Gaiety Girls

Past display archive
5 April - 31 August 2004

Bookshop Gallery


Photographs by Bassano from the John Culme Collection

This display of photographs by Bassano features highlights from a remarkable collection of over 3,000 negatives of Edwardian actresses, donated to the National Portrait Gallery by John Culme. These women inspired many of Cecil Beaton's theatrical designs, especially for the Ascot scenes of My Fair Lady. Subjects include Gaby Deslys, Gina Palerme, Gabrielle Ray and Pauline Chase.

The popularity of musical comedy in the early twentieth century can be traced to 1892 when the impresario George Edwardes produced a modern musical play entitled In Town. Edwardes followed this with a series of similar shows including A Gaiety Girl (1893), The Shop Girl (1894) and A Runaway Girl (1898). These featured a chorus line of 'Gaiety Girls' chosen for their good looks and ability to sing and dance. Subsequently, even the leading stars of these shows, including Olive May, Moya Mannering and Gertie Millar, became known by this sobriquet. In July 1903 the Gaiety Theatre was pulled down for a road-widening scheme. Edwardes built a replacement nearby which opened in October of the same year with a gala premiere of The Orchid held in the presence of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra.

Alexander Bassano (1829-1913) established his photographic studio in the 1850s and, although he sold the business in the early 1900s, the firm continued to specialise in photographing prominent members of society and the stage. One of these was the dancer and actress Gabrielle Ray, who subsequently became one of the most popular subjects to appear on picture postcards in the Edwardian era. In the 1970s Bassano's archives were dispersed and a collection of over 3,000 negatives of mainly theatrical subjects was acquired by the theatre historian John Culme who subsequently presented them to the National Portrait Gallery in 1996. Over the last two years this collection has been catalogued and printed, together with a larger collection already in the Museum.

This display gives a small taste of one aspect of the collection and links into the centenary exhibition, Cecil Beaton: Portraits which is on display in the Wolfson Gallery until 31 May. Photographic images of Edwardian theatre stars had a major influence on Beaton, and particularly his work on My Fair Lady (1964).

Cataloguing and printing of this collection supported by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

We would like to thank Patrick O'Connor for his advice and generous assistance in compiling captions for the display; and John Culme for reviving interest in this under-researched but fascinating aspect of theatrical history through his website


&copy: The National Portrait Gallery, London

© The National Portrait Gallery, London

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