Richard Southern Collection

Overview

Richard Southern (1903 - 1989) was a theatre designer, academic, researcher and prolific collector. He was educated at St Dunstan’s College and later at Goldsmith’s Art School and the Royal Academy of Art, where he trained as a designer. From 1928, he worked in various capacities on the stage, acting and stage-managing in London and abroad, specializing in the study of stage technique and theatre architecture. He designed scenery for over fifty shows, including productions at the Everyman Theatre, Cambridge Festival Theatre, where he was art director, and various London theatres.

Appointed as Technical Lecturer at Goldsmith’s College in 1932 and of the London Theatre Studio in 1937, in about 1935, he began a twenty-year study of theatrical techniques of earlier times. During this time he made a collection of about 8,000 pictures illustrating scenery and the architecture and machinery of theatres from all over the world. His first book, Stage Setting, was published in 1937 and his second, Proscenium and Sight-Lines followed in 1939. In the same year, while examining the loft of the Theatre Royal, Bristol, Southern found a portion of the original stage-machinery of 1764. It was this discovery that led to his study of the development of scenery in the British Theatre, which was eventually published as Changeable Scenery in 1952.

In 1947, he was appointed Theatre Planning Adviser to the Arts Council and became involved in the investigation and reconstruction of period theatres and stages, including the Georgian Theatre, Richmond. He later published, (jointly with Ivor Brown), The Georgian Theatre, Richmond, Yorkshire : the story of the theatre. Southern was also responsible for the restoration of the first American theatre in Willamsburg, Virginia.

In 1951, Southern was asked by the University of Bristol to design its Drama Studio. The innovative nature of the design is recorded in Theatre in Education: How they were staged- 21: Bristol University Studio Theatre, Hamlet and the Dark Tower. This article reports that as the audience entered, they saw a proscenium theatre with the curtain down, "suddenly the curtain, legs, and proscenium were all flown, and the stage flank walls removed, leaving only the apron and stage gallery as for an Elizabethan theatre. Chairs were put in for the audience to occupy seats on three sides, and the Old Vic students suggested the use that could be made of this stage with a brief extract from Hamlet. The transformation continued, and the stage was stripped completely; all equipment, except lighting, was removed, leaving a bare classroom for the presentation of the main production — Mr Louis MacNeice’s The Dark Tower".

Southern was appointed as the Department of Drama’s Rockerfeller Lecturer, and delivered a series of talks that was subsequently published under that title of The Open Stage. In 1956, the University of Bristol awarded him an Honorary DLitt. In 1959 he was appointed as a Visiting Lecturer in the Department of Drama and from 1961-1969 he was employed part-time as Special Lecturer in Theatre Architecture.

On joining the Department of Drama, Southern brought his research collection with him. This archive included the Print Collection, and other material such as his models. It was compiled over several decades, both as the basis for his research and publications (books published from 1930’s onwards) and as a record of it. When he retired from the Bristol in 1969, the University made funds available to purchase the Print Collection, acknowledging its importance as a research resource for scholars within the university and further afield.

In 1964, Southern was appointed as a director of the Nuffield Theatre, University of Southampton, which he had designed in consultation with Sir Basil Spence, the University’s campus architect. In the course of his career, he planned several other modern theatres and stages including the Royal College of Art (1952), Reading University (1957), Nottingham (1961) and University College London (1967).

Following his retirement, he was involved with the building of the Globe Theatre in London from 1970-1971 and his model of the Swan Playhouse was used in the early stages to obtain an idea of what the Globe would look like.

What the collection holds

The Richard Southern Collection is an important visual resource for the history of theatre. It is particularly strong in the areas of theatre architecture and backstage information, including plans, photographs, cuttings, as well as scenery and costume. There are about 22,500 prints and illustrations providing a useful theatre picture library for all researchers.

This catalogued section of the collection can be viewed here: 
RS - Richard Southern Archive

The collection is only partially catalogued. Approximately half the collection remains uncatalogued. Contact us for further information regarding its contents and access.

Portrait of Richard Southern for collections page
Richard Southern (1903 - 1989) Image credit: University of Bristol Theatre Collection
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