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Past Exhibition of the Month - May 2013

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Wagner. Photograph by The London Stereoscopic Company. [c.1870]. Peter Joslin Collection.

Wagner. Photograph by The London Stereoscopic Company. [c.1870]. Peter Joslin Collection.

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WAGNER , Wilhelm Richard (b.Leipzig, 22 May 1813; d.Venice, 13 February 1883)

To celebrate the bicentenary of Wagner's birth we are showing the recently discovered first sketch for the giant Fafner's dragon disguise in Act II of Siegfried. This was commissioned from Richard Wynn Keene for the opera's première (as part of the complete Der Ring des Nibelungen) at Bayreuth in 1876.

(Please click the thumbnails below to view larger image)

This copyright image has been made available by Mrs Jennie Bisset, owner of the design. The Museum is privileged to be exhibiting this fascinating item for the first time. A short biography of Richard Wynn Keene is displayed below.

Programmes for five of the concerts in the Wagner Festival at the Royal Albert Hall, London in May 1877.   The 4th Concert included a substantial extract from Siegfried, including Fafner's scene in Act II.  The composer conducted part of each of the six concerts originally scheduled.

Page introducing the Siegfried selection in the 4th Concert, 14 May 1877.

Flyer for the first UK performances of Der Ring des Nibelungen, Her Majesty's Theatre, London, May 1882. The four cycles - none of which were in fact attended by the composer - formed part of a European tour organised and managed by the former baritone Angelo Neumann (of Munich). The scenery and costumes were those of the original production at Bayreuth in 1876.

Libretto for Siegfried in the 1882 London season.

Das Rheingold. First edition of the vocal score.  Mainz, [1861]. Siegfried. First edition of the vocal score. Mainz, [1871].

Richard Wynn Keene (9 December 1809 - 28 November 1887)

During the 1850's and ’60's, the name Dykwynkyn was famous to the thousands of families who flocked to Drury Lane each Christmas to see the spectacular Pantomimes. He was responsible for all the hundreds of “Masks, Devices, Properties and Dresses” used in seventeen of the Pantomimes between 1852 and 1879, mostly in the grotesque style so popular at the time. Sadly, his fame has not survived, whereas William Beverly, who designed the impressive scenery, is remembered to this day.

Keene was born on 9 December 1809 and baptised at Birmingham. His obituary notice in a newspaper, The Era, written by his old friend E.L. Blanchard, affirms that he was “ afflicted with total deafness from an early period of his life ” and that he “began his career as a sculptor”. In February 1838, together with John Danforth Greenwood, he patented Keene’s cement, which is still much valued by plasterers today.

By 1834 he had moved to London where he married a widow, Mary Garner Morgan, on 10 October at St Mary's, Lambeth. They lived in Vauxhall Walk, Lambeth, close to the Royal Doulton factory. They had been together for about ten years when Mary left him. His niece Catherine Barlow became his housekeeper and looked after him for the greater part of her life. He was evidently a skilled manufacturer of terracotta and mosaic and exhibited at the great Exhibition in 1851. It was his extraordinary facility for grotesque imagery that led the new manager of Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, E.T.Smith, to invite him to design for his first pantomime there at Christmas 1852. This began his collaboration with E.L.Blanchard, the leading author of pantomimes, which continued until 1874.

‘Dykwynkyn’ was the name that Richard Wynn Keene adopted for his pantomime work, but he was also responsible for a number of the more lavish productions of mainly historical plays at Drury Lane, featuring leading actors of the day. For most of these, he was billed as Mr R.W.Keene. The first, and probably the most elaborate of these, was Nitocris, in 1855, a new play by Edward Fitzball, set in ancient Egypt. The bills announced “The Colossal Idols, Multitudinous and Gorgeous Properties, modelled and executed from Antique Authorities by DYKWYNKYN, aided by Mr Needham, Mr Adams, and numerous Assistants. . . . . The Costly Costumes (adapted and designed by DYKWYNKYN from Ancient Egyptian works in Paintings Sculptures &c.)” Fitzball wrote in his book Thirty Five years of a Dramatic Author’s Life that one of Miss Glynn’s costumes cost £200. With some families trying to exist on ten shillings a week or less this was hugely extravagant. Keene spent nearly eighteen months researching so that every detail of decoration in the production would be authentic.

Keene was never a wealthy man. For most of his career he seems to have been employed for individual productions rather on a seasonal contract and during his first ten years at the Lane he designed only one production each year, apart from 1855 when he was responsible for Nitocris as well as the pantomime and 1860 when he designed Tom Thumb at Her Majesty’s Theatre as well as Peter Wilkins at the Lane. In 1863 when Edmund Falconer and F.B. Chatterton were managing Drury Lane, he designed two dramas, Bonnie Dundee and Manfred and the following year Night and Morn and Henry IV. Just when he must have been incredibly busy with the pantomime designs he was declared bankrupt, with debts of £520 and no assets, due partially to a debt of £34 incurred by his estranged wife. This he “defended vexatiously” and he was finally discharged by the Court in February 1865.

His last Drury Lane dramas were Comus, Faust and The Doge of Venice, then he began to work elsewhere. He designed for two Liverpool Theatres in the late 1860's and the Crystal Palace and the Surrey Theatre in the early 70's before making the giant octopus for the first scene of Covent Garden’s production of Babil and Bijou.

On 23 February 1873, The Era contained his advertisement which mentioned King Octopus and shows that he was then looking for work creating "... Mechanical and Grotesque Embodiments, Giants, Gnomes, &c.," and giving his contact address as - "the ARTIST, 11, Milton-street, Wandsworth-road, London." which was where he was living at the time.

The commission from Wagner, to create the animal & bird models needed for the original Ring Cycle at Bayreuth, came late in Keene’s career and he was already 67 years old when he was making them. He may already have been working for Her Majesty’s Opera Company, then appearing at Drury Lane under Colonel Mapleson’s management, although he is not credited. He was certainly there the following season when the Opera Company moved back to Her Majesty’s Theatre.

On 11 August 1877 Figaro contained a paragraph “It is not I believe generally known that the head of the decorative department at Her Majesty’s Theatre last season was Mr R.W. Keene formerly well known to lovers of pantomime as “Dykwynkyn”, Mr Keene, however, appears to have now entirely deserted pantomime for opera, and it was he who made that wonderful dragon for Herr Wagner’s performance of Niebelungen Ring at Bayreuth last year.”

The signed ‘first sketch’ for the model of Fafner recently came to light folded in half and with torn and curling edges, placed between the pages of an Album which had been compiled by Keene from the 1820s. The design is in watercolour and there is nothing written or drawn on the reverse. It is the only item associated with Wagner or The Ring in the album. The edges of the brown paper are uneven. It measures approximately 32 x 44cm.

The dragon was not the only beast commissioned by Wagner for Bayreuth. “. . . . The remainder of Keene’s order was a car with a yoke of rams for Fricka in The Valkyrie, a bear, a magpie, and an ousel for Siegfried ; and sacrificial beasts and a pair of ravens for Göterdämmerung. . . . . .” Stage Fauna for the Ring an article by W. Courthope Forman in The Daily Telegraph, 12 July 1930 (p.16).

He was making everything at home in his property in Milton Street. One wonders how much help he had in fulfilling this order as he will not have had at home the ‘numerous Assistants’ who had been available to him when he was working in a large Theatre. Time was short and everyone became concerned that the work would not be completed on schedule. Edward Dannreuther and Alfred Forman were the two people who had to deal with Keene with regard to packing and sending off all the creatures to Bayreuth and both gentlemen visited him regularly to monitor progress.

The first night of Siegfried was to be on Wednesday, 16 August 1876. Fafner was a huge dragon and had to be sent in several pieces. The tail went first and was received safely. On Saturday 29 July the dragon’s legs were sent off to Bayreuth. Alfred Foreman wrote “Case with Fafner’s legs left last Saturday ; case with remainder of body to go to-night or to-morrow ; bear to-morrow or Friday; Fafner’s head Saturday or Monday. This is Keene’s programme, and he seems anxious to move heaven and earth to get it carried out. I go to him again tomorrow.” The Daily Telegraph, 12 July 1930.

Ernest Newman in his book on Wagner says that Fafner cost Wagner £500. Tragically, a piece of the neck never arrived. Wagner wrote 2 ½ years later “ the neck was still lying lost in one of the stations between London and Bayreuth.” This meant that Fafner could not be assembled properly and seems never to have worked as Keene intended.

Scenically, the 2nd act of Siegfried was said to be one of the highlights of the entire production.

Charles Villiers Stanford in his Pages from an Unwritten Diary remarked that “ . . . steam was used, I believe for the first time, for stage purposes . . .” The dragon evidently opened its mouth and spurted out steam and water. About the best anyone had to say of it was to call it “a respectable monster with a remarkably lively tail” quoted in Gustav Kobbé : Wagner from Behind the Scenes, The Century Magazine, 1899. Keene must have been bitterly disappointed when he finally heard that his dragon had not been the success that he had hoped it would be.

In 1879, Dykwynkyn was back at Drury Lane for the last time, heading the list of Property Makers for Blue Beard, the first of the spectacular series of pantomimes presented by Augustus Harris. This seems to have been the last work that he undertook.

His obituary in The Era states “. . . through no fault of his own, his later life was saddened by great reverses of fortune, but he patiently endured to the last his many afflictions.” He suffered an attack of paralysis, which left him hopelessly bedridden for years. This probably happened in 1880, so when the Ring Cycle was presented in England for the first time in May 1882, it is most unlikely that he was able to see his Fafner dragon in action.

In 1884 The Dramatic and Musical Sick Fund published a letter in The Era asking for donations on his behalf and describing his name as “familiar as a household word”. The letter was signed by Henry Betty, son of the renowned boy actor Master Betty. Several more requests for donations were published in The Era over the next few years but none raised a great deal of money. By the end Keene was almost blind and he died in the Union Infirmary on 28 November 1887. E.L. Blanchard in his obituary gave his place of death as “his residence, 32 Hanbury-road, Lavender Hill SW” thereby saving his old friend from the public indignity of death in the Workhouse Infirmary. He was buried on 2 December in The Actors’ Acre at Brookwood Cemetery, Surrey, at the expense of the Dramatic and Musical Sick Fund. His grave is unmarked.

© 2013 Jennie Bisset, who acknowledges the invaluable help of Mr Brent Fernandez in researching Keene’s life and work.