The blog and me

This blog will be erratic and seldom follow themes. It will make no claims to being structured or logical. It will, I hope, be fun and occasionally insightful. I do still publish more coherent work (though in economics, and in very strange places) but that may take some believing after reading these pages. I've a PhD in economics/economic history from Cambridge, I've taught in several universities (and still do, when I get the chance) but now focus energy and attention on commercialization for a large London university, and dealing with the daily commute.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Art goes to the theatre: Montague Penley (1799-1881)

The Penley family is well known to historians of English watercolour not least because of the influential English School of Painting in Water Colours (1861) by Edwin Penley, which made a deep impression on later 19th century watercolourists.

The Penley family, though, was a theatrical as well as an artistic one and in at least one of their number they managed to combine these two aspects. Montague Penley (1799-1881) was scene painter, artist, theatrical manager and impressario and art teacher. In a long life he failed to make a substantial mark on the artistic memory of Britain while having paintings in the Paris Salons of 1844, 1846 and 1848 (, and although nine of his paintings and drawings survive in major English collections ( unlike Aaron and Edwin Penley he does not appear in exhibitions of 19th century English painting and drawing. The recent appearance at auction of a pencil drawing (below)

Montague Penley (n.d.) The Plague of Epirus
( suggests that he was technically accomplished in perspective - for reasons which will become clear – but was a conventional and unimaginative artist rather than an innovator even in his main field of artistic practice, which was stage scenery.

The facts of his life are unremarkable enough. Montague John Jackson Penley (one of three theatrical brothers and born to a theatrical father) was born in 1799 in Folkstone Kent and died in Brighton on November 11th 1881 (London Standard, 15 November 1881). In 1829 he married Laetitia Sarah Didsbury at St Georges, Bloomsbury 1829 (Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, 24 December 1829). Laetitia died in Brighton on March 31 1866 aged 67 (Berkshire Chronicle - 7th April 1866). It was, though, a life of some incident and colour - colourful in the Victorian sense of being of untrammeled and unpredictable variety - if of no enduring significance beyond his death.

By the age of 20, while following his father Sampson's theatre company around the country, he'd begun work as a scenery painter. One enthusiastic contemporary report says, 'The new scenery and painting of the Theatre [in Brighton] are, we learn, by Mr Montague Penley, and deserve our warmest praise, particularly a new front drop which has a most pleasing effect' (Sussex Advertiser 15 November 1819), while ‘Proscenium, Wings and several of the Scenes by Mr Montague Penley’ at the York Theatre were evidently admired a year later (Yorkshire Gazette, 9th February 1822). 

Clearly of some at least local popularity, he was accorded a Benefit night at the same theatre that year (Yorkshire Gazette, 13 April 1822), somewhat unusual for a painter of scenery even if the theatre manager happened to be the artist's father. At a time when innovation in stage scenery was transforming theatrical productions such that, as Christopher Baugh suggests, there was for the first time a realization of 'the potential of scenery for becoming the leading performer and protagonist in the theatre' (Christopher Baugh, ‘Stage Design from Loutherbourg to Poel’, in Donohue, J (ed.) The Cambridge History of British Theatre, Vol. 2, (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge:2004) p.315) scene painting had the power to lift provincial productions to the status of art, depending on the talent of the artist. How little, or how much, skill was deployed by artists like Penley is difficult to assess – little survives of the scene painters’ art of the 1820s to allow that – but the reception of his efforts appears to have been both positive and heartfelt.

Following Sampson's company meant long journeys from the south coast to the Home Counties, and from there to Yorkshire and Tyneside, and even further afield. Sampson, whose similarity to Dicken’s Vincent Crummels (failures and all) is all too painfully clear (see Alan Stockwell, Finding Sampson Penley (Vesper Hawk Publishing: 2012)), was safely installed as leasing manager of the theatre at Windsor when, in 1822, he took his company on tour to France and the Low Countries, with Montague coming too.  From the coast of France he, Sampson, wrote to the British Ambassador in Paris as follows:

‘May it please your Excellency,

Having opened a theatre at Calais and Boulogne with English plays and entertainments which have been Honoured by the highest patronage of the French and English, and having been solicited by several persons of distinction to bring the company for a short season to Paris take the liberty most humbly to sought that your Excellency will be pleased to obtain the permission for the same which should I be so happy as to obtain, trust that the merit and the respectability of the performance will merit your kind indulgence.I beg to subscribe myself

Your Excellency's Most faithful and humble servant.

S. Penley.

P.S. Beg leave to say that my company have for several years performed at the Theatre Royal Windsor under the immediate patronage of the Royal family - solicit that your leave will extend to keep our theatre open at Boulogne until the close of the season’ (J.L. Burgerhoff, Le théâtre anglais à Paris sous la restauration (Hachette et cie, Paris: 1913), p. 215)

When they reached Paris, they were not well received (a not uncommon experience for Sampson Penley, but significant here as perhaps occasioning the first theatre riot after Waterloo in Paris involving an English touring company) (ibid, pp. 22-27). It was a disaster of a European tour, and the Penleys returned to England dispirited and not a little out of pocket. (Incidentally the father of John Wilkes Booth, assassin of Abraham Lincoln, was a member of the Penley company in France (Asia Booth Clarke, The elder and the younger Booth, (J.R. Osgood and Company, Boston: 1882): p. 9). 

It would have been on the occasion of the French tour that Montague sought to further his artistic education, remarking in a print advertisement when teaching art in the Windsor area that 'His proficiency in [art] was acquired under the celebrated Monsieur Cheni, professor of the Academie Royale, Paris' (Windsor and Eton Express, 30th September 1826). Acquiring proficiency in 1822 would have meant close attention to Salon-approved genre and history painting conventions in which perspective, the drama of emotional spasm and the heightened significance of tonal light and shade reflecting emotion dominated composition. These, of course, were precisely the elements that would translate so well to the theatrical context, and for that reason a Paris based artistic training would have been valuable to the theatrical family. Whether he received a formal training, or merely observed academic formalist artistic practice without touching a canvas himself, cannot be confirmed.

With his father's death in Paris in the summer of 1838, Montague took on the company and the engagements as actor/manager, leasing theatres across England - and presumably seeing out his father's leases initially. Playgoers in Windsor read that, “Mr Montague Penley has announced his intention to open this theatre [Windsor] for the season, on the 31st of this Month” (Reading Mercury, 28 July 1838; London Dispatch, 16 September 1838) - with presumably but a short interval between hearing of the death of his father and being forced to literally keep the show on the road. He was evidently good at the job since the Morning Post of 8th September 1838 described the theatre as having ‘a rapid succession of the most popular pieces, got up with great taste and splendour’.

But this had not been his first time in charge. What one notices particularly about these independent forays, and indeed in his subsequent management, is the close alignment of the artistic and the theatrical talent of the impressario. In Newcastle from 1835 he was Manager of the Theatre (Newcastle Journal, 12 December 1835) where ‘Particular attention will also be paid to the scenic department’ and, in 1836, his productions featured a lavish ‘Panorama of Virginia Water’ (Newcastle Journal, 9 January 1836), the latter effort almost certainly intended to recall Clarkson Stanfield’s panorama of Virginia Water deployed in Drury Lane in 1829. It was Stanfield's triumph of which the Spectator critic noted ‘The painting is the finest thing, of the kind that has ever appeared in London’ (Spectator, 26th December 1829, p. 9), and was a graphic representation which was a prodigious piece of mechanical and artistic skill including a ‘real’ waterfall and effects of breathtaking novelty. It is improbable that Penley managed to reproduce the same sophisticated effects, but he barely needed to do so in Newcastle: in small provincial theatres static but well rendered natural scenes could work wonders for an audience.

The Theatre Royal, Newcastle
The Newcastle Courant reported on the opening of the new Theatre in Newcastle in 1837 as follows,

'On Monday last, the New Theatre, in Grey-street, in this town, was opened for the first time under the management or Mr Montague Penley, and was attended by a very crowded audience. The building itself is most splendid. The boxes and gallery are beautifully embellished with richly gilt ornaments, and each panel (eleven in number) of the second circle of boxes, contains a very beautiful group of dancing boys, executed by Mr Penley and Mr John Reed. The ceiling of the auditory is divided into sixteen panels, in which are, alternately, figures of dancing nymphs and groups of musical instruments; the mouldings, &e. forming the divisions of the panels, are richly ornamented and gilt. From the centre hangs a large and brilliant cut-glass chandelier, executed by Mr Watson. The alcove off-the procenium [sic] is richly ornamented with rays executed in gold, and over it are the royal arms, richly-gilt. The boxes are lined with rich crimson paper, and the whole of the seats are covered with crimson moreen, executed by Mr. William Clark of the Royal Arcade.The new scenes, which have been, executed by Mr Penley and assistants, are bold, striking, and effective, and display great excellence as works of art. The lighting of the Theatre is not so brilliant as might have been expected from the number of lights, but the Proprietors, it is understood, are about to introduce Argand burners into the small chandeliers instead of the imitative candles at present in use, which will obviate the defect. Considering the rapidity with which the building has been erected, the interior, particularly the boxes and pit, are remarkably dry.' (Newcastle Courant, 24th of February 1837).

While in later life failures of management and not of art (which was already taking something of a backseat in his career by the 1840s in any case) determined the course of his career, the effect of Penley’s use of artistic skill on provincial productions seems to have been real and appreciated. After virtual ruin from the unsuccessful management of the Lyceum Theatre in London following only three weeks of an intended run (The Era, 19 April 1874), theatre played less of a role in his life. In retirement in Sussex he threw himself into a variety of minor artistic endeavours (serving on the Sussex (Brighton) Local Board of the Society of Arts, the Brighton and Sussex Natural History Society for whom he produced drawings, and as an informal artistic director of the Pavilion Committee in Brighton), but perhaps his modest contribution to artistic practice was in the theatre and not the art gallery – and it is for that reason as much as any that he is now forgotten.

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