Tag Archives: London

Props at the Victoria and Albert Museum

While it is interesting to read about how props have been constructed and used throughout the long history of theatre, it is rare to find surviving examples of actual props from bygone days. After a production, props are either integrated into a theatre’s prop storage, taken home by the cast and crew, or simply disposed of. I would hazard a guess that most historical props are kept in private collections or buried deep in the back of stock rooms at old theatres, with no way of knowing just what is out there. Luckily, some of these items do make their way to museums who recognize their historical value. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has a few such items in their collection related to props.

Merchant of Venice bond
Merchant of Venice bond, image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The first is this bond from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. For those unfamiliar with the story, Shylock lends Antonio (the aforementioned merchant) 3000 ducats; if Antonio cannot repay, he must give Shylock a pound of his flesh. This bond secures the deal and is a critical prop during the courtroom scene where Antonio’s fate must be decided.

This bond was used by Henry Irving during the production of The Merchant of Venice which opened at the Lyceum Theatre in 1879 (the museum states it opened in January, but all accounts list its opening as November). The production was designed by Hawes Craven. It is made of beige vellum mounted on cream cotton cloth with black petersham ribbon and burgundy-painted metal seal. The dust and age is a deliberate treatment done by the prop maker. Interestingly, this prop has some areas torn on purpose and stitched together with double cotton thread; it seems likely this was done so the same prop could be torn up each performance and reattached before the next one.

Irving’s production of Merchant was one of the most influential at that time, as well as one of the most popular and long-running. You can find scores of books and articles delving into every aspect of this production and his performance.

This prop came to the British Theatre Museum (a branch of the V&A which closed in 2007 and whose collection was absorbed into the main museum) in 1968 by Lady Wolfit. It had probably belonged to her husband, Sir Donald Wolfit, a well-known English theatre actor-manager, who had died just a few months prior to the Lady’s donation.

Property Sword
Property Sword, image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Next is this property sword, also used by Henry Irving for an 1895 adaptation of King Arthur. The sets, costumes and props for this show were designed by Arthurian artist Edward Burne-Jones. This prop is based off of a sword used during the Holy Roman Empire for coronation ceremonies, known as the “Sword of Saint Maurice”.

Property Sword
Property Sword, image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The prop itself has a pommel made of carved brazil nut wood with an embossed and painted metal scabbard. It was built between 1894 and 1895.

Bakst Designs
Bakst Designs, image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The final image is a drawing showing the stage property designs done by Léon Bakst for a production of the ballet La Spectre de la rose at the Diaghilev Ballets Russes in Monte Carlo in 1911. The pencil, watercolor, gouache and gold paint drawings show a green wing cushioned chair, a sewing frame behind a curtain on a curtain rod, a harp, and a bed with blanket and pillows. You can find more of his set designs on his official site, as well as his costume designs. This is the only example of his prop designs that I have ever come across.

Who was the first property maker?

When I say “the first property maker”, I mean in terms of a professional person who earns a living making props. People have made props throughout history in many theatrical traditions; they certainly haven’t appeared from nowhere. Many traditions probably sustained quite a class of artisans devoted to the theater, particularly in Ancient Greece and Rome. Certainly too, there are many forms of theatre outside of our Western traditions. What I am looking at is the first group of people known as “property makers” who could make a living building props for professional theater. For that, we must look to the origins of what, in many ways, has become our idea of modern theatre and performing arts, the Elizabethans.

The pinnacle of Tudor, Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre centered around the monarchy, which hired many types of artists to perform at Court, festivals and pageants, and licensed other forms of entertainment throughout the city. Though various officers were tasked with this job earlier, the first official “Master of the Revels” with an independent office was Sir Thomas Cawarden in 1544. The office and storage facilities were consolidated to a dissolved Dominican monastery at Blackfriars. Cawarden was known for his skill in taking sketches and turning them into fully-realized productions. This required a whole “production team”, as well as the ability to communicate the needs of the stage to a group of skilled craftsmen who understood the special considerations which theatre requires. After Cawarden’s death in 1559, the office moved to the priory of St. John of Jerusalem in Clerkenwell.

The office moved several times throughout its history; in 1608, it came to be located in the Whitefriars district outside the western city wall of London. The Master of Revels at the time, Edmund Tilney, described that the Office:

…consisteth of a wardrobe and other several [i.e. separate] rooms for artificers to work in (viz. tailors, embroiderers, property makers, painters, wire-drawers and carpenters), together with a convenient place for the rehearsals and setting forth of plays and other shows….”

[Halliday, F. E. A Shakespeare Companion 1564–1964. Baltimore, Penguin, (1964)]

Tilney also noted that the office served as a residence for the Master and his family, as well as other personnel.

The records kept by the Office of the Revels informs much of what we know about the artisans hired to furnish the theatre with its physical “stuff” and the money spent on materials. It was not just writers and actors who were beginning to develop into a new profession at this time, but a whole range of carpenters, tailors, plasterers, wiredrawers, painters, plumbers and others who were becoming a new “theatrical artisan” class. Some of these artisans appear in the records steadily employed for periods of thirty or even forty years.

One of the first artists to be listed in the Revels records as a “property maker” is a man named John Carowe (or Carow or Caro). He was first employed in 1547 for the coronation of Edward, and continued to work as a property maker, joiner and carver until his death in 1574. In these records, “property making refers” not just to hand props like heads and swords, but also to the custom construction of stage furniture and large scenic devices (such as wagons and hell-mouths). In this account of expenses paid between December 1573 and January 1574, we see some of the things Carowe has provided to the Revels:

John Caro, Property maker, for money to him due for sundry parcells Holly and Jug for the play of Predor.–Fishes counterfet for the same, viz Whiting, Place, Mackarell, &c.–A payle for the castell top–Bayes for sundry purposes,–Lathes for the hollo tree–Hoopes for tharbor and top of an howse,–A truncheon for the Dictator,–Paste and paper for the Dragons head,–Deale boordes for the Senat Howse,–A long staf to reach up and downe the lights,–Fawchins for Farrants play–Pynnes styf and greate for paynted clothes,–Formes ii. and stooles xii, &c.–In all lxixs. ixd [69 shillings, 9 pence].

Carowe was also in charge of overseeing other property makers, as we can see in this account of the 1572 Christmas Revels, separated into individual projects:

Propertymakers: Iohn Caro, Iohn Rosse, Nicholas Rosse, Iohn Rosse Iunior, Thomas Sturley, Iohn Ogle, Iohn David for Caro.

Propertymakers, Embroiderers, and Haberdashers: Iohn Caro, William Pilkington, Iohn Sharpe, Iohn ffarington, Iohn Tuke, Iohn Owgle, Iohn David for Caro, Ione Pilkington

Propertymakers, Embroiderers, and Haberdashers: Iolin Carowe, William Pilkington, Iohn ffarrington, Iohn Tuke, Ione Pilkington, Thomas Tysant, Iohn David for Caro.

You can see one of the property makers is named John Rosse, and another John Rosse Junior; like many crafts at this time, the evidence points to fathers passing their skills along to sons to keep the theatrical traditions alive. It would seem that Carowe made some of his props in his own shop, which must have been thriving, while others were constructed in the Revels Offices mentioned at the beginning.

Macready and his Deer Skin

This is the final excerpt from a magazine article in Belgravia, an Illustrated London Magazine, published in 1878. It describes the history of props in Western European theatrical traditions up to the late nineteenth century. I’ve split it into several sections because it is rather long and covers a multitude of subjects.

Stage Properties by Dutton Cook, 1878

When Macready produced ‘As You Like It,’ with great completeness, at Drury Lane in 1842, he was anxious to procure a real deer-skin for exhibition in the forest scenes, and by way of illustration of the song ‘ What shall he have that killed the deer?’ The Duke of Beaufort seems to have gathered that some difficulty had arisen in the matter. Macready enters in his Diary: ‘The Duke of Beaufort called and inquired of me about the deer-skin I wanted for “As You Like It.” He very courteously and kindly said he would send to Badminton, and if there was not one ready he would desire his keeper to send one express. It was extremely kind,’ concludes the tragedian, evidently deeply touched by the ducal interest in a stage property.

Only one word more about stage properties.

Mr. Three-stars, the eminent tragedian about to appear for the first time upon a provincial stage, made express inquiries concerning ‘the acoustic properties’ of the house. Thereupon the anxious property-man rushed into the presence of the manager. ‘We have not got all the properties yet, sir; Mr. Three-stars wants the acoustic properties.’ ‘Get them at once, then; let Mr. Three-stars have everything he wants!’ was the prompt reply of the energetic manager.

(Dutton Cook. “Stage Properties.” Belgravia, vol. 35. 1878: pg. 293.)

Nineteenth Century Prop Lists

Fourth in a series of excerpts from a magazine article in Belgravia, an Illustrated London Magazine, published in 1878. It describes the history of props in Western European theatrical traditions up to the late nineteenth century. I’ve split it into several sections because it is rather long and covers a multitude of subjects, which I will be posting over the next several days.

Stage Properties by Dutton Cook, 1878

A new performance being in course of preparation, the property-maker is duly furnished with a ‘plot’ or list of the articles required of his department, there being also plots or lists for the heads of other departments: a scene-painter’s plot, a carpenter’s scene plot, and a tailor’s plot, setting forth the dresses necessary to the representation. In the pantomime season, or whenever any great pageant or spectacle is to be produced, these plots are of prodigious extent. They are fairly written on long slips of paper—like the bills of fare in coffee-rooms—and may be some yards in length. The property-maker affixes his list to the wall of his workshop, and subjects it to very careful study. Every item must be considered and remembered. Here is the authentic property plot of the first three scenes of the famous pantomime of’ Mother Goose’:

  • Scene I.—Thunder, &c.; stick for Mother Goose; favours for villagers; huntsman’s whip; staff for beadle.
  • Scene II.—Golden egg; goose.
  • Scene III.—Three chairs; a knife and stick for pantaloon; a sword for harlequin; two pistols to fire behind the scenes.

And so on through a score of scenes.

‘Mother Goose’ was really a very simple affair, however. The property plot of modern pantomimes is more after this fashion:

  • Scene I.—Twelve demons’ heads; twelve three-pronged spears; twelve pairs demons’ wings; twelve tails; one dragon, to vomit fire, and with tail to move. One cauldron to burn blue; demon king’s head; one red-hot poker; four owls with movable eyes, to change to green imps; twelve squibs, to light on demons’ tails. Red fire.
  • Scene II. Fairy Scene.—Twenty-four silver helmets for ballet, eight superior; twenty-four javelins for ditto, eight superior; twenty-four silver shields, eight superior; twenty-four garlands of flowers, eight superior; silver car for fairy queen, with silver star at back to revolve; Cupid’s bow and arrows; one dove, to fly off; one plum-pudding, to walk; six mince pies, to walk; one turkey and sausages to sing and dance. White fire.

The eight superior articles, it may be noted, are for the ladies in the front rank of the ballet, who are brought more prominently before the spectators, and are usually the more skilled and comely of the troop. At the back of the stage, inferiority of aspect and accomplishment, and the evidences of time’s assaults and injuries, are supposed to escape observation.

The duties of the property-man are very multifarious. Is a snow-storm required? He provides the snow, and showers or drifts it from the flies. Are figures or objects to be seen crossing the distant landscape, the river or the bridge? He cuts them out of pasteboard and fits them with wires that may be jerked this way and that. Does the situation require a railway collision, a burning house, a sinking ship, or an earthquake? The property-man will take the order and promptly execute it. Steam shall be seen to issue from funnels, engines shall shriek, mines shall explode, waves shall mount, flames flicker, lightnings flash and thunder roar, rafters fall, and sparks and smoke and fearful saltpetrous fumes fill the theatre—all at the bidding of the property-man.

(Dutton Cook. “Stage Properties.” Belgravia, vol. 35. 1878: pp. 289-290.)

Props at Drury Lane in 1709 and Theatre Royal in 1776

This is the second excerpt in a magazine article in Belgravia, an Illustrated London Magazine, published in 1878. It describes the history of props in Western European theatrical traditions up to the late nineteenth century. I’ve split it into several sections because it is rather long and covers a multitude of subjects, which I will be posting over the next several days.

Stage Properties by Dutton Cook, 1878

In the ‘Tatler,’ No. 42, [Eric: published July 16, 1709] Addison supplies a humorous list of properties, alleged to be for sale in consequence of the closing of Drury Lane Theatre. Notice is given, in mimicry of an auctioneer’s advertisement, that a ‘magnificent palace with great variety of gardens, statues, and waterworks, may be bought cheap in Drury Lane, where there are likewise several castles to be disposed of, very delightfully situated; as also groves, woods, forests, fountains, and country seats with very pleasant prospects on all sides of them: being the moveables of Christopher Rich, Esquire, [the manager,] who is giving up housekeeping, and has many curious pieces of furniture to dispose of, which may be seen between the hours of six and ten in the evening.’ Among the items enumerated appear the following:

A new moon, something decayed.

A rainbow a little faded.

A setting sun.

A couch very finely gilt and little used, with a pair of dragons, to be sold cheap.

Roxana’s nightgown.

Othello’s handkerchief.

A serpent to sting Cleopatra.

An imperial mantle made for Cyrus the Great, and worn by Julius Cæsar, Bajazet, King Henry VIII., and Signor Valentini. The imperial robes of Xerxes, never worn but once.

This was an allusion to Cibber’s feeble tragedy of ‘Xerxes,’ which was produced at the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre in 1699, and permitted one performance only.

The whiskers of a Turkish bassa.

The complexion of a murderer in a bandbox: consisting of a large piece of burnt cork and a coal-black peruke.

A suit of clothes for a ghost, viz. a bloody shirt, a doublet curiously pinked, and a coat with three great eyelet holes upon the breast.

Six elbow chairs, very expert in country dances, with six flowerpots for their partners.

These articles of furniture, of a mechanical or trick sort, employed in pantomimes, are referred to in a letter published at a later date in the ‘Spectator’ from William Screene, who describes himself as having acted ‘several parts of household stuff with great applause for many years. I am,’ he continues, ‘one of the men in the hangings of the Emperor of the Moon; I have twice performed the third chair in an English opera; and have rehearsed the pump in the “Fortune Hunters.”‘ Another correspondent, Ralph Simple, states that he has ‘several times acted one of the finest flower-pots in the same opera wherein Mr. Screene is a chair,’ &c.

A plume of feathers never used but by Œdipus and the Earl of Essex.

Modern plots, commonly known by the name of trapdoors, ladders of ropes, vizard masques, and tables with broad carpets over them.

A wild boar killed by Mrs. Tofts and Dioclesian.

Mrs. Tofts, as the Amazonian heroine of the opera of ‘Camilla,’ by Marc Antonio Buononcini, was required to slay a wild boar upon the stage. A letter published in the ‘Spectator’ professed to be written by the performer of the wild boar: ‘Mr. Spectator,— Your having been so humble as to take notice of the epistles of other animals emboldens me, who am the wild boar that was killed by Mrs. Tofts, to represent to you that I think I was hardly used in not having the part of the lion in Hydaspes given to me. …As for the little resistance which I made, I hope it may be excused when it is considered that the dust was thrown at me by so fair a hand.’

The list concludes:

There are also swords, halberds, sheephooks, cardinals’ hats, turbans, drums, gallipots, a gibbet, a cradle, a rack, a cartwheel, an altar, a helmet, a back-piece, a breast-plate, a bell, a tub, and a jointed baby.

But this supposititious catalogue is scarcely more comical than the genuine inventory of properties, &c., belonging to the Theatre Royal in Crow Street, Dublin, 1776. A few of the items may be quoted:

Bow, quiver, and bonnet for Douglas.

Jobson’s bed. (For the farce of’ The Devil to Pay.’)

Juliet’s bier.

Juliet’s balcony.

A small map for Lear.

Tomb for the Grecian Daughter.

One shepherd’s hat.

Four small paper tarts.

Three pasteboard covers for dishes.

An old toy fiddle.

One goblet.

Twenty-eight candlesticks for dressing, and six washing basons, one broke, and four black pitchers.

Eleven metal thunder-bolts, sixty-seven wood ditto, fivo stone ditto.

Three baskets for thunder balls.

Rack in ‘Venice Preserved.’

Elephant in ‘ The Enchanted Lady,’ very bad.

Alexander’s car.

One pair of sea-horses.

Six gentlemen’s helmets.

Altar piece in ‘ Theodosius.’

The statue of Osiris.

Water-fall.

Frost scene in ‘ King Arthur.’

One sedan chair for the pantomime.

The scaffold in ‘Venice Preserved.’

Several old pantomime tricks and useless pieces of scenes.

(Dutton Cook. “Stage Properties.” Belgravia, vol. 35. 1878: pp. 284-286.)