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‘Darling Edith’ at leisure. (Painting by Rex Whistler in The Salisbury Museum collection)

Last week, Volunteer Christine Mason wrote for us about the remarkable story of her involvement with the museum’s Rex Whistler archive. Thanks to this talented lady, some of the Whistler story is spreading far and wide…

Nothing of what happened throughout 2018 in preparation for the show would have been possible without the help, enthusiasm and encouragement of Louise Tunnard, and it was a gamble for her, as if the event wasn’t a success the museum stood to lose money.

I planned that there should be two readers, male and female, and I was very fortunate that two professional actor friends, Jill Fenner and Edward Halsted, expressed interest, so it was up to me to produce a script that would appeal to them. I started, naturally, by reading every item in the correspondence section of the archive, approximately 700 items, but of those 700, although some were just a single sheet, others were six or more pages long.  I selected about 59 possibilities to work on.  In the case of transcripts I could photocopy them to take home, but for the originals the photographs on Modes had to be retrieved, and here I was greatly indebted to volunteer David Balston for doing that.  Bearing in mind always that the performance had to be strictly of an hour’s duration was a good discipline when it came to editing the letters.  The first lines to go were the apologies that began almost every letter.  I have said that Whistler was a reluctant letter writer, and his correspondents always had to wait a long time for replies, even when commissions were being offered.  Repetition, references to people or events unknown today also disappeared.  Finally 27 letters and one envelope made up the script.  Once the shape was in place I had to provide a linking narrative, and decide on the division of the letters between the readers, which was roughly that the female would read letters addressed to women and the male those to men, but this was not strictly adhered to.  The title, ‘Darling Edith and others’ was arrived at by Louise and me over a lunchtime sandwich, and she designed the attractive poster advertising the event.  So with the script done, and timed with helpful friends reading aloud with me, copies were sent to the actors, who fortunately were both enthusiastic about it.

Soon after the script was completed, I was stewarding in the Henry Lamb exhibition, and one of the visitors was Katherine Olivier, the great-niece of the Darling Edith of the title.  We talked, and she said she lived in America so would not be able to come to the performance, but at her request I sent her a copy of the script, which she reviewed very kindly and positively.

With the script completed and accepted, I then had to think about the staging, bearing in mind the limitations of the Lecture Hall as a performance venue, with its very low stage making for difficult sightlines, and the lack of effective lighting.  Any staging, however minimal, is a costly business.  Both actors had offered to waive their fees, but this could not be allowed.  Louise negotiated with Edward’s agent, and Jill’s costs and other expenses were sponsored.  These included a dress being made to a 1930s pattern for Jill, and a donation to Salisbury Playhouse for the loan of furnishings, for which they generously had made no charge, and had given me a freehand to pick anything I wanted even including a vase of artificial flowers from the theatre’s foyer.  Other items to dress the set and genuine 1930s jewellery were scrounged from friends.  A superb copy of the self-portrait held by the museum was made, and two personal items from the archive also helped dress the set, Whistler’s Welsh Guard’s cap and the drinks flask he carried.

About two months before the date of the show, Jill and Edward came to Salisbury for a rehearsal one Saturday when the Lecture Hall was not in use.  This was our only rehearsal before the actual day, and all other notes and directions were conducted by e-mail between the three of us, but I could not have wished for more co-operative and amenable colleagues.

On the morning of 7th December we were to rehearse and set the stage, so it was disconcerting to arrive and find a decorated, artificial Christmas tree on the acting area and the hall bedecked with totally inappropriate bunting.  Fortunately, Jill’s partner who worked for years backstage at the Coliseum for English National Opera, removed the bunting with Wagnerian thoroughness, but his fight with the Christmas tree was more in the style of opera comique, and apologies if the tree was never the same again.

To our great relief the evening was completely sold out, and the performance went smoothly.  It had to end with a black-out, which was difficult to do, so I hid on stage behind a screen before the audience arrived, and Louise joined me after her introduction.  We had to have four hands on four switches to achieve the black-out, and we had been unable to synchronise this at the afternoon’s rehearsal, but by a miracle we managed it when it mattered.

It is very gratifying, that after so many months’ work by everyone involved, ‘Darling Edith and Others’ will be seen again.  Lewes Little Theatre, Sussex, with a suitable donation to the museum, has programmed it into their next season as a Sunday afternoon foyer performance on 31st May 2020, so if you missed it in Salisbury. . .

Christine Mason