Through the Looking Glass

dkw_32660_aliceinwonderland_lIn an ideal world, today’s post would have gone out this time last year, 150 years since the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland on 26 November 1865. As it happens, we only made the connection between the date of this infamous publication and our collection when searching for a topic for the blog in recent weeks but as it happens the images featured today are relevant to the beginning of December for another reason.

Alongside the many studio portraits we have in the collection are also a handful of theatrical scenes. These appear to have be taken at a local amateur production of Alice in Wonderland and we are intrigued by them.  The images are dated 9th December 1913 which makes it likely that this was a Christmas production put on by a local school or society.  Lewis Carroll’s famous book would already have been close to 50 years old by this point, and well-known and loved by the public.

Theatrical performances, both amateur and professional were popular throughout the Edwardian period. Cinema was in its infancy and audiences preferred live performances to picture shows. Music hall was popular and widespread and many people in all social classes enjoyed amateur dramatics as a popular leisure activity. An article by Stephen Hall Clark on The Victorian Web  expands on the trend which had begin during the late C19th:

Commercialisation of leisure by the latter quarter of the nineteenth century became an increasingly influential factor. Music Halls roots in the crude localised “free and easies” were often commented upon by moral reformers (usually in the press), for to them it represented all the worst accesses of leisure — namely, drunkenness, obscenity and sensuality. George Morgan’s Canterbury Hall was the first large-scale music hall, and halls grew in splendour and sought to attract a more prosperous class. With the eventual patronage of a better clientele the music hall invaded the suburbs, and the businessmen Moss and Stoll greatly advanced this trend. Here the press again was used to attract potential customers, the hegemony of acts began to develop and the concept of the star was born. Charles Chaplain and Gracie Fields are both examples of this new star phenomena, soon to be projected to new highest by the cinema, which in turn developed from the music hall. The publication of popular songs became big business, employing many lower-middle-class song writers. By the 1880s the music hall had become so respectable that in many towns it rivaled the town hall and other civic buildings. Another sign of the increasing the respectabilty of music hall and theatre appears in the fact that that churches often built extensions to hold amateur dramatics.

Our first thought, on seeing the orchestra pit manned entirely by women and girls, was that this must be a local girl’s school play and perhaps the male cast members on stage might be male teachers or other staff.  We certainly have images from local schools, in particular of St Philomena’s Convent school – which did in fact take male pupils at the time –  and Sutton High School for Girls. But images from these schools are usually identified by name on the plates we have, and the only information we have on these scenes is the name of the play that is being performed.  We contacted archivists from both schools but neither could locate references to a performance which would match this date and so we are still none the wiser as to the players.

While the backdrops in our photographs seem quite professionally painted , the scale of the stage and the orchestra pit, the wonky curtains, unfinished stage edge, and makeshift costumes all add a huge amount of charm to these images.  We had hoped that zooming in on these images in Photoshop would reveal some more information from the notes visibly hanging by some of the individuals seated in the pit, but sadly the image quality is not good enough.  All we were able to glean is that the score for the production – seen on the Piano –  appears to be ‘See-See’ by James Sidney Jones (1861-1946) a composer who was renowned as the most internationally successful composer of the Victorian British romantic musical theatre.




The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, The Court Scene & The Duchess’s Kitchen from Alice in Wonderland, 9th December 1913

Sadly, although it seems unlikely that any information about these images will be discovered, we are still thrilled to have them in the collection.  The Knights-Whittome collection is largely dominated by formal studio portraits, so not only does this offer us a variety of subject, it also gives us a number of beautiful, informal images of events in the areas as well as some great unguarded images of people and a unique insight into costume and set design.  And who knows…maybe someone out there will know a little more about this production…

About Alice in Wonderland
The following text about the origins of the story is taken from Wikipedia:

‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (commonly shortened to Alice in Wonderland) was written by English mathematician Charles Lutwidge Dodgson under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll. It tells of a girl named Alice falling through a rabbit hole into a fantasy world populated by peculiar, anthropomorphic creatures.

Alice was published in 1865, three years after Charles Lutwidge Dodgson and the Reverend Robinson Duckworth rowed a boat up the Isis on 4 July 1862 with the three young daughters of Henry Liddell (the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University and Dean of Christ Church), Lorina, Alice & Edith.

During the trip, Dodgson told the girls a story that featured a bored little girl named Alice who goes looking for an adventure. The girls loved it, and Alice Liddell asked Dodgson to write it down for her. He began writing the manuscript of the story the next day, although that earliest version no longer exists. The girls and Dodgson took another boat trip a month later when he elaborated the plot to the story of Alice, and in November he began working on the manuscript in earnest.

To add the finishing touches, he researched natural history for the animals presented in the book, and then had the book examined by other children. He added his own illustrations but approached John Tenniel to illustrate the book for publication, telling him that the story had been well liked by children.

On 26 November 1864, he gave Alice the handwritten manuscript of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, with illustrations by Dodgson himself, dedicating it as “A Christmas Gift to a Dear Child in Memory of a Summer’s Day”. 

But before Alice received her copy, Dodgson was already preparing it for publication and expanding the 15,500-word original to 27,500 words, most notably adding the episodes about the Cheshire Cat and the Mad Tea-Party.’





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