Wednesday, December 23rd, 2015...4:00 pm

Shakespeare: His Collected Works—January 19–April 23, 2016

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Conservators at the Weissman Preservation Center have been busy preparing for Houghton’s upcoming exhibition, Shakespeare: His Collected Works, which marks the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death and opens January 19th.

Their work often involves analyzing the material makeup of artifacts at high magnification to determine the best and safest course of treatment. Debora Mayer is Helen H. Glaser Conservator at Weissman, and her investigation into one itema scene design for Hamlet—offers us a detailed look at the pioneering work of stage designer Robert Edmond Jones.

Jones, Harvard Class of 1910, was the foremost American practitioner of the New Stagecraft, a movement that scorned realism and instead used simplified sets, symbolic elements, and light to suggest a prevailing mood. He believed that while realism feasted the eye, it starved the imagination. Theatrical art “should be addressed to [the] eye of the mind,” he argued, paraphrasing from Hamlet.

MS Thr 201.10

Robert Edmond Jones (1887–1954). The Madness of Ophelia, ca. 1922. MS Thr 201.10

Jones’ design for Arthur Hopkins’ 1922 Hamlet (starring John Barrymore) is starkly dramatic with its cavernous hall, here depicting Ophelia’s descent into madness. Closer inspection reveals that Jones used a homemade scratchboard. This technique involves applying a waxy, crayon-like substance over a clay-coated paper and then scraping through to reveal the whiteness of the paper surface below. In the detail of Ophelia at right, taken in raking light at 30x magnification, an underdrawing of black ink and touches of gouache and graphite are visible. We can also see that the gouache is cupping and will require treatment to prevent further flaking. Given the precision with which Jones worked, this is likely not the original design but one he re-executed as a book illustration for an unrealized edition of the play.


Detail of foreground figure at 7x magnification.

An earlier frame-backing (pictured below) reveals layers of a different kind: about a dozen labels relating to loans from former owner Lee Simonson to MoMA in 1945 (for an exhibition devoted solely to Jones’ drawings), to the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1958, and to Harvard’s Widener Library a year later. These also indicate a very early awareness of preservation issues with admonishments like, “Do not hang in direct sunlight” and “Do not remount or reframe.”

MS Thr 201.10 framebacking

Join us in 2016 as we display Jones’ work once again, and stay tuned for more featured objects from Shakespeare: His Collected Works.

This post was contributed by Dale Stinchcomb, Curatorial Assistant for the Harvard Theatre Collection, and Debora Mayer, Helen H. Glaser Conservator at the Weissman Preservation Center.

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