Wednesday, March 8, 2017

293. A Shakespeare Heroine Without a Name?

Recently, I was asked to identify a plate in the publication Shakespeare's Heroines. The book was issued as a contribution towards the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre Fund, and as a memento of some Sunday afternoon broadcasts. Twelve short anonymous texts about these heroines are accompanied by mounted reproductions after drawings by Ricketts: eleven plates printed in sepia, and one colour plate. Although the publisher's name or date of publication are lacking, the oblong book (according to the British Library catalogue) was published by the BBC in 1926.

After the title page - containing only the title - another colour plate is pasted in. This one doesn't have the landscape format, and had to be placed across. The contents page doesn't mention this illustration that depicts an actress in a costume designed by Ricketts.

Charles Ricketts, costume design from Shakespeare's Heroines (1926)
The illustration is reproduced in Stephen Calloway's Charles Ricketts, Subtle and Fantastic Decorator (1979), and tentatively described as being 'probably for Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, c. 1919'. However, the dress is similar to a design by Ricketts for another costume, that of The Doge in The Merchant of Venice.

Charles Ricketts, costume design for 'The Doge' in The Merchant of Venice

These costumes were both described and illustrated in Richard Allen Cave's book Charles Ricketts' Stage Designs (1987). Both were intended for a 1918 production of The Merchant of Venice, the dress  was for Portia. Ricketts's friend and admirer Gordon Bottomley, who collected much valuable material evidence of Ricketts's several careers, wrote, as early as 1932, about the frontispiece in Shakespeare's Heroines: this 'coloured costume-design for Portia (one of the set done for Mrs Wheeler) is an admirable example of his costume designs'. (Theatre Arts Monthly, May 1932).

However, there is one remark by Charles Ricketts that may complicate the identification of this costume. In September 1918, working on the costume designs, Ricketts wrote in a letter to Laurence Binyon: 'Portia has a dress covered with mermaids'. No mermaid on this costume, so far as we can see. So is this Portia, or not?

The costume designs were for a series of Shakespeare plays performed for the British and French soldiers in France by a company managed by Lena Ashwell. In an earlier blog I wrote about these performances: 89: A Costume Correspondence. (For a general story about war time performances, see L.J. Collins's Theatre at War, 1914-18, published by Macmillan in 1998). 

Ricketts designed around fifty costumes for a series of three plays: Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice, and Two Gentlemen of Verona, although the last play was never actually produced. For economic reasons Ricketts designed at least twenty costumes with interchangeable parts that could be used for several of the plays.

For this project, Ricketts corresponded with the actress and co-organizer Penelope Wheeler. Wheeler would play the role of Portia. In her article about these productions, Margaret Mitchell, wrote: 'Prior to packing the production, Penelope Wheeler's own costumes for Portia were sent to her home with Ricketts's instructions on how to wear them. [...] He instructs Wheeler to try on the costume and then use the sketch to understand carriage, posture, and the emotional quality of the character'.

A more detailed description of the Portia dress dismisses Ricketts's later claims for mermaid designs. The description perfectly fits the frontispiece illustration for Shakespeare's Heroines:

I want Portia's white dress to be slipping off the shoulder, the stomacher low and the green veil has two wing like strips to give line, and to cover back of corsage...

All the details can be found in the drawing:

The text speaks of 'the golden Portia' and she is usually given golden hair in consequence, but unless you wish to wear a yellow wig, I should prefer your own hair. I admit I had yellow hair in view, in designing the dresses, but dark hair is safe; possibly the dark red hair might look well on you and not dislike your eyes and eyebrows, should you find it does, use it, but wigs are troublesome things though actors like them.

The blond hair in the drawing illustrated his point. Wheeler did not wear a wig for the performance, as we can see from a photograph that is kept in the Mander and Mitchenson Theatre Collection at the University of Bristol. It is posted at the Daily Mail website.

A wonderful testimony of a performance at the fringe of the art world, in Le Havre, for the troops. In black and white, alas, but one can surmise the splendid array of colours that must have mesmerized the audience, especially as the actress moved on the stage.

Unfortunately, the University of Bristol doesn't allow me to reproduce the image that is based on the original photograph in their collection. They insist on a significant fee payable to Arenapal.

[Thanks are due to June Samaras of Kalamos Books for her inquiry.]