Magical 'Blue Bird' set designs go to Fitzwilliam Museum

  • 5 October 2006

The Art Fund has helped the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, acquire a rare collection of original set designs for Maurice Maeterlinck's, The Blue Bird, one of the most popular theatre productions of the Edwardian Era.

The Art Fund gave a grant of £25,000 towards the total cost of £80,000; additional funding came from the MLA/ V&A Purchase Grant Fund.

The Blue Bird was a phenomenal success when first staged at the Haymarket Theatre in London in 1909. The play, which was known to have reduced hardened city workers to tears, was so influential that the blue bird came to be directly associated with happiness, and it was adopted throughout the 20th Century as a name or symbol for everything from face cream and biscuits to speed boats and football strips.

Published as L'Oiseau Bleu in 1908, the story recounts how the son and daughter of a poor woodcutter are sent out by a fairy to search the world for the Blue Bird of Happiness. The children visit the Land of Memory, the Palace of Night, and the Kingdom of the Future; only when the children return home do they discover that the Blue Bird has been in their bird cage all along.

The Blue Bird was made into a film (1940) starring Shirley Temple. A 1976 remake, the first co-production of a film by the United States and the Soviet Union, was a lavish undertaking but a critical and box-office failure.

Of the group of seven set designs, all but one, plus the design for the original poster, are by Frederick Cayley Robinson (1862-1927), one of the most intriguing and enigmatic British artists of the early 20th century. The remaining design, for the opening act, is by Sidney Herbert Sime (1867-1941), a well known illustrator of fantasy literature.

The designs are executed in watercolour, coloured chalks, gouache and oil on paper and canvas. Maeterlinck, delighted by Robinson’s interpretation of his magical tale, told the artist that he had “interpreted the story from within”. The designs have been in the collection of the Haymarket Theatre in London since the 1909 production.

‘Chasing Happiness; Maurice Maeterlinck, The Blue Bird and England’ will also feature work from an important group of stage and costume designs by Charles Ricketts given via The Art Fund to the Fitzwilliam Museum as part of a gift distributed to museums and galleries throughout the UK in 1933. Charles Ricketts (1866-1931) – a great admirer of Maeterlinck - was a former member of The Art Fund’s Board of Trustees.

The exhibition opens at the Fitzwilliam Museum on 3rd October.

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