Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera had a phenomenally successful revival at The Lyric Hammersmith in 1920 – 21, with one of the longest runs in English theatre. The lively tale of lowlife, in Claud Lovat Fraser’s clever adaptation of Georgian dress (above), was, like the Festival of Britain in the wake of another war, “a tonic to the nation”. With tactful excisions of references to whores and whorehouses, it created a fantasy for London theatregoers. I came to it after looking at the many ceramic figures made at that time, of Polly Peachum, MacHeath, Mrs Traipse and Lucy Lockit, and wondering why they were so popular. In a way, it set the direction of ceramic figures for decades, first for the studio modellers like Gwendolen Parnell (below) and Agatha Walker, and in the longer term for the Doulton factory, who were still modelling ladies in diluted Georgian frocks right up to the 1990s.
I came across this delicious memoir by James Holland of student life in the 1920s and 1930s, which refers to his outings to The Beggar’s Opera:
“In a quite different tradition, Nigel Playfair’s stylized version of the Beggars’ Opera at the Hammersmith Lyric repaid many visits. Sets and costumes had been designed by Claud Lovat Fraser, and the ballad score arranged for a small group of period instruments, mostly played by several elderly ladies and related members of the same family, who were alleged to knit assiduously between numbers and during the very long run could have completed many garments. This version was a charming charade, artificial and entertaining as a pantomime. The stylized pannier dresses had their influence on contemporary fashion, Polly Peachum and Lucy Locket becoming popular pottery figures, and many a telephone was coyly concealed under the ladies ample pannier skirts.“
Incidentally, he has some fascinating gossip about life at the RCA in that period, which is also worth quoting:
“In converting the Royal College into what was essentially a School of Painting, or certainly Fine Art, Rothenstein was diverting it from the original intention that it should be primarily a centre of design education, though he was perhaps not the first nor the only master to exert such pressure. I have frequently quoted his warning to recalcitrant fine art students – “If you can’t do better than this, you will find yourself in the Design School” – and indeed a few students did from time to time find themselves so transferred, though whether this was to their eventual disadvantage was far from certain. “Illustration” was his damning indictment of much painting, “Magazine illustration” the ultimate and unforgivable condemnation. It was not done for the painting student to be concerned about his post-College future. Something would turn up, a patron, a part-time teaching job, a successful exhibition.”