Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Illustrating Shakespeare – a couple of treasures in the Mary Peerless Collection

Yesterday was the (purported) birth date of England’s most famous wordsmith, Mr William Shakespeare. The bard’s 448th birthday this year coincides with the start of the World Shakespeare Festival; a four month long event which draws on the talent of local and international performing art organisations to celebrate the plays and poems of Shakespeare.


Printed editions of Shakespeare's works were first produced in the late sixteenth century. Five centuries later, he still manages to make most top selling authors’ lists each year. 

MoDA holds a few, special publications of Shakespearean plays and poems in the Mary Peerless Collection. Mary Peerless was the step-daughter of Rex Silver and heir to the family business, the Silver Studio. It was she who donated the Silver Studio Collection to the then Hornsey College of Art (now part of  Middlesex University). This collection went on to become the foundation of the museum. In 1980 Peerless added to her original gift a donation of 130 fine illustrated books that had been kept in her step-father’s home. Ranging from novels and poetry to treatises on design, the Mary Peerless Collection showcases illustration and reproduction techniques of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Many are the work of significant artists of the day and two of the finest examples just happen to be illustrated works of Shakespeare. 

Two books from the Mary Peerless Collection: Songs From the Plays of Shakespeare (1899) and The Tempest (1901). [Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture BADDA3130 and BADDA3051]

The Freemantle & Co 1901 publication of Shakespeare's The Tempest is considered one of the best examples of illustrations by Robert Anning Bell (1863-1933). Bell was a British artist and designer associated with the Arts and Crafts Movement. He is remembered as a sculptor, illustrator, designer of mosaics and stained glass. MoDA holds other examples of his work, including some pieces published in the Arts and Crafts magazine The Studio.  The illustrations in The Tempest exemplifies Bell's characteristically flat, elongated drawings and borders of Arts and Crafts influenced decorations. 

Opening scene of The Tempest [MoDA, BADDA3051]

A contemporary of Bell was Paul Woodroffe (1875-1954) who illustrated Songs From the Plays of Shakespeare, edited by Ernest Rhys and published by E.P. Dutton and Co.,1899.  This beautiful publication is a collection of illustrated poems including  'Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more' and  'Orpheus with his lute made trees...'. As well as illustrations, Woodroffe is well known for his stained glass window designs and his 1920s travel posters for the London Underground (Here is an example in the London Transport Museum's online collection). 

A full page illustration by Woodroffe in Songs From the Plays of Shakespeare [MoDA, BADDA3130]

Verses from the play Twelfth Night, illustrated by Woodroffe in Songs From the Plays of Shakespeare [MoDA, BADDA3130]

MoDA recently began a project to identify, research and promote the illustrated books in the collection. The new Documentation Project Assistant Sarah Campbell has started on this and each day she is uncovering more treasures in the store. Sarah will be writing about some of her discoveries soon. For now, I hope you like the Woodcroffe and Bell illustrations and Happy Birthday Mr William Shakespeare. 

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