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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
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.
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.
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 "...one 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.