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"The City of Coral"
Henry Emden, 1903
This and all related images from:
The Victoria & Albert Museum
Nineteenth and Twentieth Century theatre managers relied on their scene painters to create the sets for their productions in a time before “Set Designer” was a specific profession. Sometimes, leading artists of the day were invited to create scenic paintings for productions—especially for a theatre’s annual pantomime or for a special show.
The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, was especially known for its fine sets. Under the direction of Augustus Harris, and, later, Arthur Collins, the theatre’s sets became increasingly important to the production, and, sometimes, were just as integral a part of the show as the script itself. Collins (who managed the theatre from 1899 until 1924) was, by far, the greater champion of scenic design and, some would argue, is responsible for the introduction of the role of “Set Designer” into common theatrical practice.
Arthur Collins, in 1903, as the theatre’s manager, wrote a new play with J. Hickory Wood, which was based on the traditional nursery rhyme of “Humpty Dumpty”—developing the story into a grand-scale fairytale pantomime and extravaganza. The story, told in fifteen scenes, was quite successful with critics and audiences alike praising the monumental and beautiful sets and scenery. Each set was made in the style of a picture book with brilliant colors, but the one which stood out for the most kudos was “The City of Coral.” This set had been designed by the scene painter Henry Emden (1852-1930) who also created two other sets. Seven other scene artists created the remainder of the scenery.
The “Illustrated London News” commenting on Emden’s triumphant “City of Coral” set: “With its wonderful effects of light and its brilliant harmonies of colour, is one of the greatest pictorial triumphs of the management.”
The set was backed by drop curtains and painted gauzes which, when lit from behind, became translucent and revealed more of the beautifully painted scenery upstage.
Above, we see Emden’s model for the “City of Coral” set. A label on the model, written and signed by Emden, details the movements of the gauzes: “the whole a continuous rising movement discovering the scene'.”
Curiously, this celebrated set had no real role in the play. It was not one of the major settings and, in fact, this glorious bit of stage trickery was only used as a transition between scenes upon which, as the sets were changed behind it, a brief, but grand ballet and chorus was staged.
Designed for a raked stage (a stage which slopes upward—traditional to English theatre—and the root of the phrases “upstage” and “downstage”), the model shows us how the scenery worked and looked. Main features are the coral, seaweed, lobster, mermaids and sea creatures which adorn the centerpiece and stage wings.