A Tale of Two Exhibitions

(Originally published in Blue Pages, the journal of The Society of British Theatre Designers)

In 1979 my mum was running the art gallery at Harlow Playhouse, I was very small (but apparently not too small to be captivated by theatre models) and the UK won the Golden Triga at the Prague Quadrennial. Three and a half decades later I find myself organising a display of theatre design in the same town and meeting a new generation of young people. But we’ll have to wait until later in the year before we know about the Golden Triga.

A post-war new town, Harlow has a remarkable history of civic cultural activity; when it was founded it even had its own string quartet. Its single most notable aspect is the sculpture collection, and Harlow was recently given the official title of “Sculpture Town”. It’s even on the signs as you drive in. Harlow’s arts scene was greatly diminished in the late 80s and 90s, mainly because of rate-capping, and for a while it was without an art gallery. It also lost its iconic 1950s Town Hall, designed by the town’s master planner, Sir Frederic Gibberd. The replacement building is architecturally bland but does house a fantastic exhibition space.

This new venue, The Gibberd Gallery, is run by the Harlow Art Trust, which was originally set up to look after the sculpture collection. It has held some remarkable exhibitions, including one featuring models by Langlands and Bell, about which I wrote in a previous edition of Blue Pages. Their next exhibition, running from 19th February to 27th March, centres on performance, specifically dance. Its concept is twofold: on the one hand to celebrate the town’s many dance schools and on the other to demonstrate excellence in professional design for performance. I was asked to help with the latter, and the result is a small dance-focused selection from Make/Believe. It’s been lovely to return to the town that gave me so much when I was growing up but it’s also a chance to test an idea. A small, themed exhibition, that doesn’t cost much to put on, with a clear curatorial purpose that can easily be used educationally, and which can be sited in spaces that are highly accessible to the public. It may be something we’d like to take forward.

I’m delighted that we’ve managed to get work from Becs Andrews, Bob Crowley, Simon Daw, Matt Deely, Abigail Hammond, Shizuka Hariu, Cadi Lane and Lizzie French, Kimie Nakano and Antonella Petracarro.

The other half of the exhibition centres on dances created by local groups in response to sculptures in the town. These will be performed live at certain times but will otherwise be available to watch on video. Alongside this, local teenagers from the gallery’s Young Curators group have put together an exhibition of work by Harlow school children. There will also be a programme of workshops. I’ll be doing one on scenography with local young people and also leading a public discussion. It’s been a particular pleasure working alongside the Young Curators; it’s such a wonderful and unusual scheme. And an investment for SBTD exhibitions in the future, perhaps!

Working on this project also led to conversations about 1979, when the UK Prague exhibition came to the Harlow Playhouse Gallery. The folder with all the paperwork was still on the shelf at my parents’ house. It’s fascinating stuff. It was the first time this winning display had been shown in the UK. John Bury’s statement for the exhibition guide starts with a familiar complaint, albeit lightly expressed:

Last June seventeen British theatre designers went to Prague and came home with the Golden Triga! So baffling is this simple statement that it is no wonder that the British press failed to broadcast the good news – for good news it was!

He goes on to give some background to the Prague Quadrennial, before turning his attention to the international exhibitors:

It’s not just an East European affair, with all that that entails. The west Europeans: France, Italy, West Germany, Holland and Belgium play a large role – the USA, Canada and Mexico turn up in force. Japan appears, wonderfully in 1975 when they won the costume gold, and slightly disappointing this year. The third world is represented with a sprinkling of talent. Finally, there are the USSR and the East Europeans in their subsidised ranks, which includes East Germany and Czechoslovakia, two countries who had it all their own way in theatre design in the post war years, and only now have yielded their laurels to the west, the west in the form of great Britain!

He also succinctly explains the PQ selection process:

We didn’t want a large and representative exhibition. We have seen too many of these from other countries at Prague, and that way boredom lay! We had to risk offending people – we had to choose the unique.

The final selection comprised model sets by John Bury, Ralph Koltai, Abdelkader Farrah, Peter Hartwell, Mary Moore, John Napier, Chris Dyer, Robin Don and Maria Bjornson, alongside puppets and an illustrated book by Jennifer Carey and Ariane Gastambide and costumes drawings by Deidre Clancy, David Short, Pippy Bradshaw, Alison Chitty, Liz da Costa and Sally Gardner. My dad’s memory is that I was particularly entranced by the miniature paint pots in Peter Hartwell’s set for The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. My mum’s is that I especially liked John Napier’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And little did I know that one of the exhibitors, Alison Chitty, would, two decades later, teach me at Motley. In mum’s folder, Alison’s contact number has a question mark by it, and a note explaining that it’s her parents’ home number. It’s a fascinating time capsule.

The folder contains various photocopied theatre programmes and handwritten notes suggesting that the process of gathering designers’ biographies wasn’t entirely straightforward. There’s also what’s presumably a press release, also by John Bury, dated 1978 and on SBTD headed paper. It explains the selection process for the national exhibition at Riverside Studios that year, and for Prague, reminding us that the debate around how work is chose is not new. And there’s a list of exhibitors in the national exhibition, which includes Bob Crowley, whose Winter’s Tale for the Royal Ballet is featured in the current Harlow show.

Which brings us back to the modern day. We’ve recently opened our display, which is still branded as Make/Believe but sits within the larger exhibition, called Lights, Art, Action! Of course I’m biased, but I’m pretty pleased with how it has turned out, and would urge any members in striking distance of Harlow to come and have a look. You can also see some of the town’s remarkable collection of sculptures: on your way into the galley you pass a Rodin Eve, a Frink boar and a rare stone-carved Moore family group. There’s also Gibberd’s watercolour collection, a unique and important gathering of post-war work, which is permanently on display around the edge of the gallery. Harlow and Essex get a rough time from some quarters but I can’t help but feel rather proud!

The cover photo for this article shows the exhibition at The Gibberd Gallery, Harlow, which ran 20th February – 27th March 2015. Photo credit: Hannah Lee

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