The Flymen and the Train bleu

Ted (left) and Paul with a big foot and the signature

Last week, as I dashed off to New York, two of the flymen who worked at the July 1968 Ballets Russes auction at the Scala Theatre, London, visited the exhibition and Anna (who helped on the exhibition as it took shape) took the opportunity to chat to them. Ted Murphy and Paul Beecham have had long careers in the theatre with Ted now working as a Production Manager for the Opera in HollandPark

They recalled that they were asked to hang the cloths to be auctioned in order to take photographs for the Sotheby catalogue and then to display them as they were sold. This was the auction that features in the film in the second gallery of the exhibition near the cloths. The cloths they hung included Valentin Serov’s front cloth for Schéhérazade added to the ballet from 1911, cloths for the 1937 version of Le Coq d’or, and the front cloth for Le Train bleu painted by Prince Schervachidze based on the Picasso painting of the Two Women Running Along the Beach. During the auction both Ted and Paul were responsible for flying the cloths (between 2 and 5 men were typically used per cloth), and indeed, as they told Anna, they are just off camera in the film footage of the auction.They remarked that you can see from the film that the Train bleu cloth comes in too far on the prompt side as the hemp from which the cloths were made often stretched during the course of a performance.

The flymen remembered how, as they slowly unrolled the Train bleu cloth for the first time, paint dust from the work gathered in the centre of the cloth.Ted explains how they used a vacuum cleaner to remove it by running it straight over the centre of the work.They also noted how, when vacuuming the cloth to make it presentable for auction, Picasso’s signature became somewhat damaged – and their response to this was to ask the Scala Theatre’s scenic artist to retouch the signature within the outline.

This, it must be said, is only one of the ‘horror stories’ we have received about treatment to material in the exhibition – before it came to the V&A. It must be acknowledged that in 1968 there was little awareness of just how valuable the ‘relics’ of the Ballets Russes would become.

A story about some costumes will follow.