Category Archives: Music Hall in art

I’m an old hand at love

0FD29E9F-BBD6-42EC-A545-1BD413C1468AMinnie Cunningham was a music hall singer and dancer, best remembered for featuring in a painting by Walter Sickert. She was born in Birmingham in 1870, the daughter of music hall comic singer Ned Cunningham. He was well-loved and successful, being described by the Birmingham Gazette as the ‘greatest comic singer in the world.’ His daughter started her music hall career after his death when she was ten years old. Minnie Cunningham tells us she began as a male impersonator and sang her father’s songs, although reviews of the time don’t mention male impersonation, only her singing and dancing. She moved from the provincial halls to London where she performed at the principal halls of the day.

It was during her London success that Minnie Cunningham was introduced to the 31A333B7-D7C4-4610-B0B0-EAC59D94897Epainter Walter Sickert by the poet and music hall critic Arthur Symons. Both men were smitten by the popular artiste and Sickert arranged to paint her portrait. The figure of Minnie Cunningham was painted from life in Sickert’s studio in Chelsea in 1892. For this painting she stood on a raised stand as if she were on stage but when asking her to pose for a later painting Sickert writes that he had built a proper stage  ‘six foot square, with steps up to it.’ The background is thought to be the Tivoli on the Strand in London where Sickert had seen her perform. The painting was originally entitled, Miss Minnie Cunningham ‘I’m an old hand at love, though I’m young in years.’ This was one of her popular songs at the time and while singing it she dressed as a young girl which made the performance more daring. The painting became known as Minnie Cunningham at the Old Bedford. It was exhibited for the first time at the New English Art Club in 1892 to a mixed reception, with a reviewer in the Pall Mall Gazette writing ‘The red dress of Minnie Cunningham glows with refined richness in its setting, but the proportions of the figure and the feet and hands seem altogether absurd.’ The subject and setting were just too shocking for many at the time and it was said by some to represent degradation and vulgarity.

Minnie Cunningham remained popular for some years, performing, writing songs for herself and others and appearing in pantomime. She maintained it was very difficult to gauge the public taste in choosing a song but her compositions ‘The hen that cackles the most’ and ‘Give us a wag of your tail, old dog’ seem to have hit the mark. Minnie spent time in Ireland, calling herself ‘the Little Irish Gem’ and a tale is told of male admirers turning up with glass bottles to throw at the performer who replaced her at the top of the bill, giving us an idea of her popularity.

While in Ireland she claimed £500 through a court case for alleged breach of 9D63B80C-0979-452C-A9E1-EBFD29E749B3contract in which she was engaged as principal girl in the Jack and Jill pantomime at £30 a week. She refused to wear the costume for her part saying it was too short and offended her standards of decency. Discussions with management were unsuccessful, often ending in tears. Eventually another performer, Edith Fink, was appointed to the role and had no complaints about the length of the costume. At one point in the court proceedings the two performers removed their hats and boots and stood back to back on a table to see who was the taller of the two. Minnie Cunningham was undoubtedly the taller and was asked to put on the costume for the jury’s eyes only. There were rumours that she was worried that Dorothy Ward playing the part of Jack, an extremely well-known and talented performer, would outshine her. The jury could not agree on a verdict and were discharged.

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Dorothy Ward

Minnie Cunningham lived with her mother in Southgate Road, Hackney. Her mother died in 1916 and Minnie seems to have retired shortly after this. She died in 1954 at the age of eighty-four and her later life is a mystery. She remained in Southgate Road, but her obituary tells us only of Minnie’s performing life taken from her own words.

 

 

 

Thanks to britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk
                   monomania postcards (@monomaniablogs)
                   Walter Richard Sickert & the Theatre 1880-1940. PhD thesis submitted    University of St Andrews by William Rough 2010

 

Yvette Guilbert

Yvette Guilbert was born in 1865 and lived her early life in poverty but became the toast of Paris, adored by everyone from the poor of the Marais to artists and the literati. She was tall and thin with hennaed red hair and wore a long dress and long black gloves on stage. Yvette Guilbert said of herself, ‘I was looking for an impression of extreme simplicity, which allied itself harmoniously with the lines of my slim body and my small head —in a repertoire that I had decided would be a ribald one. To assemble an exhibition of humorous sketches in song, depicting all the indecencies, all the excesses, all the vices of my contemporaries and to enable them to laugh at themselves — that was to be my innovation, my big idea.’ 

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Yvette Guilbert

She was said to come on to the stage in a rather distracted manner with her shoulders drooping and her arms hanging limply by her sides and was termed a diseuse as she half sang, half spoke her songs. Yvette Guilbert sang earthy songs about characters polite society would rather forget and some were so filthy they were said to make a Sapper blush. She had perfect diction and not a word of the songs escaped the audience. However Yvette was not universally admired and one British newspaper report states that, ‘Mdlle Guilbert is not specially pretty, dresses very simply, and unlike the majority of her vocalising countrywomen, does not indulge in high kicking.’ Faint praise. The reviewer  was not impressed by the fact that Mdlle Guilbert had turned down an offer of several hundred pounds to sing at Marlborough House at a party for the Prince of Wales. She asked for a much higher amount but received no reply from the royal household.

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Portrait by Toulouse Lautrec

When she first appeared in London in 1892 it was noted that she spoke fluent English but it was suggested she should be careful not to translate her songs too literally in case of action from the Lord Chamberlain and the London County Council. In 1894 she appeared on the same bill as Marie Lloyd which must have given the authorities sleepless nights. In London in 1909 she was appearing at the London Palace Theatre and remarked that the theatre  impresario Sir Alfred Butt ‘neglected my publicity for the sake of my fellow actor, Consul the chimpanzee.’  Consul appeared above her on the bill. Yvette was given the honour of an impersonation by the celebrated music hall mimic Cissie Loftus but Yvette sang one of Cissie’s songs, Linger Longer, Loo copying the mannerisms of it’s original singer.

 

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Cissie Loftus

In 1899 Yvette had an operation to have a kidney removed. She had been in great pain around the waist, said to be caused by excessively tight lacing. The road to recovery was long and she could not avoid thinking about the future. A highly intelligent woman, Yvette Guilbert realised that to remain popular she needed to move on from the crude songs which had made her name. She had researched old French chanson and sung them to small audiences on occasion. She determined this would be her new path. She was interested in mediaeval songs as well as those from later centuries and set about studying Latin grammar and collecting old manuscripts. For her first public performance after her illness she had Baudelaire’s poems set to music and sang dramatic songs by Maurice Rollinat. She did not wear the black gloves. It was a brilliant performance but in a small theatre with a high class clientele. It took longer to win round her previous audience who perhaps felt she was deserting them for a greater respectability.

Yvette Guilbert was admired by George Bernard Shaw, became a friend of Sigmund Freud and was painted by the leading artists of her time, although she rebuked Toulouse Lautrec for his depictions of her on stage. She wrote novels, lectured on chanson, appeared in  operetta, was a suffragette and was elected to the French Société des ancients textes. She died in Aix en Provence during the Second World War in 1944, having moved there from Paris with her husband Max Schiller who was Jewish.

Thanks to the britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk, and That was Yvette by Bettina Knapp and Myra Chipman

More about Florrie

Florrie Forde lived for a time in the music hall community on Shoreham Beach in West Sussex. She opened a dance hall called Flo’s Beach Club which had a dubious reputation among some local residents for scandalous behaviour. She lived in a house called Gull’s Nest and one of her enduring songs is I do like to be beside the seaside. Predictive text turns her name into Florid Forde which seems a little unfair. Here is a link to Florrie singing.

Florrie Forde I do like to be beside the seaside 1909

Spencer Gore painted Florrie Forde at the Old Bedford Music Hall on Camden High Street in London in 1912. She appears to be winking.

A singer at the Old Bedford Spencer Gore 1912

A singer at the Old Bedford
Spencer Gore 1912

Other music hall stars who liked to be beside the seaside were the already mentioned Marie and Cecilia Loftus, living at bungalows Pavlova and Cecilia and Vesta Tilley at The Bungalow. Marie Lloyd was reported to be the first woman to own a car on Shoreham Beach.

More pictures can be found in the publication HollywoodbySea by Edward and Alice Colquhoun.

The Bar at the Folies Bergère

An unexpected visit to the Courtauld Gallery on the Strand in London on Saturday meant I could take the opportunity to look at Manet’s painting of The Bar at the Folies Bergère. The Folies Bergère was the first music hall in Paris, seen as decadent and exciting. The woman behind the bar in the painting was a waitress called Suzon and Manet mocked up a bar in his studio for her to stand behind while he painted.

Manet's Bar at the Folies Bergère

Manet’s Bar at the Folies Bergère

Critics argue about whether or not the scene is reflected in a mirror as the barmaid’s reflection is not true. I was intrigued by the legs of a trapeze artist in the top left corner and by the rather sinister looking man on the right. You can almost hear the  noise and excitement of the crowd but the barmaid seems detached and in her own world.

There is a preliminary work using a different model who also worked at the Folies Bergère.

Preliminary work for Bar at the Folies Bergère

Preliminary work for Bar at the Folies Bergère