Tag Archives: Quality Street

Thomson and Barrie: The admirable Crichton

The recent post about Hugh Thomson’s illustrations to J M Barrie’s play Quality Street attracted quite a bit of attention in an otherwise quiet month so I was happy to take up an offer to do the same with Barrie’s other play of 1901/02, The Admirable Crichton. This was one I had heard of, thanks to the 1957 film version starring Kenneth More, seen many years ago on one of those Sunday afternoons of childhood when you’d watch anything that was on. The final scene has remained in my memory, but no spoilers yet.

1901 had been a good year for Barrie. Quality Street opened in New York and he finished Crichton while he was attending rehearsals for Quality Street. Within a short space of time he had two plays on the London stage. He and his wife were in the process of moving out of their Gloucester Road house to another house in Leinster Gardens, Bayswater which was close to Kensington Gardens, a favourite haunt of both of them.

Crichton is an odd sort of story. It was described as “a fantasy in four acts” but it is also a satire or maybr even some kind of parable about the rigidly stratified structure of Edwardian society. It begins with a portrait of an aristocratic household with the mildly eccentric Lord Loam, his three daughters and Crichton the butler a man who knows his place and wishes everyone else would stay in theirs.

001 p38 Lord Loam - My friends I am glad to see you all looking so happy

Here Lord Loam addresses his family, some friends and his staff at one of his regular teas at which the family serve the staff. Everyone  is uncomfortable with this arrangement but him.

Lady Mary’s fiance Lord Brocklehurst has an uncomfortable conversation with Tweeny the “in between” maid.

002 Brocklehurs and Tweeny - what sort of weather have you been having in the kitchen

Lord Loam has also annoinced that on the forthcoming sea voyage his three daughters will have to share one lady’s maid between them. The whole thing leaves the Ladies Mary, Catherine and Agatha shocked and dismayed.

003 I have decided --- one maid between them

And then really quite tired.

008 The ladies are at rest until it is time to dress

This portrait of  the indolent trio in a state of profound relaxation is one of Thomson’s best. It’s curious to see him portraying contemporary dress.

The next time the three are pictured together is after the party is shipwrecked on an island. They still look pretty relaxed.

009 They have a sufficiency of garments

Of course the hapless aristos are not really equipped for life in the wild.

013 Lord Loam - Not one monkey had sufficient intelligence to grasp my meaning

Lord Loam cannot get the monkeys to understand him. Just as the story has now moved into the realm of fantasy Thomson’s illustrations shift into another mode to show a partly realistic, partly magical setting.

Crichton and Tweeny of course turn their hands to the business of staying alive on the island.

010 Tweeny- Look what I found

Their practical skills and the ability to cook food changes the group dynamic and puts Crichton in a leading role.

014 One by one they steal nearer to the pot

After a couple of years on the island Crichton is in charge and goes by the title the Guv.

Tweeny now runs the household.

016 Tweeny had dressed wisely for an island

While the three sisters have become able hunters.

017 We've some ripping fish for the Gov's dinner

This is all very reminiscent of Never Never Land.

020 We were chasing goats on the big slopes and you out-distanced us all

Lady Mary now callede Polly hunts down a goat.

Crichton asks her to marry him to general consternation.

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At almost the exact moment they hear the sound of a ship. Lady Mary wants Crichton to ignore it so they can all stay in the wild world. But Critchton does his duty as he sees it and sets off a signal to the rescuers. They return to their old social positions back in London for the final act.

026 Well were you all equal on the island

They all deny the truth despite an interrogation from Lord Brocklehurst’s mother. Barrie playe around with the ending. At one tiem it was suggested that Crichton and Tweeny went off together to run a pub in the Harrow Road. In the first version I looked at, the limited edition, he simply announces his intention to depart and turns out the light.

The first actress to play the role of Lady Mary was  Irene Vanbrugh who has featured on the blog before in this post about Trelawny of the Wells.

Irene-vanbrugh-Admirable-crichton-1902-mary

She looks a little like Peter Pan in this photograph and even more so in this picture, which was much reproduced at the time:

Van1

The first Peter Pan was actually Nina Boucicault the daughter of the impressarion Dion Boucicault (we’ve  met him before at his house in the Old Brompton Road).

From a modern standpoint the play looks like a quaint comedy of manners, but writing in 1922 H M Walbrook called it “one of the most penetrating dramatic social pamphlets of the day.” For me it’s an interesting foray into a fantasy world which never seemed too far away with Barrie. And I wonder what influence Thomson’s illustrations had on later works.

Postscript

Thanks once again to Peter Collins of Westminster Central Reference Library for suggesting the Admirable Crichton and loaning it to me. And thanks to Kim for transporting it.

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Thomson and Barrie: Quality Street

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.

004

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.

act 2 007

[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:

017

Listening at doors (a fine comic image):

007

Falling in love (a nice rainy picture with a little hint of Markino about it):

010

There’s a bit of comedy discipline in the school room.

013

But discipline breaks down and the tables are temporarily turned:

act 2 004

There’s a series of balls of course:

018

With the regulation row of expectant young women:

019

Some flirtation, from the Miss Livvy alter ego, with a pair of dim young men.

021

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:

act 4 002a

Gossip in the street:

020

A bit of drawing room intrigue:

023

Some game playing as the penny starts to drop:

022

And eventually a reconciliation as the supposedly ailing Miss Livvy turns back into Phoebe.

024

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.

Katherine Hepburn in Quality Street

This still is quite a close match to one of Thomson’s illustrations.

img021

The play contiuned to be revived. Our local theatre the Finborough Theatre in Finborough Road did a version in 2010.

qualitystreet6
But all that passed me by and until very recently the name only meant tins of chocolates.

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. .

QS tin

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.

Postscript

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.


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