The Harry Ransom Center, a humanities research library and museum at The University of Texas at Austin, introduces the Web exhibition “A Tonic to the Imagination: Costume Designs for Stage and Screen by B. J. Simmons and Co.,” which highlights the work of the British theatrical costumier company from 1889 to 1959. Founded in 1857, Simmons and Co. dominated costume preparation in London for more than 100 years.
The exhibition, which can be viewed on the Ransom Center‘s Web site, highlights the immense scope of the Simmons and Co. archive and is intended to encourage research in the collection. The exhibition is organized into 10 categories of costume design and showcases 228 selected images drawn from 60 film and theater productions. The Web exhibition was funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).
The Ransom Center acquired the voluminous archive of B. J. Simmons and Co. in two separate installments in 1983 and 1987. Comprising more than 500 boxes, the collection is one of the largest of its kind in the world.
“The B. J. Simmons collection provides a stunning glimpse into the world of costume design in Great Britain during this period,” said Susan E. Mickey, associate chair and head of design in the Department of Theatre and Dance at The University of Texas at Austin. “The artifacts from the late 19th century, in particular, represent beautifully detailed watercolor renderings, costume plots and photographs. Most of the great designers of that time and place are immortalized through this assembly.”
From its founding in 1857 to its demise in 1964, Simmons and Co. created stage costumes for hundreds of theater productions in London, the provinces and overseas, ranging from Victorian pantomime to the “kitchen sink” dramas of the 1960s. Simmons and Co. also provided costumes for more than 100 films, including features directed by Alexander Korda and Laurence Olivier.
For decades, staff at Simmons and Co. preserved tens of thousands of original costume designs and costumier’s copies of the originals, along with an extensive research library. Assembled with great care, these materials form a unique visual record of British drama from the 1880s to the 1960s. The Simmons and Co. archive also provides new evidence about the nature of costume design in the 19th century, Its records indicate that costume design was integrated with other elements of theatrical production earlier than previously thought.
Important costume designers represented in the collection and Web exhibition include Percy Anderson, Cecil Beaton, Attilio Comelli, Sers, Percy Macquoid, Charles Ricketts and Ernst Stern.
The images in the Web exhibition are presented in groups corresponding to the major strengths of the collection. In most cases, several costume designs were chosen from an existing portfolio of preliminary sketches, final renderings, costume plots and research materials. With an archive as vast as the Simmons and Co. collection — the costume design portfolios alone hold 34,000 items — it is difficult to get a sense of the size of the archive, to know what is typical and to see how designers used source material from several portfolios to dress a new production. Therefore, two complete portfolios are included in the exhibition, for the 1898 premiere of “Trelawny of the ‘Wells'” and the 1926 revival.
The production portfolios and scrapbooks are a unique component of the collection because they allow a researcher to see images and designs for several productions of the same play in a single place to compare productions over time.
“The Ransom Center is fortunate to have had the support of the NEH for this cataloging and preservation project,” said Helen Adair, associate curator for performing arts at the Ransom Center. “The NEH recognized that the collection as a whole is more valuable than the sum of its parts, and we never would have been able to tackle a project of this size without its generous support.”
High-resolution images of costume designs from the Simmons and Co. collection are available.