JCW Scene Books

  • Behind and Beyond the Scenes; or, Joseph Harker and His Brethren

    IMG 1818 behind and beyond the scenes

    Within the leaves of J. Alan Kenyon’s scenic design folio JUDY LEECH has discovered a treasure-trove of original artworks including many items possibly created by Joseph Harker for Herbert Beerbohm Tree's 1913 production of the biblical epic Joseph and His Brethren.

    A Presentation in 3 Acts with a Prologue and an Epilogue


    We have a lot to thank J. Alan Kenyon for—not only for his memoirs—currently published online in Theatre Heritage Australia’s quarterly newsletter, On Stage—but also for the over-large and fairly bursting folio of J.C. Williamson designs, dating back to very early 20th century, if not a little before. Mr. Kenyon, aka George, worked as a set designer, scenic artist and props maker for more than four decades; his son John joined him, and when the latter died in 2019 his son Miles discovered he was now the custodian of this veritable treasure-trove of scenic work.

    All in all, there are around 120 examples, from pencil sketches to highly detailed and finished artwork, wings, flats, legs, borders, front and back cloths, cut-cloths, mostly executed at a 1 to 24 ration, very close to the ratio now favoured by today’s scenic designers—1 to 25. To absolutely verify this I would need to measure all 120 examples. This is something to be attempted at a later stage, but one setting I have examined suggests the height at around 7 metres—with the width at 11 metres.

    Unfortunately none of these designs are signed—the most we can find is the occasional name scrawled on the reverse, by someone else—but someone who felt confident enough to identify the odd example. The following are all the names, rightly or wrongly, that appear.

    George Upward, William R. Coleman and son William, W. Hogg and J.F.Hogg, Philip William Goatcher, Hawes Craven Green, Conrad Tritschler and Joseph Cunningham Harker. Some were born in the UK and then moved here, more or less permanently, others simply forwarded their designs for adaptation here following their production in London.

    Of all the designs contained within the folio Joseph and His Brethren is the most fully represented (and in fact glued on the reverse are fine wooden supports which enable it to be set up as 3-dimensional maquette) so I will focus on the English-born Joseph Harker: the name Harker is tantalizingly inscribed on the back of several pieces.

    I. Harker history

    Born in Levenshulme, Manchester, in 1855 on the 17th of October, Joseph Cunningham Harker was the son of Maria (O’Connor) and William Pierpont Harker, an Irish theatre family who were currently performing at the Theatre Royal in Manchester. Joseph was educated in that city and in Edinburgh and after playing some ‘child parts’ he began his painterly career in 1881 working on a production of Hamlet at the Theatre Royal in Glasgow, following an apprenticeship with T.W.Hall, a scene painter at the Globe Theatre. The young Joseph became a stock artist for a time, but on moving to Dublin and the Gaiety Theatre, he met the indomitable Henry Irving (christened John Henry Brodribb). He also spent a period gaining experience under Herbert Beerbohm Tree, Augustus Harris, Sir George Alexander, Oscar Asche—to name but a few.

    But it was for Irving and the Lyceum Theatre in London that Harker was to produce some of his finest work, often in collaboration with Hawes Craven and William Telbin. Over the years he worked on well over one hundred productions, collaborating also with T.E. Ryan, Walter Hann, Henry Emden, Robert McLeery—among others. Theatres included the Haymarket, Empire, Garrick, Drury Lane, Lyceum, and many, many more. Bram (Abraham) Stoker was the latter’s business manager at the time Harker was employed there, under the directorship of Henry Irving, later Sir Henry Irving. One of the leading characters, Jonathan Harker in Stoker’s novel Dracula, was named after him, and the name appears enigmatically in Joseph O’Connor’s 2019 Shadowplay. Harker, in the novel, is a young woman hoping to attain the position of scene painter at the Lyceum, and she disguises herself as a young man. It is also suggested that the ‘leading role’ of Dracula was inspired by, or based on, Stoker’s much-celebrated employer, Henry Irving.  And I cannot help but wonder if Shadowplay’sauthor, Joseph, is not a descendant of Joseph Harker’s mother’s family, Maria O’Connor’s, or of two Victorian scenic artists, also by the name of O’Connor.

    Well into the 20th century Harker was a great champion of the scene-painting profession. He wrote extensively on the subject, which included, in 1924, a book of reminiscences entitled Studio and Stage.

    In the late 1870s he married Sarah Hall, daughter of the aforementioned T.W. Hall, and they produced a family of nine children, three girls and six boys—Alice, Dora and Phoebe, Philip, Gordon, James, Joseph, Roland and Colin. Several of the boys went on to continue the family tradition of scene painting, and Gordon (1885–1967) had a long career on the stage from the age of 17, and also appeared in almost seventy films between 1921 and 1959, most notably in three silent films directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

    More family matters: Joseph and Sarah’s grand daughter (I can’t track which of the nine Harker siblings produced her) married one Mr. Adams and their daughter, Polly (Pauline) Adams, became an actress of some note. She married a Richard Owen and their daughters are named Nelly, Caroline and Susannah—all actresses—and all have taken the surname Harker—for pretty obvious reasons, I would say. The latter, now in her 50s, has worked in film, television and theatre and is most widely remembered for her role as Jane Bennet in the 1995 television adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. It should be noted, her mother Polly played that same character in a 1948 film version of the novel. Most recently Susannah appeared in a 2017 episode of Grantchester, but her many other roles date back to the mid-1980s.

    So, another wonderful theatrical dynasty, to join that of the Foxes, Kendals, Redgraves, Kembles and Cusacks—and there are more.

    II. Dissected designs

    But, it is time to return to the designs for Joseph and His Brethren. Along with these JCW examples attributed to Harker are several colourfully exotic pieces inscribed with ‘Hogg’. Where do they belong? On checking the lists of the work of the two Hogg artists, initials J.F. and W. only, was hardly enlightening.  But on calling up the 1914 Australian production of Joseph and His Brethren, some answers were provided. J.F. Hogg was responsible for Zuleika’s Room in Act II and The Prison in Act III. It would appear W.R. Coleman, and son, were the designers for many of the other scenes, along with George Upward. So the vibrantly scarlet pieces are the work of Upward or—are they, in fact, truly the imported creations of Joseph Harker, following London’s production.

    Joseph and His Brethren, an oratorio by George Frideric Handel, was first performed in 1744 at Covent Garden. Almost 170 years later Louis Napoleon Parker was responsible for its presentation, now a Pageant Play of a very biblical nature, incorporating family jealousies, lies and deception, and the ever-constant feuding between Israelites and Egyptians. This was first performed in 1913 at His Majesty’s Theatre in London. On the 14th of February, 1914, Melbourne’s Theatre Royal was treated to its Australian premiere—six weeks later Sydney was home to the production.

    The play was produced by Cecil King, Stage Manager for Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s His Majesty’s Theatre in London, and presented by J.C. Williamson. The play consisted of four acts and incorporated thirteen scenes.

    According to The Australian Live Performance Database, Joseph Harker is listed as being the designer for several productions in Sydney and Melbourne, and in New Zealand, but that does not necessarily mean he had joined the team of scenic artists here in His Majesty’s paint-room except that—from April 1912 to June 1913 one of his sons, the actor Gordon, toured Melbourne and Sydney, appearing in several productions, all with scenery attributed to his father Joseph. But it is highly unlikely that he accompanied his son, with so many scenic commitments back in London, including Joseph and His Brethren, The Merchant of Veniceand Twelfth Night.  He could hardly have made a ‘flying visit’. According to Matthew Someville’s  ‘Theatricalia’ Harker was involved, in the period 1911 to 1914, in the production of eight major plays and operas, and on referring to the 1984 March edition of Theatrephile, a further eight plays and pantomimes: here, obviously, was a man in very high demand.

    Wikipedia tells us: ‘In 1905, Harker had a two-storey, open plan studio constructed to his specifications on Queen’s Row, a narrow street off Walworth Road in London. The painting studio continued to produce scenic designs for the West End and other UK theatres until the 1990s. It was used to create David Hockney’s celebrated backdrops for the Glyndebourne Opera Festival.’

    And goes on: ‘Despite the building being Grade ll listed in 1989, as an important and rare example of a theatrical scene-painting workshop, the Southwark Council in early 2017 granted permission for the studios to be redeveloped into six luxury flats and an office unit … In response a petition which gained more than 4000 signatures was organized in 2017 requesting that the council change its decision.’    

    Sadly, this petition was unsuccessful and the studios were carved up and redeveloped as threatened. See Spitalfieldslife.com for some wonderful shots of the former studios.

    III. Design queries and clues

    Returning home, if we refer to the images we can access in the digitized JCW Scene Books, many give clues to the identity of the Kenyon folio’s designs. It is not always that we see a full stage set—we see a backdrop, borders, wings, a cut-cloth, a flat. Which is why it is important—or lucky—that in Book No. 5 we can often see a whole plan for a stage set, if not an actual elevation. If only there were more of these plans and elevations—although we can see, for example, plans for Silver King, The Arcadians, The Boy, Katinkaand House of Temperley—for none of which, sadly, Harker seems to have created designs.

    There is also the fact that backdrops/cloths were recycled or cannibalized, or simply painted over. Cut-cloths of foliage—trees, flowering plants—were also used time and time again. 

    In Book No. 3 and Book No. 6 there’s a surprising amount of backgrounds for Joseph and His Brethren—palms, pyramids and pillars, sphinxes, formal gardens and rocky outcrops—and many cut-cloths, foliage necessary for the romantic garden scene between Joseph, an Israelite, and Asenath, a young Egyptian girl. Sometimes the scenic artist’s name is typed or written alongside the image—the name Coleman appears frequently. For the back-cloths 36 feet by 23 feet is the measurement most often cited, around 11 metres by 7 metres high. There is a panoramic scene that worked out at 14 metres across, another at 20, but the height was always set at 7 metres.

    Then there is the question of colour—was the deep red (shown here) for Potiphar’s House used in the London production—was it used in the Australian one? Was it Harker or the Colemans who were responsible for these models—are they a true representation of what was seen on stage, back in 1913 and/or 1914?

    We are so used to thinking of 19th century sets as monochromatic—the 1000s of examples within the JCW Scene Books—when of course they were ‘in colour’, as is very evident when viewing the many pieces of artwork within the Kenyon folio. Could we discover the JCW sets’ colours by applying that special technique, whereby one can convert black and white to colour? Something film restorers have been doing for decades. 

    In Book No. 10 we have photographic records of some actual English productions. Here we can see the originals—the inspirations or guides for the later Australian plays or operas. They include The Second Mrs. Tanqueray(Harker design), As You Like It, Guy Domville, Importance of Being Ernestand Lady Windermere’s Fan—among others.

    There is something that I very much doubt happens these days: within one production of, for example, 3 acts with 2 or 3 scenes in each, there would be—as we have seen—several different artists, depending on their painterly or design expertise, or on their speciality. One artist may specialize in landscapes, another in architecture, interiors, ornamentation, etc. Figures may also come into it—see A Royal Divorce (Books 1,4,5,6 and 8). Apparently Joseph Harker was passionate about birch trees and often introduced them into his pastoral settings—Joseph and His Brethren definitely being the exception!

    To learn more about Harker and his work, his studio and his family, I cannot recommend highly enough Raymond Walker and David Skelly’s formidable 2018 publication, Backdrop to a Legend—a limited edition with ongoing supplementary chapters. I am indebted to them both.


    But to close, in 1927 on the 27th of March, Joseph Cunningham Harker died, at the age of 71. His scenic design business carried on—first by his eldest son Philip (whose two sons were to die tragically during the Second World War), followed by fourth son Joseph and fifth, Roland. I found listings, from 1930 to 1962, for a dozen productions attributed to a Joseph Harker—possibly the work of Joseph junior and of Roland? Two of the Harker daughters, their sisters, took to the stage—and so the tradition continued.

    And continues to this day.


    Sources and inspiration

    Australian Live Performance Database—AusStage

    Backdrop to a Legend—Walker & Skelly—2018

    Miles and Lisa Kenyon

    Elisabeth Kumm—Theatre Heritage Australia

    Scenic Studios—Melbourne

    Shadowplay—Joseph O’Connor—Harville Secker, 2019/Vintage, 2020


    Theatrephile—Vol.1, No.2, March 1984—Sean McCarthy

    Theatricalia—Matthew Someville



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