Dated 19 February 1914, at first it seemed a simple item of ephemera from the days when a visit to the cinema was like going to the theatre, and a programme told you all you needed to know. There are seven films, including a short demonstration of the Kinetophone - Thomas Edison’s invention for speaking pictures - with a chorus of God Save the King to round off the night. Yet this is something special: the artwork is signed by Ann Macbeth, well-known as an embroiderer and artist, who also happens to be my great aunt.
That she designed a programme for a cinema in Sheffield was surprising, but it appeared at first glance to be a small commission. Yet there is much more than meets the eye, and a fascinating back story which has led to it being displayed in Charles Rennie Mackintosh: Making the Glasgow Style which is currently on at Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Museum.
There is no record of her arrest or sentencing, which indicates she used a false name, and she never told her family – in fact we only found out a few years ago when the School of Art wrote about that letter in a blog. Consequently nobody knows what her offence was, or even where she was held in prison.
Ann Macbeth was a committed suffragette, and like many others at the School of Art she was a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). She had designed a banner for the 1909 Edinburgh women’s suffrage procession, and a linen quilt with the embroidered names of hunger strikers in 1910. Yet this is a long way from engaging in militant activity.
However, we know from the diaries of Frances Parker, chief organiser of the WSPU’s activities in Glasgow and the west of Scotland, that a group journeyed from Scotland to participate in the Union’s window-smashing campaign in London in March 1912. Around 270 properties were damaged and some 220 suffragettes arrested. Was Ann Macbeth among them?
It is clear that her health suffered greatly from the trauma and it took her a long time to recuperate. In June, her doctor told her that she needed at least five months’ care as a ‘semi-invalid’ and the School of Art – where she was Director of Studies in Needlework and Decorative Art – was magnanimous enough to give her up to a year off her teaching duties to recover. The academic year of 1912-13 must have been hard for her, with time on her hands as she recovered from her ordeal, and this seems to have inspired her to accept a major commission from Sheffield.
We have no colour photos of the interior, just some grainy newspaper adverts, but there are descriptions which give a flavour of the exuberant design which was heavily marketed as the last word in luxury. On passing the pay boxes you entered a hall with seating, leading to a grand double staircase built in white and green marble. It led to the first floor tea room, decorated in shades of blue and pink with tapestries hanging from the wall.
The auditorium, which seated 800, was grander still. It had oak panelled walls with huge tapestry panels hanging from the ceiling, showing hunting scenes. The balcony fronts and the ceiling were heavily embossed in plaster, and above the screen was a mural depicting an Elizabethan seascape. There were dark blue drapes, oak seating with blue covers and matching Wedgwood blue carpets. Below the screen was a pit for a 12-piece orchestra (sound was not installed until 1930). The tower room was fitted up as a private club.
The stained and leaded glass work was described as ‘notable for its brilliancy and clarity of tone, and the lines of the design and variety of colour schemes have given ample scope for the characteristic qualities of the material. The leaded work throughout has all been executed by the same hands from designs by Miss Ann Macbeth and Mr HE Farmer.’ The glass was made by Robertson and Russell in their Sheffield studios.
The staircase windows had compositions of birds and flowers, while the three main windows had top sashes which showed allegorical figures: Jupiter as God of Thunder, about to cast his thunderbolt, with vipers entwined round his wrist; Ceres, as Goddess of Plenty, holding a basket of fruits; and Vulcan with hammer, anvil and arrows, symbolising the God of Fire.
The printed matter for the cinema, including programmes, menu cards etc is ‘most artistic in design, in keeping with Miss Ann Macbeth’s design and colour scheme throughout the theatre’.
She is not mentioned as attending the official opening of the cinema, but she would have had an opportunity to see her work when she came to Sheffield in November 1914 to deliver a lecture. The newspaper article about her talk mentioned that ‘her design may also be seen in the carpets and china of one of Sheffield’s picture houses.’
How long Ann Macbeth’s interior designs stayed in place is hard to say, but they appear to have gone in 1928 when the cinema closed for three weeks for a complete refurbishment, with the manager quoted as saying ‘We have devised a new colour scheme in which decorations, carpeting and lighting will tastefully blend.’ He added that the directors had this ‘very necessary expenditure in view for several years’, indicating that the tapestries may well have suffered from the inevitable smoking damage, even with the cinema’s bespoke ventilation system.
No doubt the stained glass windows survived longer, perhaps right to the end. The Cinema House had its final showing in 1961 before being demolished and the site is now occupied by offices and shops.
I have yet to find any other examples of Ann Macbeth’s work for the Cinema House, but feel sure that there must be something out there – perhaps some ephemera, china or even a photo. In the meantime, I would encourage everyone to get along to Kelvingrove to see their great celebration of the Glasgow Style; the exhibition runs until 14 August.