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The School stages Christmas entertainment

We acknowledge with thanks the generosity of Ms. Fiona Archontoulis of Brisbane, Australia, who sent this image of a group of entertainers for analysis. The photograph, taken about 1913, was among family papers she inherited from her mother, Kathleen Bryan (see 1914 An unsung hero).

This black and white photograph shows a group of unknown entertainers found among the family notes, documents and photographs submitted to discover what might be known of its provenance. Originally, Ms Archontoulis had written to the school to inquire after a relative who had once been a member of the school staff. Regrettably, she had the same experience of many enquirers who come to this site: her question went unanswered. There is probably a very good reason why she had no response from the administrator to her e-mail, but if one existed it remains unknown and must be put down to want of etiquette.

Troupe of a 1913 tableau vivant production at the school on the eve of the First World War

The photograph was analyzed by a review panel of three (Peter Goble of Harrogate, Yorks, Brian Marley, Hon. Gen. Secretary of the Australian OBA, Melbourne, and the writer). What follows is a synthesis of that review.

Three boys in the uniform of the school are in the photograph. The boy seated in the front row has a good conduct stripe on his left sleeve. All three boys wear the 'fore and aft' hat known as a 'forage hat' and introduced some before the (1914-1918) World War. This is a clear indication that the image is a school photograph. The majority of the children in costume are boys. The few girls present were probably daughters of the school staff roped in to add variety to the performance – a likely attempt to add gender balance to the mix. 

The clearest evidence of the year (1913) the photograph was taken is the presence of Warrant Officer Alfred Fowler (see 1914 An unsung hero) and his wife Lucinda (seated in the second row on Fowler's right hand side. The event was in all likelihood staged near Christmas time of that year because Mr. Fowler left the school in 1914 when appointed Quartermaster of the Liverpool Merchants Mobile Hospital; also, the school was evacuated to Hutton, Essex at the outbreak of the war, so the year could not have been 1914.

The Purchase family with Virtue Purchase seated in front

  It is distinctly possible that the woman seated in the second row on Fowler's left-hand side is Virtue Purchase, Lucinda Fowler's younger sister. A blow-up of the head of Virtue shows a good likeness to of the young Virtue seated in the front of the family portrait of the Purchase family taken in Alderney. It shows evidence of having been touched up, restored perhaps. In the 1913 photograph, one would place Virtue in her mid-thirties.

What about occasion and performance? The banner-bearing children appear to be holding the standards of the colonies and dominions of the empire. The banner second from the left in the rear row seems to represent Fiji; New Zealand and Australia with their stars are in evidence. What are these banners or standards, the wide variety of costumes worn: a trumpeter, soldier of the Empire, sailor, jester, and Britannia in a prominent central position grasping her trident, mistress of the seas? There was disagreement about the hat of the boy, seated in the front row, third from the left, as to whether his hat is Australian or taken from the Boer War.

The most likely suggestion for this form of entertainment in the days before radio and television is that this is the assembled company of a 'tableaux vivant' performance, a popular form of entertainment before the First World War. Tableaux vivant, or simply tableau, is French for 'living picture', which involves using performers in suitable costumes and positioning them in striking, often theatrical, poses or arrangements.

Throughout the display, the people on view neither move nor speak. [The tableaux vivant was a frequently-used means of presenting naked bodies on stage in theatrical centres such as London, New York and Paris to avoid the laying of criminal charges under the obscenity laws. Tableau vivants in large, sophisticated cities were exceedingly popular displays to titillate audiences.]

With acknowledgement to Wikipedia.
Tableau vivant, Folies Bergères
c. 1920

From the banners displayed and the costumes worn, we speculate that the company in the Duke of York's photograph staged a series of living pictures depicting the width and breadth of the British Empire as it was in 1913. Each picture would perhaps have displayed one dominion or colony at a time for the audience to ponder. Staged living pictures were still in vogue throughout the 1920s and 30s. Even as late as the early post-war years of the Second World War, the tableau vivant formed part of exercises in some teaching colleges such as, for example, the Lincoln Diocesan Teacher College where living picture displays were combined with 'natural movement' dancing. Trainee teachers received group photographs of themselves in Greek costume posing in tableau vivant as shoeless, bare-legged nymphs clad in white diaphanous robes suggesting the purity of vestal virginity. In today's society of acceptable promiscuous levity such displays would be deemed unnecessary except their value as marketing images. In that same era, one of the panel recalls playing the part of " of the shepherds who 'washed his socks by night' under the auspicious eye of the late Miss Blackman." By this time, however, part of the performance included vocal numbers and a ditty, he recalls, that has plagued him since. "If a gentleman calls, his horse for to shoe, he makes no denial of one pot of two."

Such was the form and development of living picture style entertainment. Those familiar with the premises of the Duke of York's School might be interested in our conclusion as to where the 'performance' was held. That the stage was purpose-built for the occasion is fairly evident, for there was at the time no auditorium on the property with a built-in stage. Although it is not possible to place the location with certainty there were two possibilities. One was the assembly hall in the main school building, the other the gymnasium. A clue to the assembly hall would have been its parquet floor, which would have been protected with covering material. This is not evident. The floor shows timber flooring of four inch planks, which suggests the stage area to have been at the rear of the gymnasium facing the main door. On this evidence, the panel opted for the school gymnasium and hope that Ms. Fiona Archontoulis would be satisfied with this explanation of her family photograph.

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