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Gilbert and Sullivan archive saved by British Library

Costume detail for one of the peers in Iolanthe. It was the first of Gilbert and Sullivan's operas to be produced at the Savoy Theatre, where it premiered in 1882. Photo: D'Oyly Carte
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The archive of Gilbert and Sullivan opera company D’Oyly Carte has been acquired by the British Library, securing the future of items dating back 140 years.

Exhibits dating back to the company’s foundation in 1875 make up the archive, which comprises around 1,600 separate boxes of documents. It will now be housed at the British Library, where the exhibits will be comprehensively catalogued and stored. They will also be made available to researchers and could go on display in the future.

Ian Martin, D’Oyly Carte Opera Company’s general manager, said the acquisition had saved the archive, which could have been sold to foreign buyers.

“It seemed at one stage that it might be bought by foreign interest, so the fact it has gone to the British Library [is something] we are hugely pleased about. Now it is as safe as it can be and it is gratifying to us that Gilbert and Sullivan are still very popular,” he added.

The archive includes music scores, designs, posters and show reports from productions throughout the company’s history, as well as charting the successes and failures of the business.

It had previously been kept at D’Oyly Carte’s base in Kennington and has not been fully examined. However, the British Library will restore any individual items that need attention and a dedicated archivist has been appointed to work on the collection over the next 15 months.

The British Library’s curator of modern drama collections, Kathryn Johnson, said the D’Oyly Carte archive was not only a record of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas but an insight into how theatres and companies were run and how theatregoing habits have changed over time.

“In terms of its relation to Gilbert and Sullivan, there was nothing like this company anywhere else in the world, so the archive is a microcosm of that style of performance and attitude to working. It is a record of how a theatre company changed, or didn’t change, for almost a whole century. It is a look into the theatre habits of that time [19th and 20th centuries] that are especially interesting,” she said.

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