Graham Barlow Archive

Overview

School to university is the conventional route commonly favoured by most undergraduates. Not so for Graham Barlow. Leaving school, Haberdashers’ Aske’s, his earliest ambition was to join the navy. Unable to take up a place at naval college, he followed his next ambition - to read for Economics at LSE, matriculating as a part-time student while working for the Metal Box Company to support himself. 

During this time his love for all aspects of theatre became evident. The studies, interrupted by National Service were abandoned. Stationed mostly in Germany where, in the early fifties, there was something of a cultural renaissance taking place, Barlow had access to the music, literary groups and theatre that were becoming commonplace on the West Berlin scene. When he left the army, he returned to London with a firm ambition to become a theatre designer. 

There was nothing like a training in the then flourishing repertory system and Barlow found a position in a company in St Helen’s to train as a scenic artist. A series of engagements in companies all over England followed. Learning on the job, Barlow acquired not only the fundamentals of design but also of all aspects of production, assimilating knowledge of a vast corpus of drama from Shakespeare to Pinter. His talent was recognized and he was contracted to work under Paul Shelving at Birmingham Rep, moving on to Nottingham and finally to Bristol Old Vic where, now married with two young children, he was established as resident designer with successes in the West End including War and Peace, A Severed Head, Fiorello. In 1976 his design for the tribute to Lillian Baylis for the National Theatre at the Old Vic, with Ashcroft, Gielgud, Richardson and Olivier, added to his credits.

By 1966 Barlow had developed an ambition to direct. In the sixties, the top directing posts - the National and the RSC - were filled by university graduates; so in 1966 he matriculated at Bristol to read for the combined degree in English, Drama and History of European Art. During these three years he remained intermittently at the service of the Bristol Old Vic and naturally of the Drama Department where he enjoyed a happy collaboration with Professor Glynn Wickham on many productions. 

On graduating he was contracted to direct for the West of England Company. Wickham, however, advised him to apply for a post at the recently established Drama Department at the University of Glasgow and so, shifting ground to a second career this time with no other ambition beyond making this an interlude, he joined the small recently formed department with Professor James Arnott and Jan McDonald. 

There under Arnott’s influence Barlow embarked on postgraduate study which led to his becoming a recognized authority on 17th and 18th century theatre architecture. His doctoral thesis, From Tennis Court to Opera House became a seminal study in this field. Included in his researches were l’Hôtel de Bourgogne, The Cockpit in Court and the Phoenix. Barlow continued to design for professional theatre in Scotland at the Glasgow Citizens Theatre and at the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh. While teaching he was instrumental in encouraging Scottish playwrights and young actors to ‘keep their Scottish voice’. 

In 1983, Barlow set up home with his second wife on the Isle of Skye but continued to commute and teach. With characteristic passion for all knowledge, Barlow derived from trips with local fishermen, an ambition to invent a machine to help the seafood processing industry. Armed with an old-fashioned mangle, picture hooks and rubber bands, just such a machine was invented. Taking early retirement from teaching in 1993, he created a business to develop the Offshell Press. The success in shelling prawns in a revolutionary way changed the nature of the industry in the U.K.

By 2000 this ’Renaissance Man’ had happily achieved all his ambitions. Retiring, aged 70 his next goal was the rehabilitation of the Clyde Valley orchard, where he now lived, to paint, and perhaps continue theatre research. He died in 2003 before the final ambition could be realized. 

Nevertheless he had gained his abiding ambition - recognition by his peers. 

Priscilla Barlow

What the collection holds

The Graham Barlow collection contains the design archive from his time at the Bristol Old Vic, and academic archive from his time spent teaching in Bristol and Glasgow. It is being repackaged, conserved and catalogued as part of Bristol Old Vic's "Protecting and Sharing the Heritage of Britain's Oldest Theatre" project, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. 

The online catalogue for this collection can be viewed here: 
GB - Graham Barlow Archive

portrait of Graham Barlow
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