It is now 90 years since Gabrielle Enthoven’s gift of 80,000 playbills, engravings, photographs, manuscripts and books was accepted by the museum after a decade-long campaign. In life Enthoven was indefatigable, had a considerable public profile and a gift for publicity that earned her the nickname ‘the theatrical encyclopedia’. Since her death she has become one of the many women whose contribution to public life, and theatre history in particular, has been occluded. In this post I want to reconnect the woman with her collection and make her contribution more widely known. Enthoven made acquiring, housing and cataloguing her gift to the museum her life’s work. The picture below shows her, habitual working smock over her clothes, and her staff in their office surrounded by the collection; you can see the index cards they laboured over in the foreground.
Born Gabrielle Romaine in London in 1868, she lived abroad with her parents during her father’s career in colonial administration and moved to the Old Priory near Windsor when he retired in 1879. She was passionate about theatre from a young age. One of her favourite anecdotes was of her first trip to the theatre aged twelve to see the first night of The Forty Thieves starring Kate Vaughan. The story has a distinctly dramatic ring:
“I got out of a window with my brother, who was seventeen years older than myself, in order to attend the First Night at the Gaiety Theatre. As you know, in those days, you just got in as you could, there were no queues or anything of that sort. Being little, I got through the legs of the people till I got to the door of the gallery, when a large navvy said, ‘What do you want?’ ‘I want to see the play.’ ‘Have you got the money?’ To which I replied ‘Yes’. He then put me on his shoulder, carried me upstairs and paid for his entrance with my shilling. We got into the front row and I sat on his knee. Later, he brought out an orange which we shared. When I got out again, I looked everywhere for my brother and eventually found him. ‘Wasn’t it gorgeous?’ I said. ‘I don’t know, I was sick’. But we got back and nobody found out. Lady St Albans heard about this story and gave me a souvenir belonging to Kate Vaughan, the dancer – her glove, which is 6ft 3ins long [the glove is in the collection, museum number S.276-1984]. As you can see it is made in three sections with elastic for the shoulder.” (from a typescript eulogy for Enthoven by Nancy Price, PN1620.L7)
As a young woman she acted with amateur companies, wrote and adapted plays and libretti and attended numerous first nights. She became a collector soon after her marriage to Major Charles Enthoven when she came across a bundle of playbills in a bookshop. The bills satisfied her passion for verifying facts about theatrical performance and she became known as an expert on theatre history.
When Charles died in 1910 her theatrical career expanded. She began to petition for a theatrical section to be established in a national museum and to have her plays professionally produced. After a campaign lasting more than a decade, the Victoria & Albert Museum agreed to accept her collection as a gift and provide space for her and a team of assistants within the Department of Engravings, Illustrations and Drawings in March 1924. The collection, its founder and workers followed a year later and the great task began.
Enthoven and her colleagues were not only cataloguing the playbills, prints and other material that formed her gift, they were also continuously soliciting contemporary material from venues, managements and performers, a policy that the Theatre & Performance Department has pursued ever since. Like the present curators, Enthoven also worried constantly about funding her programme of acquisition and cataloguing, and indeed, whether she would ever complete it. Writing in the People’s National Theatre Magazine in 1933 she outlined the size of her task:
“Sometimes I am asked what has actually kept four able-bodied people hard at work for so many years, but it must be realised that for well over a hundred years of the period covered by the Collection, different plays were acted each night, often three figuring on the bill, which means that there are two or three hundred plays a year for one theatre alone.” (Enthoven Biographical File)
This plaintive justification will be familiar to any curator, cataloguer or librarian explaining the painstaking process of listing and organising material. Enthoven continued to work at the museum until her death in 1950. During her lifetime, the collection grew in size and renown and was consulted by a wide range of professionals including Peter Brook, Barry Jackson, Oliver Messel and Gladys Calthrop, scholars from across the world, and researchers from the BBC, Selfridges and Metro Goldwyn Mayer. Our user group is just the same today.
You can explore the riches of the Enthoven Collection yourself by visiting the Archive and Library Study Room at Blythe House in Kensington Olympia. You’ll find information about making an appointment on the Theatre and Performance Archives webpage.