In Dahomey: Photographs by Cavendish Morton


10 July - 12 December 2004

This display celebrates the popular success enjoyed by the first all-black written and performed musical to be staged in London 101 years ago. In Dahomey was first staged in New York, on Broadway, but had a limited success and a run of only 53 performances. However, when the New York cast came to the Shaftesbury Theatre in London in May 1903 it turned into a triumphal success. As Kurt Gänzl writes in The Encyclopaedia of The Musical Theatre, (Blackwell, 1994) In Dahomey was 'a genuine novelty' for the 'unbridled energy with which the black artists played'. The musical featured an elaborate presentation of The Cakewalk as well as spawning several hit songs. The show played over 250 performances before going on a national tour. It made stars of the principal actors but unfortunately it was not until the 1920s, when the fashion for ragtime and revue arrived, that black artists would again attract the same level of attention in Britain or America.

The artist and photographer Cavendish Morton enjoyed several careers. Born in New York in 1874 to British parents, he followed his father's wishes, starting his career as an electrical engineer before he turned to work in an architect's office. He made his first appearance on stage at the age of 16. His illustrations appeared in American magazines before he came to London to act and work with the companies of, successively, Charles Wyndham, Herbert Beerbohm Tree and Johnson Forbes Robertson. His first photographs were of an actor appearing in Lillie Langtry's production of The Degenerates. In the early 1900s his work appeared at the Photographic Salon and art photography publications. He experimented with autochromes and gum prints but principally worked with platinotype prints and included amongst his subjects Lady Ottoline Morrell and Sir Harry Lauder. The National Portrait Gallery was given an extensive archive of his work in 1991 by his son, the watercolour artist, who also bears his father's name.

In the preparation of this display the National Portrait Gallery would particularly like to thank Patrick O'Connor and John Culme. The latter has provided contextual material from John Culme's Footlight Notes Collection. As part of Black History Month, Leon Robinson will discuss the lives of the In Dahomey actors in the Ondaatje Wing Theatre on Sunday 10 October at 3pm.

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