In my opinion one of the most striking contributions to the extraordinary 1927 book The Robes of Thespis, were a series of drawings – classed as costume designs – by the artist Gladys Spencer Curling. She appeared to have a brief flurry of recognition and success in the late 1920s and designed the costumes and decor for several Anton Colin ballets but then faded from view.
Gladys Emily Spencer Curling was born 11thJanuary 1892 in Rochester, Kent as Gladys Lomas. Her father was an inspector of fitters for the government ship workyard in Chatham and she had an elder sisters Constance. By 1911, aged 18 and living in Chatham, she was described as being an art student, so clearly had developed an interest and skill in art. In September 1913 her engagement was announced to Major Edward Spencer Curling of the 4thBattalion of the Durham light infantry at Barnard Castle. Born in 1870 Edward was at the time aged 45 and was therefore considerably older than Gladys. They were finally married on 15 June 1915 at St George’s Church, Hanover Square, London with Gladys listing her residence as 12 Culross Street, Mayfair.
During the 1920s the couple lived at the White House, Gosmore, Hitchen, Herts but on 1 July 1927, Edward, aged 56 died. In his will he left £1,738 to his widow Gladys and Rupert Mason. There were no children.
Mason clearly became her benefactor, which suggests the both Edward and Gladys had known him for some time, prior to Edward’s demise. Mason was in fact a wealthy and influential Lancashire cotton manufacturer based in Ashton Under Lyne (set up by his grandfather) and a well-known and generous patron of the arts. In 1926-1927 he was in the process of involving himself in the British film Industry and in March 1927 became Chairman of the advisory board for the newly formed film company British Author’s Productions, along with a long list of leading personalities in the arts, industry and film production. He seemingly helped financed the endeavor that was later absorbed by BIP (British Incorporated Pictures).
It was made clear that he would be concerned with the staging and costume of film, for which he had made a special study. His aim was to raise the artistic quality of British films, largely by employing young British artists as designers. His practical interest in British art was exemplified by his long-standing endeavor to publish a book entitled The Robes of Thespis, that was in production and would feature the work of existing and new artists. He believed that if British films were prosperously developed they would offer British artists an immense new field of enterprise.
In June 1927 a film studio was being planned at Wembley on the site of British Empire Exhibition and British Author’s Productions hoped to make three pictures per week starting in January 1928, and it was made clear that stories and artists for these various projects were being selected. But Mason’s British film project simply fizzled out.
Since Gladys Spencer Curling was an artist Mason may have encouraged her development as a scenic artist and costume designer both for the stage and screen. It would appear that prior to 1927 Gladys had already exhibited her work at the Leicester Galleries in London and in Paris.
By late 1927 Mason had turned his attention to promoting his forthcoming book The Robes of Thespis by organizing exhibitions featuring the work of some of the artists to be represented in the book. For example, in October 1927 there was an exhibition of watercolour drawings and paintings at the Grand Central Hotel, Belfast, 18-29 October. Gladys Spencer Curling described as ‘a promising young artist with a flair for revue costumes and fantasia’ contributed the largest group of pictures to the exhibition with 33 items, that were described as fantasy costume designs and were regarded as being remarkable for their originality.
Mason then seemingly took Gladys for a trip to the South of France through December 1927-January 1928, staying at the Hotel Imperial, Menton (only five miles from Monte Carlo).
Then, finally in January 1928 The Robes of Thespis was published and this was followed by an exhibition of some of the items from the book at the Alpine Club Gallery in February 1928. In addition to her paintings in the book, Gladys also provided a significant suggestive painted screen showing three Spanish sirens.
Thereafter, Gladys Spencer Curling blossomed creating décor and costumes for ballets staged by the great ballet dancer Anton Dolin. Dolin had already staged a ballet based on George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, but in June 1928 a new version was launched at the London Coliseum that had décor and costumes by Gladys Spencer Curling designed in blue and petunia. The setting suggested a night-club where the spirit of Jazz (Dolin) meets the Spirit of Classical Music (Vera Nemchinova) who succumbs to the influence of Jazz.
Rupert Mason had supported the production of the Rhapsody in Blue ballet, which had been successful in Paris, Brussels, Strasburg, the Hague and Amsterdam before it had a long run in London. He said that he hope to make England ‘London, particularly – the home of the new artistic ballet, produced on ideas of perfection of scheme and refinement.’ He added that he placed special emphasis on employing English artists for the design.
Another ballet followed at the Coliseum in October 1928 that was first titled The Soul of Poland and then finally Revolution with Chopin’s etudes and preludes. Once again the décor and costumes were by Gladys Spencer Curling and it was revealed that Rupert Mason financed the project. It was observed that there was a curious situation with the perfect peace of the costumes representing ‘Discord’ and ominous discord about the costumes that represented ‘Peace’. The ballet was divided into two sections – the first all fire and fury and insurrection – in other words Poland’s struggle for independence and the second when the struggle is over – all calm and serene. Anton Dolin represented ‘The Spirit of Insurrection’ and Vera Nemchinova as ‘ The Spirit of Peace’.
Gladys Spencer Curling outlined the origin of the ballet Revolution. ‘The idea of this ballet came to me one day when I was playing Chopin’s celebrated Revolution Etude. I saw in my mind’s eye a dance of fire and fury – just such a dance as Dolin as the Spirit of Discord’ performs. ‘Then, playing the Chopin Prelude, I saw the moon breaking through the clouds and the Spirit of Peace moving in gentler rhythms to calm strains; and I saw Discord kneel to Peace’ as Colin kneels to Nemchinova. ‘Between the first idea and the actual baller there were many stages, I had to write the scenario, and to design the scenery and the dresses. Colin had to invent the choreography. Nemchinova had to devise the gesture that would tell the story of the change of mood.’
Thereafter, Gladys said that she was planning an all-English ballet, which was to be as international known as the Russian ballet and will tour the continent to show what English dancers can do. Presumably this referred to her work with Anton Dolin. Indeed, in November 1928, after the launch of Revolution at the Coliseum, Dancing Times said that both Dolin and Nemchinova were appearing at the Winter Garden in Berlin and then a tour visiting other cities in Europe and Italy. Perhaps the ballets designed by Gladys Spencer Curling – Rhapsody in Blue and Revolution were part of the repertoire shown during the tour.
By 1929 Gladys was living with Ethel Beatrice Curling (presumably her sister-in-law) at 50 Harwood Terrace, SW6.
After his absence aboard, Anton Dolin returned to London and the Coliseum in October 1929 with a reprise of Rhapsody in Blue and Revolution, but this time with the American dancer Anna Ludmila (who had spent two years as prima ballerina with the Chicago Opera and married Dolin). It would appear that Curling had redressed both ballets because it was noted that she had been working in studio lent to her by Lord Hastings during his absence in the West Indies. She also said that she was working on the designs for a new Dolin ballet that may be seen during the present engagement. This may have been for Dolin as the Seeker of Light in a Tchaikowsky adagio also staged at Coliseum.
During this period, and in relation the ballet Revolution, she was described as ‘one of those rare artists who can create in colour and line something of the meaning of a great musician’s work’ (ie Chopin). She said ‘though I have the music in my mind as I paint, I must ‘see something’ so as a guide for colour I drape my screens with lengths of silks and satin. I the insurrection scenes I have the purple shade used for the funeral pall in the Roman Catholic church. Also, cardinal red, then gleaming satin in flame colour for the light in the sky, and the fourth, the colour of the golden oriole. All these are the shades I need to paint a revolution scene for the stage to go with the Chopin music. It is interesting that the red and purple are both Royal and religious colours as well as revolutionary.’
Interestingly, given Rupert Mason’s involvement in British Film, it is worth noting that Dolin and Ludmila were featured at this time in two ballet segments for British film: Dark Red Roses (British International Film Distributors) and Alf’s Button (Gaumont British). One cannot help but wonder if these sequences were designed by Gladys Spencer Curling.
No other stage credits or press reports surface after 1929 so it is not known what Gladys did, She never re-married. By 1939 she was living at Little Carlton, Deal, Kent. Where she remained for sometime. Indeed, in 1950 the freehold to this and the adjacent property Carleton Lodge was up for sale, but it was made clear that Gladys was the tenant of Little Carlton with three bedrooms, a bathroom, two reception rooms and office and let at £100 per year. Gladys Spencer Curling died 2ndOctober 1958 in Dover leaving assets of £323 to her solicitor.
The existing work of Gladys Spencer Curling is exceptional and deserves wider examination, research and recognition. Please let me know if you know anything further about this artist.
British Library Newspaper Archive
Whitstable Times & Herne Bay Herald 20/9/13
Dundee Courier 16/3/27
Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer 17/3/27
Daily Herald 16/6/27
The Stage 30/6/27
Northern Whig 15/10/27
Northern Whig 19/10/27 & 20/10/27
Belfast Telegraph 13/10/27
Le Gaulois 14/12/27
Robes of Thespis by Rupert Mason and George Sherringham
The Stage 14/6/28
Britannia & Eve 12/10/28
Derby Daily Telegraph 18/10/28
Winnipeg Tribune 10/11/28
Northern Whig 29/8/29
Sheffield Independent 6/9/26
Daily Mirror 6/9/29
Sporting Times 7/9/29
Dundee Courier 18/9/29
The Tatler 16/10/29
The Stage 31/10/29
Leeds Mercury 20/11/29
Thanet Advertiser 14/7/50
Dancing Times November 1928