Hugh Thomson, whose illustrations to the 1903 edition of Frances Burney’s Evelina formed the basis of a recent post, was a prolific and popular illustrator. He produced drawings for some editions of Shakespeare, did illustrations for all of Jane Austen’s novels and also drew pictures to accompany editions of poetry and plays.
I was at pains last time to demonstrate Burney’s local connection in order to justify a post about Thomson’s work. So again I have to point out the local connection of his collaborator, Kensington resident J M Barrie, who had a couple of addresses in Kensington including 133 Gloucester Road, a house I walk past every day, up till now not realising who had lived there.
Before the success of Barrie’s Peter Pan play he enjoyed another stage sensation in London and New York with a play called Quality Street. And yes, they did name the famous tins of chocolates after the play. More of that later, but first, a sort of apology. I was a bit unkind to Barrie’s creation Peter Pan in this post last year. The problem was that Arthur Rackham’s illustrations for Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens are very much better than the text itself.
The apology to Barrie is due because unfortunately the same is true of Quality Street. Hugh Thomson’s illustrations are much more enjoyable than the actual story.
So briefly then. Phoebe, a young woman of 20 falls in love with Brown, a young doctor. Just as she is expecting a proposal Brown goes off to war. (These are the Napoleonic wars). Ten years go by. Phoebe and her sister Susan are running a small school for turbulent children (their straitened circumstances are due to some bad investment advice from Brown which never got mentioned to him). Phoebe considers herself to be an old maid at the age of 30. Brown, having distinguished himself in the wars returns, missing an arm, but still not showing any sign of asking Phoebe to marry him. Just a little annoyed by events Phoebe re-invents herself as her own niece Livvy, flighty and flirtatious where “Miss Phoebe” is staid and dowdy.
[The veiled Phoebe and her sister Susan are taken off to a ball by Valentine Brown]
Girls just want to have fun basically, which is what ensues, along with some hilarity. The deception somehow works and causes some complications for Phoebe. Eventually Phoebe and Brown realise they love each other, the whole thing is sorted out and the fictional Livvy is smuggled out of the narrative to everyone’s satisfaction.
During the course of collecting the images for this post I read most of Quality Street and while I still hold to the view that the pictures are the most interesting thing about it, I did warm to some of the dialogue after a while (although the story is still quite silly and Barrie’s stage directions sound like he’s writing a DVD commentary). If I had been around in London at the time I might have gone to see it, as many others did. It was a good boost to Barrie’s career.
But as with Evelina, Thomson’s pictures are why we are here. They tell the story, (or any other story you could fit with them) in a manner I find perfectly satisfactory in itself.
Austen-esque young women while away their time in elegant sitting rooms, reading to each other, playing cards:
Listening at doors (a fine comic image):
Falling in love (a nice rainy picture with a little hint of Markino about it):
There’s a bit of comedy discipline in the school room.
But discipline breaks down and the tables are temporarily turned:
There’s a series of balls of course:
With the regulation row of expectant young women:
Some flirtation, from the Miss Livvy alter ego, with a pair of dim young men.
Thomson is mostly known for monochrome illustrations but his coloured illustrations to the play show he was just as good with colour.
There’s a certain amount of watching from windows:
Gossip in the street:
A bit of drawing room intrigue:
Some game playing as the penny starts to drop:
And eventually a reconciliation as the supposedly ailing Miss Livvy turns back into Phoebe.
Sorry, some spoilers there. But I imagine the pleasure of actually seeing the play would lie in the repetition of familiar tropes rather than novelty. As with Evelina, Thomson seemed to have liked the journey but been less concerned with the denouement.
Quality Street was filmed more than once. A 1927 version featured Marion Davies,the mistress of William Randolph Hearst. There was also a 1937 version featuring the young Katharine Hepburn as Phoebe.
This still is quite a close match to one of Thomson’s illustrations.
The play contiuned to be revived. Our local theatre the Finborough Theatre in Finborough Road did a version in 2010.
Quality Street was an innovative product first sold in 1936. The company invented a device to wrap the sweets in coloured paper and conceived the idea of putting them into a tin . This made the product cheaper than boxes of chocolates with individally wrapped sweets. Harold Mackintosh combined aspiration with nostalgia by naming his product after the play. Some readers may remember that the tins used to feature a pair of characters know in the trade as Miss Sweetly and Major Quality who were always depicted in a vaguely Regency / mid-Victorian setting probably suggested by Thomson’s pictures. As I recall there were TV commercials featuring the two as well, especially at Christmas where they merged with the general 19th century Dickensian season of bonnets and crinolines. .
You can see that Miss Sweetly has moved forward a couple of decades in terms of fashion but Major Quality’s uniform still resembles that of a traditional red-coated British officer. It wouldn’t be going too far to suggest that Thomson played a part in the creation of our Christmas iconography.
Although I’d never heard of Thomson when I first came across that edition of Evelina, once I started looking I found plenty of examples of his work and I’ll probably return to him again in the future. Like Randolph Caldecott (another book illustrator who made a contribution to the idea of Christmas) he was one of those artists who could perfectly complement an author’s work and at the same time create his own imaginative landscape. He has led me to other book illustrators whose work we can look at in the next few months.
I have to thank Peter Collins of Westminster Central Reference Library for graciously allowing me to examine the original limited edition of Quality Street signed by Hugh Thomson and to scan the coloured pictures. The black and white images come from a much more lowly 1938 edition. Thanks also to Susie Hilmi for transporting the book and brokering the deal.