Saturday June 17 2017

Every month, a member of staff from the Britten-Pears Foundation chooses their favourite item or object from the archive. This month features Archivist Judith Ratcliffe who chose a set model for the 1965 production of Britten’s opera for children The Little Sweep, designed by Terence Emery.

“This item relates to the stage history of Britten’s children’s opera The Little Sweep which is part of the entertainment for young people called Let’s Make and Opera, which he wrote with librettist Eric Crozier in 1949. The set model came to our archive as a box of loose pieces. Before handing these over to conservator Kelvin Thatcher to reconstruct the model, I had to discover what it would have looked like originally. For this I looked through our collection of production photographs of Britten operas. I found that the cardboard walls did not match the scenery from the original 1949 production but were instead the design for a new production from 1965. The scenery and costumes for this production were designed by Terence Emery, who studied theatre design at the Slade, where visiting teachers included John Piper and Ceri Richards. A photograph from the archive collections of the scenery, as it was placed on the stage of the Aldeburgh Jubilee Hall, proved to be the key to reassembling the model in the correct layout.

I was delighted to see the rebuilt model looking so bright and colourful; a wonderful scene in miniature. I particularly like the details of the ornaments on the mantelpiece and paintings on the walls, the scene outside the window and fire burning in the fireplace. The proscenium arch with audience members in the boxes is great fun. The scene is the children’s nursery at Iken Hall, Suffolk, (Britten and Crozier interspersed local references into the opera), in the year 1840.

In 1965, the model was faithfully converted into stage scenery by the London based scenic art studio Victor Mara Ltd and painted by Harkers Studios, a theatrical scene-painting workshop in Southwark. This revival was first performed by the English Opera Group on 15 June in the Jubilee Hall, and then toured to Whitehaven and Richmond. The Britten family’s own rocking horse, which was used in the performances (and is affectionately known as ‘Dobbin’), can also be seen in our gallery beside the set model.”

Find out more about the opera here.