Herkomer's Legacy to Craig and the New Stagecraft

Article excerpt

As a theatrical reformer the name of Hubert Herkomer (1849-1914) does not spring to mind. He was a successful illustrator, genre painter, portraitist, and teacher, as well as a talented amateur musician. He composed music for violin and played the zither for his students and for gatherings of friends. (1) While he loved theatre and the opera, he was dissatisfied with the artificiality he found on the London stage. (2) He wanted realism, the kind of realism he fostered in his painting and championed in his many lectures. Late in his busy and productive life, the multi-talented Herkomer found the time, and now had the money, to build his own theatre, to compose, produce and perform in his own musical plays and, as he said, experiment with theatrical realism. He was not without energy, in that at the same time, he kept up a full schedule of painting and teaching. One of his admirers in the professional theatre was the seventeen-year-old actor Edward Gordon Craig (1872-1966), but more of that later. (3)

In narrative painting Herkomer's style varied from the 'hard-hitting social realism' of Hard Times and On Strike to the 'muscular sentiment' of The Last Muster and Old Guards Cheer. (4) His illustrations of Victorian poverty and depredation for The Graphic brought immediacy to social problems and inspired the work of emerging expressionist Vincent Van Gogh. (5) Herkomer 'searched through the ugliness and misery of poverty and returned with the beauty of suffering nobly borne.' (6) In all of his work he revealed humanity in all its various conditions of life, which helped make him a sympathetic, as well as successful, portraitist. In one particular year--1886--he completed thirty-four portraits, mostly American. (7) Portraits of the great and good were commissioned in Britain, Germany, Australia, and America. (8) He was first an Associate and then a Royal Academician, and was an official of the Royal Watercolour Society. On the recommendation of Ruskin, Herkomer was elected Slade Professor of Art at Oxford. (9) Honoured for his artistic work in Germany, where he built a retreat near his birthplace in Bavaria, the now 'von' Herkomer was knighted by Edward VII in 1907. Not bad for the son of immigrants, whose woodcarver father could not find sufficient work to support his family, though his mother managed to eke out an existence giving music lessons.

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With a design by American architect H. H. Richardson, whose portrait Herkomer painted in exchange, the prosperous artist built a palatial family home in 1886, next to his school in Bushey, Hertfordshire. (11) With help from the house builders, a former Methodist chapel on the grounds was converted to a theatre seating 120. A stage house was added on (Fig. 1.1, 1.2 & 1.3). (12) The chapel was but a shoebox of about 22 feet in width by 36 feet in length, with a shallow balcony at the rear. To help turn the chapel into a festive space, the walls were covered in deal board and decorated with carved woodwork. (13) Stencilled floral patterns enlivened the peaked ceiling. Incandescent electric lights mounted on wrought iron brackets brought a modern feel to the room. (14) Herkomer had both auditorium and stage electrified and powered by his own generator. An orchestra pit was set deep in front and under the stage in the Wagnerian manner so that conductor and musicians would not be seen and thus not detract from the scenes presented (Fig. 1.2). With a stage opening of 16 feet in width and 12 feet in height, the playing space was minimal, but most of the audience had a clear view of the raked stage. Each of the ten rows on the flat floor was fitted with tip-up seats, while the stepped balcony held a further four rows.

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Herkomer came to believe that playmaking was a way of instructing his students in picture making. (15) But by creating and performing musical plays he found a new and, as he said, a long repressed outlet for his creative energy. …