Posts tagged ‘Film Props’

September 27, 2020

Antique Dealers and Theatre & Film Props

As a prelude to our restaging of the play ‘Quinneys’, I thought it might be interesting to post a blog entry on the relationship between antique dealing and film and theatre props and scene sets, given that we have many generous promises of the loan of antiques for the props for the future set of the play Quinneys (there will be more on that in future blog posts, so do keep popping back!).

Quinneys will hopefully take place in the Spring next year, as part of the continuing Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded ‘Year of the Dealer’ project which, as you may know, had been put on hold since the start of the Covid-19 crisis, but we have thankfully had our request for an extension to the project granted by the AHRC (thank you!), so the project will now continue until 31st March 2021.

Anyway, the relationship between antique (and curiosity) dealers and the theatre goes right back to the very start of the modern antique trade in the early 19th century – for more on the early history of the antique trade, if you are interested, you might want to read my book ‘The Emergence of the Antique & Curiosity Dealer 1815-1850: the commodification of historical objects’ (Routledge, 2020), which came out earlier this year.

I don’t wish this blog post to be too much of a promo for my book of course!…but if you are really interested in this subject, Routledge have very generously made a 50% discount on the book (reducing the price from £120 (academic books are so expensive!) to £60 (still quite a lot of money though) – you just need to go to http://www.routledge.com and add EACD50 in the code when you get to the checkout – here’s a link to it – Routledge

Anyway, promo over!….back to the real purpose of the blog post – as I said, the relationship between the antique and curiosity trade and the theatre goes right back to the start of the antique trade itself. For example, the curiosity dealer John Coleman Isaac (c.1803-1887), who traded in Wardour Street in London from 1829 until his retirement in 1868, appears to have regularly hired out suits of ‘ancient armour’ as theatre props for plays performed in London theatres in the 1830s – the archive of Issac (held at the Hartley Library at the University of Southampton – MS139/AJ53) records that Isaac received ‘Ten Pounds for the hire of two suits of Armour for four weeks at the Victoria Theatre’ in December 1835 (MS139/AJ53, no.467), and that he also hired ‘ancient armour’ for a performance at the Coburg Theatre in 1836. So we can certainly say that the use of genuine antiques, as part of theatre sets, has a very long tradition indeed.

More recently, I’ve been doing some research on antique dealer firms and the film industry in the 20th century, and discovered some fascinating details of the role that some leading antique dealer firms played in the film industry during the period from the 1930s until the 1960s.  For example, M.Harris & Sons, who were one of the most important dealers in antique furniture during the 20th century, advertised that their business included, ‘Hire and Hire-Purchase….for short or long periods, or household use. Also for Theatrical and Film Productions, at specially agreed rates’ (M. Harris & Sons, An Abridged Introductory Catalogue of Antique Furniture and Works of Art (n.d. c.1925), p.6. Here’s Moss Harris’ shop in New Oxford Street in London, in c.1921 –

M.Harris & Sons, New Oxford Street, London, c.1921. Photograph ‘The Connoisseur’ 1921.

M. Harris & Sons must have been used by many film companies over the years, and they certainly hired antique furniture for the set of at least one film (there must be many more?…if anyone knows of any further examples I’d be very interested to hear?).  The film was The Beloved Vagabond (1936), a famous musical made by Columbia Pictures, directed by Curtis Bernhardt and starring Maurice Chevalier and Margaret Lockwood.  The film was made at Ealing Studios, just to the west of London, so convenient for the hire of props from a London antique dealer.

Film poster for ‘The Beloved Vagabond’ (1936). Image, silversirens.co.uk

One can see various pieces of antique furniture, typical of the stock of M. Harris & Sons in the 1920s and 1930s, in some of the film stills.  Here, for example, in one scene, the 18th century open armchair, to the right in the photo-still, is perhaps a piece on hire from Moss Harris & Sons. The business certainly had many examples of such 18th century chairs in stock during the 1920s and 1930s.

Film still from ‘The Beloved Vagabond’ (1936). Image Avaxhome.

And here (below), in another film still from The Beloved Vagabond, there is another mid-18th century open armchair, to the left, together with a mid-18th century stool (just behind the man, centre of the still) and an 18th century sidetable behind, all typical of M. Harris & Sons stock of the period.

Film still from ‘The Beloved Vagabond’ (1936). Image Avaxhome.

In the late 1930s and during the Second World War, in the early 1940s, Thomas Crowther & Son, North End Road, Fulham, London, also hired hundreds of objects to many British film companies – during WWII it would have been cheaper, I guess, to hire genuine antique room panelling and 18th century chimney-pieces (the kinds of things that Thomas Crowther was well-known for buying and selling) than it would have been to have things made, given the extreme rationing during the War and the fact that almost all factory production was devoted to the war effort. Crowthers were established as stone masons in the late 19th century and were themselves also heavily involved in the war effort – they had contracts for the building of Anderson Shelters, and for production of pulley blocks for the Royal Navy.

Part of the archive of T. Crowther is held in the Hammersmith & Fulham Local Record Office in London (DD900 – stock book records 1938-1948).  The wide range of film studios that Crowther did business with was extraordinary and is a testament to the desire to keep film production going during WWII.  The list of film companies in the Crowther archive includes, Warner Brothers Film Studios at Teddington in Middlesex; British National Films, Boreham Wood; Grafton Films, Shepperton Studios; MGM Films, Denham Studios; Ealing Studios; Twentieth Century Productions Ltd., Lime Grove; British Lion Corporation, Wardour Street; Gainsborough Studios Ltd; Columbia British Pictures Corporation; and Associated British Pictures, Welwyn Garden City. Unfortunately, the archive detail is rather limited, with just an entry stating ‘hire of goods’ and various amounts, from £1.4.9. ( MGM, Denham Studios in May 1940), to £183.8.0 (Gainsborough Pictures in October 1942), so it is not possible at present to identify which films the Crowther props were used in.

Film poster for ‘The Barretts of Wimpole Street’ (1957). Image wikipedia.org.

The firm of Stair & Company, of London and New York, established in 1911 as Stair & Andrew, also appear to have been used regularly by film companies for the hire of film props.  In 1956, for example, Stair & Co. hired antique furniture and many other antique objects for the set of the film The Barratts of Wimpole Street, directed by Sidney Franklin and starring John Gielgud and Jennifer Jones. The film was made in England and was released in January 1957. Here’s the film poster, and a film still, in which one can just detect an 18th century armchair, in the Chinese taste, in the centre background, and many other 18th century and 19th century objects also populate the scene – perhaps some of these were on hire from Stair & Co.?

Film still from ‘The Barretts of Wimpole Street’ (1957). Image Torontofilmsociety.com.

Stair & Co seem to have hired antiques for films sets fairly regularly during the 1950s and 1960s. The provided ‘hire of furniture for 2 weeks’ in July 1968 for the film ‘Mosquito Squadron (1969), directed by Boris Sagal and which starred David McCallum; it was filmed in England, with some scenes shot on location at the mid-19th century Minley Manor near Farnborough, Hampshire, then, appropriately, owned by the Ministry of Defence.

Film poster for ‘Mosquito Squadron’ (1969). Image wikipedia.org.

In 1963 Stair & Co also ‘hired various goods’ for the set of the film Woman of Straw (1964), which was partly shot at Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire, and was directed by Basil Dearden, starring Gina Lollobridgida, Sean Connery and Ralph Richardson.

Film poster for ‘Woman of Straw’ (1964). Image wikipedia.org.

Other London-based antique dealers that hired antiques as props for film sets, include Montague Marcussen, who was trading from Crawford Street in London during the 1960s, and announced in one of their advertisements in 1965 that they had ‘supplied many props used in the film The Yellow Rolls Royce’ (1965). This was a big budget film, made at MGM Studios in London, directed by Anthony Asquith and starring, among others, Ingrid Bergman, Rex Harrison, Omar Sharif and Shirley MacLaine.

Film poster for ‘The Yellow Rolls Royce’ (1965). Image wikipedia.org.

It’s not known what actual objects Marcussen supplied as film props for the film, but the firm was known for extravagant, interior decorator objects, so perhaps some of the objects in the film set (below) were from the firm?

Film set still for ‘The Yellow Rolls Royce’ (1965). Image Heritage Auctions.

There’s a lot more to be said about the role of the antique trade in film, theatre and television, not least in the ways that film sets became increasingly concerned with historical accuracy, and the supply of genuine antiques helped to fulfill those ambitions.

Mark

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