Literature, art and theatre take centre stage in two fascinating new exhibitions at The Fitzwilliam Museum this autumn. Literary Circles: Artist, author, word and image in Britain 1800-1920 explores the complex relationships that developed between art and literature, and between artists and writers, in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Britain. Chasing Happiness: Maurice Maeterlinck, The Blue Bird and England extends the dialogue between text and image into theatre through the display of captivating stage sets for Maeterlinck’s The Blue Bird, one of the most popular and celebrated theatrical productions of the Edwardian era.
Focusing on illustration, artists’ books, fantasy and caricature, Literary Circles includes paintings, drawings and literary manuscripts by John Everett Millais, Elizabeth Siddal, Sir Edward Burne-Jones, William Blake, Samuel Palmer, George du Maurier and Max Beerbohm. It highlights the growth of literary journals and serialised novels, which brought illustrated narratives to a wider readership, and contrasts it with the development of the private press movement, stimulated by the book designs of William Morris and exemplified in the works of Walter Crane, Charles Ricketts and Kate Greenaway. From the narrative painting of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, through the revival of wood-engraved illustration in Victorian periodicals and the typographical innovations of the Book Beautiful, to the Shakespearean fairylands of Richard Dadd and the birth of the cartoon in the pages of Punch, text and image intersected, reinforcing one another but also competing for pre-eminence.
Drawn from the Fitzwilliam’s exceptionally rich holdings, the exhibition also illuminates the network of interests that linked, with each other and with the Museum, authors and artists such as John Keats, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Robert Browning, Algernon Swinburne, Burne-Jones, Thomas Hardy, Augustus John and Siegfried Sassoon. In this way, it uncovers the bonds of affection and creative collaboration that were central to the Museum’s evolution and to the enrichment of its collection. A programme of talks and courses complements the exhibition.
Chasing Happiness: Maurice Maeterlinck, The Blue Bird and England features the original set designs for Maeterlinck’s The Blue Bird - recently acquired by the Museum with generous support from the Art Fund and the MLA/V&A Purchase Grant Fund - on public display in a formal exhibition for the first time. All but one of the designs were painted by Frederick Cayley Robinson (1862-1927), one of the most intriguing and enigmatic British artists of the early twentieth century; the remaining design is by Sidney Sime (1867-1941), best remembered as an illustrator of fantasy literature. The play enjoyed phenomenal success when first staged at the Haymarket Theatre in London in 1909. Its cultural influence was so great that the blue bird came to be directly associated with happiness and was adopted throughout the twentieth century as a name or symbol for everything from face cream and biscuits to racing cars and football strips.
Both exhibitions are accompanied by colour catalogues, available from the Museum shop (01223 470474; firstname.lastname@example.org), and are on display at The Fitzwilliam Museum, admission free, until the end of the year.
The generous support of Cambridge University Press and Lowell Libson Ltd is gratefully acknowledged.
Related links: Exhibition details
Talks and courses
Incidental music from ‘The Blue Bird’