The first woman actor-manager in London was Eliza Vestris who managed the Olympic Theatre in 1830. Famous for her shapely legs, she was a singer and dancer of some repute. At the Olympic she presented a programme of Burlesques (many starring herself in breeches roles) written by J R Planché (who later made his name as a writer of pantomimes). Vestris encouraged the use of historically correct costumes and of a box set complete with a real ceiling.
Madge Kendal, sepia tone photograph, 1878. Museum no. S.142:284-2007. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Madge Kendal, pictured here with her husband, the actor William Kendal, did much to improve the standards in Victorian theatre and to bring it a respectability that would appeal to the middle classes. The couple imposed a high moral code both on stage and behind the scenes. Kendal was the youngest of William Robertson's 22 children and her family had been connected with the theatre for 200 years. Her brother, Tom Robertson, was a dramatist whose work introduced the naturalistic cup-and-saucer type drama that rapidly became the fashion. The couple went into management together at the Court Theatre and the St James's Theatre. Although a sparkling comedian on the stage, and referred to in magazines as 'dear Madge Kendal', Mrs Kendal was by all accounts a cold and judgmental character. She disapproved of people and practices that did not conform to her strict code, and she had a poor relationship with her own five children. Her acting was outstanding however, and she was made a Dame in 1926.
Eliza Vestris as Orpheus, colour lithograph print, published by Theodore McLean, printed by Maguire Lemercier & Co, Haymarket, London, 28 August 1832. Museum no. S.30-1997. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Madame Vestris was exceptional in that she was the first actress-manager, a successful female performer who leased and ran a London theatre, the Olympic Theatre, from 1830-1849. This picture is from a production called Olympic Devils, a burletta staged as the Christmas entertainment in 1831 and based on the classical Greek legend of Orpheus. The show was appropriately pantomimic in style; the script was full of verbal puns and slapstick humour. In the legend, Orpheus' severed head floated down a river still singing. This effect was created by Madame Vestris sticking her head through a hole in a painted model of some water, and the model being pulled across the stage. Unfortunately the contraption did not move smoothly, and the effect was apparently spoiled by shouts from offstage of 'Faster! Slower! Looser! Pull ... Damn it! You'll strangle her!'. Apart from this the production was a huge success.
Architectural drawings of Olympic Theatre, London, 1820. Museum no. S.404-1989. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London
The Olympic Pavilion was first built by Philip Astley in 1806 where he staged his 'Feats of Horsemanship'. In 1831 it was taken over by the first female theatre manager in London, Eliza Vestris. Madame Vestris wanted to try out some new design ideas, so she and her business partner, Maria Foote began with a programme of four pieces including Olympic Revels. While her licence only allowed her to present extravaganzas and burlesques, Vestris took rehearsal and the quality of performance of the entire company extremely seriously. She also went to enormous expense to produce realistic, accurate sets years ahead of practitioners such as Charles Kean. She gathered a talented company around her which included the actor John Liston. In 1839, Vestris gave her last performance at the Olympic before moving on to the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden.
Portrait of Sara Lane (1822-1899), photograph, London, England, about 1870. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London
From 1871 until her death in 1899, Sara Lane was the manageress of the Britannia Theatre in Hoxton in the deprived East End of London. She was adored by her staff, and known as 'the Queen of Hoxton' by the local costermen. Lane had started her career on the stage at 17 as a singer and dancer. She married Sam Lane, the proprietor of the Britannia, and after her husband's death in 1871, took over the management. The Britannia re-staged melodramas that had been seen at Drury Lane and other West End theatres, as well as new plays and adaptations including Sara Lane's own. Its low ticket prices meant that the local East Enders could afford to come, and they filled the theatre every night. Best loved was the Britannia's Christmas pantomime which was one of the last to preserve the harlequinade. Lane made her final appearance in the Britannia's 1898 Christmas show, aged 76, a farewell to the theatre where she had spent practically half her life. At her funeral the following year, the crowds along Hoxton Street made it almost impossible for the horse-drawn cortège to get down the street.
Marie Wilton, Lady Bancroft (1840-1921), photographed by Adolphe Beau, 19th century, Guy Little Collection. Museum no. S.142:13-2007.© Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Photography was a novel and exciting development in Victorian days. Most actors and actresses had studio photographs taken in everyday dress or theatrical costume for 'cartes de visite' and later 'cabinet cards'. Both were albumen prints made from glass negatives, attached to stiff card backing printed with the photographer's name. 'Cartes de visite', the size of formal visiting cards, were patented in 1854 and produced in their millions during the 1860s when it became fashionable to collect them. Their subjects included scenic views, tourist attractions and works of art as well as portraits. They were superseded in the late 1870s by the larger and sturdier 'cabinet cards' whose popularity waned in turn during the 1890s in favour of postcards and studio portraits. This photograph comes from a large collection of 'cartes de visite' and 'cabinet cards' removed from their backings and mounted in albums by Guy Tristram Little (d. 1952) who bequeathed them to the V&A. A collector of greetings cars, games and photographs, Guy Little was a partner in the legal firm Messrs Milles Jennings White & Foster and the solicitor and executor of Mrs Gabrielle Enthoven, whose theatrical collection formed the basis of the Theatre Collections at the V&A.
Inside the Old Vic, photograph reproduced in The Old Vic Saga by E G Harcourt Williams, London, 1910. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London
The photograph shows the Royal visit of the Prince and Princess of Wales (later King George V and Queen Mary) to the Old Vic in 1910. At this time the theatre's licence did not allow plays to be presented. Entertainments consisted of films, lectures, variety bills and concert performances of operas. In 1912 Lilian Baylis obtained a dramatic licence and introduced fully staged opera and plays. Between 1920 and 1925 the drama company became the first ever to stage every Shakespeare play (except Cymbeline). By the mid 1920s, the Old Vic had become the only place where actors could learn to play Shakespeare. Until 1923 the backstage and workshops were shared between the theatrical companies and Morley College. The foyer was a working men's café and the 'Peace and Plenty' restaurant. Until the lease ran out in 1927, cooking smells and the clatter of plates permeated the auditorium.