Patience, or Getting to Grips with the D’Oyly Carte Archive

Assistant Curator within the Theatre and Performance collections, Veronica Castro talks about the process of cataloguing the D’Oyly Carte Archive.

The prospect of cataloguing the D’Oyly Carte Archive was a daunting one.  Faced with hundreds of files, boxes and filing cabinets full of materials reflecting the work of generations of the D’Oyly Carte family and the people they worked with (primarily Gilbert and Sullivan), and armed with only a rudimentary knowledge of the company, I knew I’d have my work cut out.


Costume designs for Utopia, Limited, by Percy Anderson (1851-1928). Watercolour, gouache and pencil on paper with fabric swatches, 1893.  Museum number: S.3197-2015  Archive ref: THM/73/21/12

Making sense of the materials would not be easy – the history of the D’Oyly Carte Company and its Gilbert and Sullivan productions is an intricate and colourful one.  It staged original productions as well as revivals and tours (usually sending multiple companies on tour concurrently) and employed hundreds of company members.  The range of materials here was considerable – covering all aspects of the workings of the company and including some items you might not reasonably expect to find in your average theatre company archive: relics found on Crimean battlefields and a marzipan pirate’s hat immediately spring to mind!


Souvenir box and artwork designed by Peter Goffin (1906-1974). The box was one of many, each containing a marzipan pirate’s hat, presented at a party to mark general manager Frederic Lloyd’s 27th birthday (1918-1995).  Ink and pencil on pencil and card, 1963.  Museum number (box): S.4210-2015 Archive ref. (artwork): THM/73/29/3/5

We acquired the archive in several tranches.  Our curator of popular entertainment and resident D’Oyly Carte expert Catherine Haill spent many long days at the Savoy Hotel (home to the materials and their custodian Dame Bridget D’Oyly Carte – granddaughter of impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte, who built the hotel and established the company in the 1870s), listing and boxing up the materials prior to the first acquisition.  The materials were available for public access at their new home in Blythe House, but had never been formally catalogued.  As such it was always with some degree of dread that we received a request to view any of it.


Poster for a D’Oyly Carte Company production of The Mikado at the Geiko Theatre, Tokyo, 1947.  Ink on paper, 1947.  Archive ref: THM/73/29/1/8

Cataloguing collections of this size and age always has its challenges – the amount of correspondence and paperwork can be vast and deciphering handwriting can be a job in itself.  It was a considerable task to make sense of Dame Bridget’s organisation – the materials had, over time, become rather jumbled and although a preliminary list was drawn up at the Savoy, any resulting locations for the given materials did not translate once they were taken out of situ.  The sheer number of revivals and tours meant that pairing materials to their correct production was a task that, alone, took weeks.  Not to mention the additional weeks of work it took our digitisation team to get images and records of all the wonderful costume and set designs online (these are available to view via Search the Collections)

S.3485-2015 Costume sketch Ruddigore; Costume sketch by W.S. Gilbert showing a design for Rose Maybud for a production of Ruddigore, 1886 William Schwenck Gilbert (1836-1911), probably Great Britain 1886 Ink and pencil on paper with fabric swatches attached

Costume sketch for Rose Maybud in Ruddigore by W.S. Gilbert (1836-1911)  Ink and pencil on paper with fabric swatches, 1886.  Museum number: S.3485-2015  Archive ref: THM/73/20/9

The results, I hope, will be greater access to what is a true gem of a collection.

An introduction to the D’Oyly Carte Archive is available here

The catalogue for the D’Oyly Carte Archive is available here

The V&A wishes to acknowledge the generous support given by The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, which facilitated the cataloguing of the D’Oyly Carte  Archive designs in 2015/16.