The Allan Wilkie - Frediswyde Hunter-Watts Theatre Collection
The Allan Wilkie - Frediswyde Hunter-Watts Theatre Collection was bequeathed to the Barr Smith Library in 1976 by Miss Floy Angel Nan (Angel) Symon. It is a solid reference collection of over 6,000 items focusing on English stage history of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, supplemented by diverse and extensive collections of programs and souvenirs, illustrations, playbills and newspaper clippings.
The story behind the collection features players from both Australian theatre and South Australian history. Allan Wilkie was a national icon of Australian theatre in the 1920s and 1930s, his theatre company presenting Shakespeare to the masses with Wilkie and his second wife, Frediswyde Hunter-Watts, as leading actors. Angel Symon, one of ten surviving children of Sir Josiah and Lady Eleanor Symon, met the Wilkie family in Adelaide in 1916 when she was 19. It was the beginning of a lifetime friendship and her will stipulated that her collection be named in their honour.1
The Symon name is well known to patrons of the State Library of South Australia through the Symon Collection, Sir Josiah's own library maintained as a unique example of a nineteenth-century gentleman's library. Described as 'the most considerable intellect in Adelaide',2 Sir Josiah was a leader of the Federal Convention of 1897/9 and helped to draft the Australian Constitution. He was also a generous benefactor, giving the University of Adelaide £10,000 towards the Lady Symon Building for women students with the proviso it was managed by women. One of his passions was Shakespeare and his writings included Shakespeare at Home (Adelaide, 1905) and Shakespeare the Englishman (Adelaide, 1924). He corresponded with Allan Wilkie and some of these letters can also be found in the State Library.
Angel was one of five daughters, all independent and capable women who followed their own interests. Lesley Kilmeny was a bibliophile and keen book collector who donated over 4,000 volumes to the Barr Smith Library. Eleanor Dorothy Jean served on the Board of Northcote Rest Home for Mothers and Babies for ten years. The youngest, Mary Arden, was passionate about ballet, her farm and her horses, and worked for a time in Bernard Leach's pottery studio in St Ives, Cornwall. The eldest daughter, Elizabeth Margaret, studied child psychology in London and established the Inn Nursery School in Lower Mitcham, the first progressive nursery school in Australia. Her aim to foster 'an environment in which [the child] is encouraged to question, to express himself, to act on his own initiative and to think for himself and others' 3 was surely reflected in the lives of the Symon daughters.
Angel's passion was the theatre and she had the opportunity to travel and pursue her passion in England and Europe. Born in Adelaide in 1896, she was educated both privately and at Miss Schroeder's School at Mt Lofty in the summer, and Miss Cussens' School at North Adelaide in the winter, and later in England at the Manor House, Brondesbury. On her return to Australia in 1914 she worked with Red Cross and studied French at the University of Adelaide. Angel toured with Allan Wilkie's company as secretary and advance publicity officer, with some occasional walk-on parts, from 1920 to 1923 and from 1925 until 1926, when it was temporarily disbanded after a disastrous fire in Geelong. Lisa Warrington in her thesis 'Allan Wilkie in Australia' alludes to Wilkie's 'most competent system of publicity, which ensured that his name was kept before the public eye' 4 and also helped him secure the patronage of the leading citizens in each state. Thus developed a friendship of mutual benefit.
Wilkie was one of the last of the British actor-managers who reached their pinnacle with Henry Irving. Trained in the companies of Ben Greet, Frank Benson and Beerbohm Tree, and driven by a lust for travel and a determination to play under his own banner, he toured India, East Asia and South Africa. With few professional prospects ahead of them in England, the Wilkies travelled to Australia in 1914 and obtained work with the touring companies of Nellie Stewart and J.C. Williamson. In 1916 he was made head of the George Marlow Grand Shakespearean Company with a free hand in the choice of plays and production, touring Australia and New Zealand with a mix of Shakespeare, eighteenth-century comedy and melodrama at popular prices.
'A dedicated, an unquenchable Shakesperian [sic]',5 Wilkie launched his own Allan Wilkie Shakespearean Company in 1920 at the Princess Theatre Melbourne, the first serious attempt to establish a permanent touring Shakespeare company in Australia. Ngaio Marsh in her autobiography described how the Wilkie Company gave her 'my first real joy in Shakesperian [sic] acting'. An actor with a 'grand, declaratory manner'6 in the tradition of his hero Henry Irving, Wilkie played most of Shakespeare's leading roles, not always to advantage. His aging Romeo in particular attracted critical reviews, Wilkie being a large man with a strong voice suited more to big, blustery parts. Frediswyde Hunter-Watts was softly spoken and graceful, 'delicate, gentle, with a cloud of bronze hair and a strangely moving little break in her voice.' 7 Wilkie always sought to entertain his audience and make Shakespeare a living adventure. He economized on scenery and adapted to a wide variety of city and country theatres by setting elaborately costumed actors against a curtain-draped stage with 'a small backcloth depicting the scene of the action ... between the curtains.'8 Orchestral support was an important feature, using locally hired musicians to save costs. Money was never plentiful, Wilkie investing any profits in new costumes, scenery and actors. When money was tight, the company would tour melodrama and Sheridan in mining towns of Australia and New Zealand.
After four years of touring, the Wilkie Company claimed a world record for giving 1,000 consecutive performances of Shakespeare. Wilkie's ambition was to produce all 37 of Shakespeare's plays but by 1931, when the company wound up due to the Depression and competition from the 'talkies', he had only managed to produce 27. Wilkie had, however, brought his love of Shakespeare to an entire generation of Australian theatregoers and schoolchildren. Encouraged by state directors of education, Wilkie included curriculum plays in his repertoire and offered half-price concessions to school parties for 'purified' productions of Shakespeare.9 In 1925 he was awarded the C.B.E. for his services to theatre, particularly with regard to education. He also campaigned actively for Government subsidies for the theatre10 and eventually succeeded in getting free transport for his company over the entire Commonwealth railways, in effect the first government subsidy of theatre in Australia. Recognition of Wilkie as a national institution was apparent when a national appeal raised money for Wilkie to restock in England11 following the 1926 Geelong fire which destroyed the company's costumes, props and scenery. Wilkie toured Asia, Australia and New Zealand for 15 years, entertaining and educating the masses with his 'honest' productions. He believed that 'in a small way he had done something towards preserving the integrity of the British Empire ... the mere representation of the language of Shakespeare improved the people who listened, and made them better citizens of the Empire'.12
In between working for the Wilkie Company Angel Symon travelled to England, taking an active interest in the experimental theatre of the 1920s. While in London in 1924 she acted as Honorary Secretary for the Gate Theatre and Playroom 6, along with several other studio theatres. Later, in 1928, she served as Secretary to the Melbourne Repertory Company under Frank Clewlow, who had also toured with Wilkie. Angel had travelled through England and Europe several times with her sisters, taking every opportunity to visit theatres and opera or concerts, also attending lectures in costume design and experimental theatre productions in France and Germany. She collected books, programs and ephemera, building up a considerable personal library, and also studied theatre buildings and mechanics, meanwhile making continual inquiries about theatre subsidies.
Angel developed strong connections with the English theatre world, and maintained lasting friendships and correspondence with Ifan Kyrle Fletcher (of the Society for Theatre Research), Cyril Beaumont and Arnold Haskell among many others who 'encouraged, aided and abetted' her collection.13 Over the years she kept in touch with and supported the Stratford Memorial Theatre, the Old Vic, the Malvern and Pitlochry festivals, and philanthropic associations such as the Actors' Orphanage and the 'Haven of Rest for Aged Members of the Theatrical Profession'. In Australia she supported local theatre and endowed seats in the names of Allan Wilkie and Frediswyde Hunter-Watts in the Theatre Royal Hobart appeal. She also donated Australian theatre items to the Mitchell library, the Society for Theatre Research, the New York Public Library and the Harvard Theatre Collection. In 1974 upon not being invited to the opening of the Festival Theatre, Angel wrote to John Baily, Chairman of the Adelaide Festival Centre Trust: 'I am confident that no one in South Australia has had a greater life long love for and interest in the theatre ... with my late father and members of my family I have always supported the performing arts and have worked for the survival, development and renaissance of the theatre in South Australia.' Theatre was always more than just a personal interest for Angel. In the 1920s she commissioned a London architect to draw up plans for a civic theatre for Adelaide, incorporating what appealed to her in European theatre buildings, and had 'also began building up a theatre collection - books, prints and theatre material as a reference library and museum for the performing arts in the planned theatre'.14 Although she had enquired about depositing her collection with the University of Adelaide as early as 1948, and had also approached the State Library in 1960, she wanted her collection to be located where the best use could be made of it and in 1971 or 1972 wrote to a former Lord Mayor of Adelaide and current Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Adelaide Festival of Arts, Sir James Irwin, asking if there would be any place in the proposed Festival Theatre for a library suited to her collection. Also, in 1974, when it seemed likely that Elder Hall would be demolished, Angel sent notes to the University of Adelaide on 'A Use for the Elder Hall' as a museum, reference library and research centre for the performing arts, another potential home for her collection.
From the 1950s Angel lived with her sister at Stringys [sic], Mary Clark's property in Echunga where they acted as hosts for many visiting theatre and ballet people. Angel died as the result of an accident in 1976. Her will stipulated that her collection be kept together as a reference collection and be available for browsing under supervision. Mary retained a portion of the collection for her own use and continued to add to it, especially in the area of ballet, and in 1983 generously donated $10,000 to assist the cataloguing of the collection. The remaining books, along with many programs and souvenirs, posters, postcards and illustrations, newspaper cuttings and Angel's personal correspondence were transferred to the Barr Smith Library on Mary's death in 1988, aged 87 years.
The Theatre Collection is a valuable source for theatre and drama research because of its international scope, quantity and range of newspaper clippings spanning 200 years of theatre history. Angel's collection was perhaps undervalued by the Australian theatre community during the promotion of national theatre interest in the 1970s and '80s. Most other theatre collections in Australia specialise in Australian or state material.
Although the Collection has not been actively supplemented, except for occasional gifts and purchases of Australian playtexts over the years, it encompasses more than 1,300 playtexts, including the nineteenth-century Bell's British Theatre series, Dick's Standard Plays and French's acting and standard library editions. A number of rare books (including early eighteenth-century texts on the morality of the theatre) were also incorporated into the Theatre Collection from other areas.
There are many works on the biography and history of British theatre between 1890 and 1940, reflecting Angel's interests and her association with the Society for Theatre Research. Some are of bibliographical interest, such as the presentation copy of Harley Granville Barker's A National Theatre (London, 1930), a proof copy of Una Ellis-Fermor's The Irish Dramatic Movement (London, 1939), and the rare first edition of William Archer's About the Theatre: Essays and Studies (London, 1886). Biographies include those of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving and Gordon Craig; the rarest - Austin Brereton's The Lyceum and Henry Irving (London, 1903), is number 1 of a limited edition of 1500. Other biographies include E.L. Blanchard's The Life and Reminiscences...(London, 1891) and Frederick Badger's Ups and Downs, or, The Wanderings and Adventures of Frederick Badger, Gent. (London, 1855) with an inscribed couplet by William Macready. There are also more than 40 titles on costume and others on stage design and theatre technique.
Some 200 works focus on stage presentation and biography of Shakespeare, including one of only 100 copies printed for private circulation of A Catalogue of Shakespeareana ...(London, 1899), a catalogue compiled by M.J. Perry of sixteenth and seventeenth century books which Shakespeare may have read, or which make mention of him. William Poel, the author of Prominent Points in the Life and Writings of Shakespeare Arranged in Four Tables (Manchester, 1919), also produced Shakespearean plays with minimal scenery (and influenced Wilkie) but put his actors in Elizabethan dress, unlike Wilkie, who kept to traditional historic costume.
There is a strong collection of British and European theatre and ballet journals, notably Mask (Florence, 1908-29), Play Pictorial (1902-39), Das Theater (1909-39), Dancing Times (1913-60), Theatre Arts (1916-64), Drama (1920-33), Theatre World (1925-65) and Wilkie's own journal, The Shakespearean Quarterly (1922-24); established to drum up additional public interest in Shakespeare. Hailed as the only Shakespearean journal published in the British Empire, it was intended to be a record of Shakespearean study and stage production and was sold in theatres where the Wilkie Company performed.
A small but delightful ballet collection, with a focus on the Russian ballet, includes some outstanding illustrated and limited editions, such as the beautiful Les Ballets Suedois (Paris, 1931) and The Decorative Art of Leon Bakst, with text by Arséne Alexandre, published in a limited edition of 80 copies by the Fine Art Society in 1913. European publications include facsimile editions and translations of the early treatises of Thoinet Arbeau (Jehan Tabouret), Jean Georges Noverre and Carlo Blasis, as well as works of the critics and historians Théophile Gautier and Valerin Svetlov. Also within the collection are works on costume history and design, texts on the Borovansky Australian Ballet Company and texts by the ballet critics Cyril Beaumont and Arnold Haskell; the latter documenting his 1938-39 Australian tour with Colonel de Basil's Covent Garden Russian Ballet.
Australian material within this collection is minimal as little was published in this area during Angel's lifetime. However, some gems include a first edition, inscribed copy of David E. Bandmann's An Actor's tale: Seventy Thousand Miles with Shakespeare (1885) and J. Gardiner's Twenty-Five Years on the Stage: The Career of an Australian Actor (Adelaide, 1891).
The separate collection of over 20,000 programs, covering theatre, ballet and some music performances from 1858 to the present, is a valuable resource for today's theatre historians. Many were collected by Angel and her friends and relations in Britain, Europe and Australia between the 1920s and 1970s. These included numerous Shakespeare productions, as well as the performances of Mrs Patrick Campbell and Henry Irving. Angel also added purchased programs of earlier Shakespeare and other productions and her collection has been substantially augmented by personal donations from those of Professor J.G. Cornell, Dr Marie-Louise Thiersch and Dr Enid Robertson. The London souvenir programs collected by Mrs Louise Saunders from 1898 to 1909 and the sizeable music program collection of Mr Tony Locantro are also included.
A fascinating collection of newspaper clippings was enthusiastically amassed by Angel and stored loose in ten trunks and boxes along with a few albums. These have been separated into Australian and non-Australian collections and sorted by year, but more work needs to be done to organise this valuable resource. Angel and Mary Clark also collected playbills and posters, principally from nineteenth-century London and Melbourne productions, with some later Australian dance and opera posters. A collection of theatre illustrations includes many hundreds of picture postcards, photographs (many signed) and illustrations of productions, actors, directors and theatres. There is also a small collection of memorabilia, including illuminated addresses (many to Allan Wilkie) and a wedding apron worn by Mrs Garrick, wife of the great eighteenth-century actor David Garrick.
Allan Wilkie retired from the stage after a brief tour of England in 1932 and later remarried following Frediswyde's death in 1951. After he died in Scotland in 1970, aged 92, the Barr Smith Library acquired his personal papers from his widow, Mrs Kate Wilkie, to supplement the Theatre Collection. This separate collection includes newspaper cuttings, theatre programs and photographs of Wilkie Shakespearean Company performances, some 300 letters received by Wilkie between 1917 and 1969 and his unpublished autobiography 'All the World My Stage', with a preface by Ngaio Marsh. The most interesting items are Wilkie's annotated scripts, promptbooks and stage manager's workbook,15 complementing the promptbooks of the English actress Mrs Patrick Campbell (1865-1940). Wilkie's collection has been augmented by Desiree Long's three scrapbooks of correspondence, cuttings, photographs and programs relating to performances in Australia by the Allan Wilkie Shakespearean Company, and to performances of Shakespeare in general, from 1920 to 1970.
Special Collections also houses other manuscript collections related to theatre and dance, including records of University theatre associations; an extensive collection on the history of dance in Australia compiled by Keith Glennon and Alan Brissenden; and the programs, newspaper cuttings and papers c. 1915-40 of Phyllis Leitch, dancer, dancing teacher and ballet mistress for the Elder Conservatorium opera class. The Special Collections theatre material in turn enhances the drama and dance collections of the Barr Smith Library.
The Theatre Collection is housed in the Pacific Room of Rare Books & Special Collections on Level 1 of the Barr Smith Library and is open to the public Monday to Friday between 1pm and 4pm. All books and journals have been catalogued and are available via the Library's online catalogue with the designation Theatre Collection.
1 Biographical information about Angel Symon and her family was derived from Angel Symon's papers and notes in Special Collections, and from personal communications from Mary Clark. Allan Wilkie's biographical details were extracted from Lisa Warrington's thesis, 'Allan Wilkie in Australia: The Work of a Shakespeare Actor-Manager' (University of Tasmania, 1981) and her article 'Allan Wilkie CBE' in Companion to Theatre in Australia (Sydney: Currency Press, 1995), 640.
2 Sidney Webb, quoted in Peter Abbott-Young, 'Sir Josiah Symon and His Library'. Reprinted in Glen Ralph, comp. Sir Josiah Henry Symon (1845-1934): A Chronicle of his life and notes for researchers (Adelaide: Wilmar Library, 2000), 40-41.
9 John Golder, 'A Cultural Missionary on Tour: Allan Wilkie's Shakespearean Company, 1920-30', in John Golder and Richard Madeleine, eds, O Brave New World: Two Centuries of Shakespeare on the Australian Stage (Sydney: Currency Press, 2001), 132.
Warrington, 160-1. See also Alan Brissenden, 'Shakespeare's Australian Travels', in T. Kishi, R. Pringle and S. Wells, eds, Shakespeare and Cultural Traditions (Newark: Delaware University Press, 1994), 205-15.
Reprinted with permission from Bibliofile, vol. 11, no. 1 (August 2003). Published by the Friends of the State Library of South Australia.