The spitting image

Mr. W.J. Hill in costume for Song of the Onion (A1882.932)

Mr. W.J. Hill in costume for Song of the Onion (A1882.932)

Why do people use music collections? The reasons may be a lot more varied than you might imagine. Most want to use them for the standard reasons – musical research or performance; but increasingly they’re also used across other subject areas.

If you’re interested in social history, for example, the covers of popular music publications can provide a snapshot of fashion and other preoccupations of the period from sport to the latest health obsessions.

But what of the more unusual uses? Some years ago a reader appeared who was fascinated by Victorian songs which had been performed by a specific artist. Many songs published during the Victorian era not only give details of the composer and lyricist, but also of the music hall artist who popularised them. For example – “Song of the onion : humorous song from the popular comic opera of ‘Manola’ (Le jour et la nuit). Written by H.B. Farnie ; composed by Ch. Lecocq. As sung by Mr. W.J. Hill”, [A1882.932], and there, on the front cover, is a colourful illustration of Mr. W.J. Hill in costume for his role in the operetta.

Using the artist on the front cover benefited everyone. Colourful costumes from theatrical performances, and the use of a famous name made the sheet music more attractive to a potential buyer; while the publicity meant that the artist’s name became better known nationally, so potentially increasing bookings throughout the country. So what are the benefits to today’s reader?

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Many people enjoy researching their family tree, but some professions can prove particularly difficult to research. It’s only within the last 50 years or so that stage performers have gained a level of respectability. Partly as a result of this records of the profession can be tricky both to trace and to research (though trade papers such as The Era and The Stage can be helpful, and the Victoria and Albert Museum has a well-established theatre and performance collection). In many cases sheet music can provide a way in to finding out more about an ancestor, and, perhaps most importantly for keen genealogists, discovering what they looked like.

So, who do we have amongst our celebrity covers? There’s the aforementioned W.J. Hill, actually William Hill Jones (more photos on the National Portrait Gallery’s website). His career began in New York around 1860, before he moved back to Britain where he had a short-lived but seemingly successful career. He had a varied career mainly within musical comedy. He knew W.S. Gilbert and Wilkie Collins, and played Rosencrantz in a Washington D.C. production of Hamlet.

Harry Sydney “At home”. A1871.5347.

Also among our celebrities is Harry Sydney. Sydney was one of the earliest stars of the Music Hall, generally playing country “innocents”. It proved to be a peculiarly appealing act – city folk enjoyed laughing at the naivete of their country cousins, while rural dwellers liked the fact that the “country yokel” usually beat the “city slicker”. Sydney’s real name was William Smith (stage names are another potential pitfall for genealogists with theatrical ancestors), and as well as acting and singing, he was also a prolific song writer and theatrical manager. Although sometimes described as “a funereal comedian” he was reputedly a favourite of both Dickens and Thackeray, and loved cricket. His Cricketing songs (sadly not held at the UL) celebrate the return of the first ever England cricket team to tour Australia in 1862.

A wonderfully life-like caricature of George Honey (A1871.1349)

A wonderfully life-like caricature of George Honey (A1871.1349)

One of the most popular stars of the day was singer and actor, George Honey, whose first role was as a singing mouse. Honey was extraordinarily successful earning vast sums of money by the end of his career. Friends and colleagues paid for his burial place in Highgate Cemetery which features an amazingly lifelike bust.

These three stars were big names, but among the many faces that grace the covers of Victorian songs are such forgotten names as Madame Florence Lancia of the Royal English Opera, Covent Garden, Aynsley Cook (grandfather of Eugene, Leon and Sidonie Goossens), Laura Harris, and Susan Galton – whose opera company won rave reviews when touring America, but lost so much money that they were barely able to afford the train fare to leave Chicago.

And what of our reader who was trying to find works featuring a particular performer? Luckily we found exactly what she wanted. She was able to hold the music up next to her husband’s face – “Now, doesn’t he look just like his great-great-grandfather?”


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About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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1 Response to The spitting image

  1. Pingback: Set in Stone: Victorian Lithographers | MusiCB3 Blog

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