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The Collation

Portia in Absentia

Letter from Percy Anderson including the phrase
Letter from Percy Anderson including the phrase

The guesses on this month’s Crocodile Mystery definitely pointed in the right direction: the mystery image this month is indeed the monogram signature of an artist. But rather than PH, it is PA: Percy Anderson.

Anderson (1851-1928) was a well-respected theatrical designer, doing set and costume designs in both London and New York. In London, beginning in 1888, he most frequently worked for Richard D’Oyly Carte at his Savoy Theatre. These names may be ringing bells for any light opera fans out there, and yes, Anderson was the one to do the designs for the original productions of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Yeoman of the Guard, Gondoliers, Utopia, Limited, and The Grand Duke. Anderson also did the designs for all of D’Oyly Carte’s revivals of the operettas in the early 20th century.

In addition to designs for musical theater (collections of which can be found at the Met Museum, the New York Public Library, Houghton Library at Harvard, and the Victoria and Albert Museum), Anderson also designed for a number of productions of Shakespeare’s plays. These are (unsurprisingly) mostly held in our collection at the Folger. We have designs for productions of The Tempest, Antony and Cleopatra, Romeo and Juliet, and two different productions of Merchant of Venice.

Augustin Daly and Anderson collaborated for Daly’s spring 1897 production of The Tempest in New York.1 Daly must have liked what he had seen, as he asked Anderson to do the costume designs for his 1898-99 season production of Merchant of Venice. We’re fortunate to have not only some of the designs, but some of the correspondence between Anderson and John Farrington (Daly’s London theater manager) regarding the designs.

In one of these letters, Anderson expresses concern that the “Venetian crimson” will clash “in a terrible way” with the reds he is planning on using.

Letter from Percy Anderson including the phrase "would clash in a terrible way"

Crimson and red “wd clash in a terrible way,” says Anderson. (Art Vol. b27 (2) page 2)

He also provides color samples so that Farrington and Daly can see what he is planning:

Red, yellow, green, and brown watercolor squares at the bottom of a 19th century letter

Red, yellow, green, and brown (?) color swatches from Anderson, showing the color palette he wants to use. (Art Vol. b27 (2) page 2)

The illustrations that follow show Anderson’s attention to detail, from the notes about what types of fabrics are to be used to the detail work for even the back of Bassanio’s design.

watercolor drawing of Shylock dressed in a light yellow suit with a dark green cloak

Design for Shylock, with notations as to what fabrics are to be used in what parts of the costume. (Art Vol. b27 (5))

watercolor showing the back of the costume design for Bassanio, including his cape and the details of the side of his shirt

The details of the back of Bassanio’s costume for Act I, showing details of his cape and shirt. (Art Vol. b27 (19))

I particularly like the note on the design for the duke: clearly Anderson wanted to maintain some nod towards historical accuracy, asking for clarification on whether the character was duke or doge.

watercolor for the costume for the duke of venice. he is wearing long gold rope with a white fur over-cape

Design for the Duke of Venice—or should that be doge? (Art Vol. b27 (6))

detail from the duke of Venice costume design. Anderson wrote "Query. Does 'Duke' signify Doge?"

Duke or doge? It makes a difference! (Art Vol. b27 (6) detail)

The second set of Anderson designs for Merchant of Venice are from eight years later, for Arthur Bourchier’s production in the 1905-1906 season at the Garrick Theatre in London. While I was not able to find the exact connection between Anderson and Bourchier, it is likely to have been through Augustin Daly: Bourchier joined Daly’s touring company in the US for the 1897-98 season before returning to London and taking over as manager of the Garrick Theatre in 1900.

The designs for Bourchier’s production of Merchant show a similarity in style to Daly’s, but also show Anderson’s growth as a designer and artist.

two versions of Bassanio's costume for the casket scene, both wearing purple and gold dublet and purple hose

Bassanio, always in purple for the casket scene. (Left: Art Vol. b27 (20), 1898; Right: Art Vol. c41 fol.45, 1905)

These designs also helpfully list the names of the actors on the backs of them. In this case, we know Bourchier himself played Shylock:

costume design for Shylock, wearing a white shirt with an embroidered gold vest, holding a long knife in a red sheath.

Design for Shylock, 1905 (Art Vol. c41, fol. 14)

the name "Mr A Bourchier" written in cursive in pencil

Mr. A Bourchier was the person in mind for this Shylock costume design

However, in going through both sets of designs, I noticed something odd: Portia, arguably the main character in the play, is not represented in either set!

Every other named character, and quite a few unnamed characters are represented. There is a whole set of drawings for “Venetian lady”s in the 1905 set:

four watercolors of women in Renaissance-esque gowns

Designs of four Venetian ladies for the casket scene. (Art Vol. c41, fol. 65-68)

So where did Portia go? It’s possible that a different designer, one favored by the leading ladies in each production, did those designs. It’s also possible that Anderson did do the designs and they are simply elsewhere. The designs for the Daly 1898 production are included in a larger “extra illustrated” volume with other memorabilia such as photos and playbills, so it almost certainly does not include all of the designs that were done for that production.

The designs for the 1905 production are all bound together in a volume of over 100 designs, but it is clear from the multiple numbering schemes on the designs that they have been combined and reorganized at least twice. So it is possible that the Portia designs were removed in one of those reorganizations.

Multiple numbering schemes are present at the bottoms of many pages. (Art Vol. c41 fol. 25 & 46)

If anyone does know where the corresponding designs for Portia, for either of these productions, have ended up, please do leave a comment and let us know!

But even without the Portia costumes, these two sets of designs by Percy Anderson make for a lovely comparative exercise for looking at how an artist’s skill, aesthetic, and techniques can change over time.

Now excuse me, I’m going to attempt to get “Monarch of the Sea” out of my head for the first time in a week…

Percy Anderson, design for H.M.S. Pinafore, 1920
©Victoria & Albert Museum, Museum Number S.2643-2015

  1. Not the designs linked above, which are for a 1904 production.


Daly’s Portia was Irish American Ada Rehan, and the production was intended to showcase her. She was a fashion icon, and dressmakers would give her costumes free in return for recommendations.
Bouchier’s Poerria was Violet Vanburgh, and she first played the role a few years earlier in Margate, a small seaside town where she’d be expected to supply her own costumes. Getty images has a photo of her in the role in lawyer’s dress; Alomy and Everett Collection have several photos of Ada.

Angela Cockburn — May 1, 2018