal with items down in the strongrooms and up in the Reading Room, and have started publishing my findings on Blogging Shakespeare and YouTube. Here’s the second instalment of my Placement Diaries…

Friday 17th February, 2017

Month 2 of my placement began with a spot of research into the history of historical dress in Shakespearean performance. I’m currently working on this as part of my PhD research, so it was good to spend some time developing both projects simultaneously. One of the items I’d requested – simply titled ‘Shakespeare rare print collection’ in the online catalogue – turned out to be a gorgeous, 120-year-old book filled with limited edition pictures relating to the playwright’s work in performance. There are engravings of actors’ portraits, paintings from the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery, and illustrations for printed editions of Shakespeare. A fabulous find! 

The Shakespeare Rare Print Collection, and an image featuring in the book (an early example of Jacobethan aesthetics for Shakespeare on the English stage). Images courtesy of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

After lunch, I took a trip down to the strongrooms with Dr Anjna Chouhan – Lecturer in Shakespeare Studies at the SBT – to explore the Bram Stoker Collection in situ. This collection contains items relating to the lives and careers of Henry Irving and Ellen Terry, as well as the collector himself. (Irving and Terry were hugely famous actor-managers during the 19th/early 20th centuries, and Dracula author Bram Stoker was the business manager of the Lyceum Theatre, where Irving’s company was based.) Anjna specialises in 19th-century Shakespearean performance and has written at length on Henry Irving.

Exploring the Bram Stoker Collection. Image courtesy of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

The Bram Stoker Collection is seriously cool. In theory, it offers an in-depth insight into the personal and social lives of some of the most significant figures in the history of Shakespearean performance. In reality, it’s an explosion of some of the wackiest and most unexpected items I’ve ever come across in an archive. We’re talking an enormous quantity of fancy dinner/luncheon menus, invitations, toasts, and seating plans (how can three people have attended so many dinner parties? Seriously!), pieces of artwork ‘destroyed by Irving’, and even a lock of real human hair (labelled as being ‘cut from the head [of Henry Howe] before burial’). Oh, and Henry Irving’s handkerchief. That’s in there, too.

Mousse de Jambon, anyone? Image courtesy of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
‘Three pieces of a portrait destroyed by Irving’. What…? Image courtesy of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
There’s real, 120-year-old human hair in here, guys. It’s creepy. Image courtesy of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Bizarre! There are a lot of more ‘normal’ items in the collection, too: theatre scripts, photographs, illustrations, speeches, and more. This stuff hasn’t yet been added to the Trust’s online catalogue, but the items are all listed and catalogued in a folder that’s kept in the Reading Room.

Friday 24th February, 2017

Today was all about marketing Shakespeare, and I started out by looking through theatre programmes for RSC productions of Julius Caesar staged between 1963 – 2012. I always love looking at programmes: the selection of images and articles included tends to reveal a lot about the intentions for the production as a whole. The Julius Caesar programmes were full of all sorts of interesting imagery and themes… Blog post coming soon!

I then spent a happy hour down in the strongrooms leafing through the Trust’s large RSC poster collection. (I mean that the collection is large, but the posters themselves are pretty big, too!) My plan was to hunt out the posters that related to the programmes I’d seen in the morning, but I managed to find a few extra ones. The poster collection goes back as far as the 1890s: it was great to get a sense of how marketing for Shakespeare has evolved over the last century, and to come across some familiar gems along the way (such as Peter Brook’s 1970 A Midsummer Night’s Dream).

Some of the earliest playbills in the RSC poster collection. Image courtesy of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

In the afternoon, I had my weekly supervision meeting, and then headed back down to the strongrooms to record a video about how Shakespeare’s plays have been illustrated for print since the early 18th century. Vlogging about books in the Trust’s Collections has been high on my agenda during the last few weeks, and so it was good to get started on creating content for YouTube. Soon, people all around the world will be able to have a good look at some of the prettiest and coolest of the SBT’s books. Here’s my first video:

Friday 3rd March, 2017

Having made a start in exploring the Bram Stoker Collection with Anjna a couple of weeks ago, I decided to delve more deeply into some of these boxes (with a view to writing a blog post about the social lives of Irving, Terry, and Stoker). The sheer mass of material in this collection makes it a little tricky to know where to start, but I selected a production towards the end of Irving’s career (Coriolanus, 1901) and put in a fistful of requests for boxes/items that related to that year. Leafing through gilded & embossed menus, delicate theatre programmes, hand-written letters, and annotated speeches was just as much fun as last time; piecing together the trio’s social activities to form a blog post is going to be a lot of fun.

Photo 03-03-2017, 11 10 10
Henry Irving’s handwriting: somewhat difficult to decipher… Image courtesy of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Also, my very first blog post for Blogging Shakespeare has been published! It’s all about Shakespeare and illustration, and I use the gorgeous editions held in the Trust’s Library Collections to look at how design for print has evolved since the early 1700s. (Click on the screenshot below if you’d like to read it.)

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Friday 10th March, 2017

Costume, costume, costume! My day at the SBT this week involved immersing myself into the glorious world of costume design. I’m planning for the grand finale of my placement to be an online exhibition about how Rome has been represented in stage and costume design across the performance history of the RSC. Now that I’m about to enter the final month of my initial three months with the Trust, it’s time to knuckle down for some serious planning.

To get started, I’m looking at as many relevant SBT items as possible: my table in the Reading Room has been covered in original artworks, 19th-century costume encyclopaedias, production photographs, published criticism, and more. It feels good to be working across the Library & Archive Collections, and I’ll soon be looking towards the Museum Collections for further inspiration.

J. R. Planché’s 1876 Cyclopaedia of Costume, Vol. 1. Image courtesy of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

I might be two-thirds of the way through my placement, but I have three more blog posts in the pipeline, a long list of ideas for vlog content, and a head full of ideas for exhibition planning. Check back soon for further updates!

To view any of the items featuring in this post, or to find out more about the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s Collections, contact the Trust’s Reading Room Services. Further information about the Collections can be found here.

My thanks to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust for their ongoing support, and for generously allowing me to share these images. I’m also very grateful to the Midlands3Cities AHRC DTP for funding this placement in addition to my PhD research.