London experienced an impressive flourishing of the theatrical arts during the late-Victorian period. Spectacle productions took prominence, and theatre managers/actors such as Henry Irving, Herbert Beerbohm Tree, Charles Wyndham, and George Alexander (all of whom would eventually be granted knighthood – the first actors to acquire the honor) opened palatial new venues, increased their costume and stage design budgets, stocked their stages with scores of actors during epic plays, and employed companies that sometimes swelled into the many hundreds. Theatres that prospered during this period included the Royal Lyceum, the Criterion, Her Majesty’s, the Palace, the Haymarket Theatre and the St. James.
Henry Irving, in particular, set lavish standards for British theatre at the Royal Lyceum in the late 1800s. Irving first found acclaim with his star turn in Leopold Lewis’ The Bells in 1871, and upon assuming management of the Lyceum in 1878, mounted productions that were increasingly elaborate, pictorial, and Romantic (Richards, 218-258). In a Harvard University lecture, Irving asserted that “music, painting, architecture, the endless variations of costume, have all to be employed with strict regard to the production of an artistic whole” (Irving and Richards, 46). To achieve this high level of unity and splendor, Irving hired leading painters and designers such as Lawrence Alma-Tadema ( Coriolanus, 1901; Cymbeline, 1896), Edward Burne-Jones ( King Arthur, 1895), Ford Madox Brown ( King Lear, 1892), E.W. Godwin ( The Cup, 1881), John Bernard Partridge ( Macbeth, 1888; The Dead Heart, 1889; Ravenswood, 1891; Henry VIII, 1892; King Lear, 1892; Becket, 1893; King Arthur, 1895), Edwin Austin Abbey ( Richard III, 1899), and Charles Cattermole ( Macbeth, 1888; Becket, 1893; King Lear, 1892) to work on costumes, scenery, and souvenir materials. Production designs were often based on painstaking historical research, including trips to the British Museum to study period costumes and, in the case of Faust, a special trip to Nuremberg and Rothenberg to study local scenery (Richards, 226; Stoker, 178-179). Irving, however, was also known to disregard realism in favor of theatrical effect and sumptuousness. “Correctness of costume is admirable,” Irving stated, “and necessary up to a certain point, and when it ceases to be ‘as wholesome as sweet,’ it should, I think, be sacrificed” (Irving and Richards, 46).
Two artists who may be responsible for the drawings in the collection are Charles Cattermole and John Seymour Lucas. Cattermole, a nephew of painter George Cattermole, was a member of the New Watercolour Society, the Royal Society of British Artists, and the Royal Institute of Oil Painters. Cattermole gained renown for designing 408 costumes for the 1888 production of Macbeth, but also worked on other Irving productions. John Seymour Lucas, a Royal Academician and Fellow of the Royal Society of Antiquaries, produced costumes for at least three Irving productions, ( Werner, 1887; Henry VIII, 1892; Ravenswood, 1891), and may have contributed to numerous others. Lucas was an accomplished historical and genre painter, and wrote about his philosophy of dramatic dressing (Richards, 225).
From the guide to the Drawings for the London Stage Collection, 1886-1924, 1886-1897, (Yale Center for British Art)