I am delighted to have been invited to write a guest post on the Roy Waters Theatre Collection, held at Royal Holloway, University of London.
RW/1/7/6: Photograph of Roy Waters in Boscastle, 1948
The collection of theatrical ephemera was bequeathed to the university in 2010 by the formerteacher, school inspector and theatre enthusiast Roy Waters (1928-2010). It was Roy’s despair about how to conceal the elaborate flock wallpaper covering the walls of his new home and the subsequent suggestion of a friend that he use framed playbills and posters so as to make the space resemble a theatre foyer, which led him to spend over forty years carefully acquiring an impressive array of autograph letters, printed ephemera and artefacts reflecting his passion for the theatre.
The collection provides a fascinating insight into theatrical entertainment through the interests of a private collector. With a particular emphasis on well known actors, actresses and dramatists, the collection vividly illustrates their careers via autograph letters, programmes, playbills, photographs, news cuttings, prints and artefacts, ranging from the eighteenth to the twenty first century. We also hold Roy Waters’ personal papers, providing insight into the man behind the ephemera.
|RW/4/4/2/6. Playbill, 1807|
The focus of the collection on individual actors, actresses and singers is emphasised by the fact that the many series, including autograph letters and sheet music, are arranged alphabetically by performer - from Frances Abington writing in 1786 to Doris Zinkeisen, painter, theatrical costume and set designer in 1955 in the case of the letters, and from the dulcet tones of Henry Ainley to those of Tom Woottwell in the sheet music. However, as is the nature of private collections, particular enthusiasms emerged over the course of Roy’s collecting, and these are given special emphasis. Oscar Wilde, Henry Irving and Noel Coward at various times were the focus of his list of ephemera ‘wants’, and as a consequence there are discrete series of material relating to these individuals, including, for instance, two 1882 cabinet card photographs of Oscar Wilde taken by Napoleon Sarony in New York. Likewise, there is a wonderful selection of scene sheets from continental toy theatre publishers such as Paluzie [Spain] and Schreiber [Germany].
The material, eclectic and varied as it is, can be brought together to tell a compelling story about the relationship between the theatre and the society in which it operated. Newspapers from 1681-1945 allow not only an insight into shows being advertised and reviewed, but the political and social context within which the plays were staged. Playbills and posters equally can provide information beyond cast lists and scene summaries, a Princess’s Theatre playbill for ‘King Lear’ dating from 1858 includes a passage written by Charles Kean about the production and the Princess's Theatre's staging of the play, with reference made to other Shakespearian revivals at the theatre. Likewise, a Theatre Royal, Covent Garden playbill of 1809 is largely given over to a response to the O.P [Old Price] Riots, with a notice from the committee 'for examining the affairs of Covent Garden', justifying the rise in the price of admission with audited accounts covering the previous seasons.
|RW/15/1/5 Toy theatre print, 1831|
Visually appealing as well, the collection contains a fantastic sequence of portrait and satirical prints, as well as cabinet card photographs and over 3000 photographic postcards. A small but varied collection of original art work ranges from a Samuel de Wilde painting of Stephen Kemble as Falstaff – reputedly the only English actor to play the role without artificial padding (!) – to a limited edition print of a David Bowie self portrait, signed by the artist. Six Agatha Walker wax figurines of characters from ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ as well as another of Gwen Ffrangcon Davies in ‘The Barrett’s of Wimpole Street’ add a three dimensional appeal to the collection. The world of film and radio is in fact well represented, with over 400 cigarette cards, a discreet series of material including a number of photographs relating to the actor Edmund Gwenn, the only actor to receive an Academy Award for playing the role of Santa Claus, and a file of correspondence from the Hollywood actress Una O’Connor.
RW/14/3/14: Cabinet photograph by Félix Nadar of Sarah Bernhardt as Lady Macbeth, 1899
The collection is now available for study due to the kind inclusion in the Roy Waters bequest of funds to undertake a project to catalogue and re-house the material. A launch hosted at Royal Holloway last week announced the new availability of the collection with an exhibition and drinks reception and it is our hope Roy’s array of ephemera will be well used by researchers. The collection may be searched via our online catalogue at www.rhul.ac.uk/archives. We welcome enquiries and requests to view the material and may be contacted by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Special Collections Archivist (Roy Waters Theatre Collection)