Between 2014–2016, THA undertook a program of digitisation of Scene Books from the JC Williamson collection held by Scenic Studios, Preston. The collection comprises thousands of images of JCW sets, backdrops, scenic details, lighting rigs etc. stretching back to the end of the nineteenth century.
The ten newly digitised scene books provide a rare account of over 440 theatrical productions staged in Australia between the 1890s and 1930s. Originally compiled by the scenic artists, the scene books include thousands of photographs of sets, backdrops, props, lighting rigs, plans and elevations, documenting everything required for the stage presentations. Many of the images are of original designs by renowned Australian scenic artists, while others are photographs or sketches from the overseas companies which first presented the works.
The earliest photographs in the collection date from the 1897 production of A Royal Divorce, while one volume appears to be a sketchbook of designs from the 1869 New Theatre Royal Bristol production of Dion Boucicault’s After Dark. The books also include photos from other significant productions such as The Chocolate Soldier, Sweet Nell of Old Drury, The Silver King, Rose Marie, The Desert Song, along with the Gilbert & Sullivan comic operas, the original London set designs for The Importance of Being Earnest, and other plays produced at the St James’s Theatre during the 1890s.
Believing the collection should be made available for public use, Theatre Heritage Australia obtained a grant from the Public Records Office of Victoria to have the scene books digitised. The full collection is now available online and will be of particular interest to theatre researchers, scenic artists and designers, teachers and students and all those interested in Australian theatre history. Australia is indebted to Ross Turner and Paul Kathner, co-founders of Scenic Studios, who have preserved these valuable and unique records of Australia’s early theatre history.
Dominating the performing arts in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the firm founded by James Cassius Williamson (1845–1913) controlled a chain of theatres throughout Australia and New Zealand, and owned a number of radio stations and film studios. For a time JC Williamson Ltd was the largest production company in the world, producing plays, operas and other entertainments, and continued to be the major production company in Australia until the mid 1970s.
Theatre Heritage Australia gratefully acknowledges the support of the Victorian Government and Public Record Office Victoria for making this project possible
The online collection was launched by theatre historian Frank Van Straten AM, Paul Kathner and Ross Turner at The Channel, Arts Centre Melbourne, on Saturday 26th May 2018