Galileo out of the shadows

Some of the model props and figures from Jocelyn Herbert’s 1980 production of The Life of Galileo have been away from the archive for a few months, in the care of the Conservation department of Camberwell College of Arts. MA student Tabitha Austin carried out a detailed review of their condition, discovering that some of the scale model props were made of six or more materials: card, wire, fabric, plastic, wood and plasticine, as well as found objects such as twigs and coins.

Everything was a little grubby and dusty. The brittle, yellowing sticky tape on some of the figures is highly acidic. Some elements had been creased or damaged – perhaps during the course of the original production, or by being stored loose in a box. Tabitha documented and cleaned all the pieces and carried out some small repairs, as well as devising a new storage system.

On Monday 18 June, the MA Conservation students presented their work at a symposium at Camberwell, followed by an exhibition. The exhibition is open to the public through Saturday 23 June. It was wonderful to see these small but significant items given such attention and care, the sticky tape replaced with something inert and the metal gleaming.

The 1980 production of Brecht’s play at the National Theatre was directed by John Dexter, and the production process is described in detail by Jim Hiley in Theatre at Work (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981). Hiley explains how Herbert and Dexter used the model and sketches as a means of communication:

She and Dexter passed endless little drawings to and fro as they talked. Dexter would seek her ideas not just on how the set might look, but also about how the action might move upon it. In their collaboration, the dividing line between design and ‘blocking’ was always fluid; later, Herbert would watch rehearsals and offer comments on the actors’ moves, just as now Dexter was scribbling his own notions onto sketches she had made. (Hiley, 1981, page 27)

Herbert’s model props and figures for The Life of Galileo will be part of an exhibition on models at the National Theatre from November 2018.

On the left, a bronze bowl, armillary sphere and telescope are among the props for The Life of Galileo. On the the right, scale model figures from two other shows, found in a box labelled ‘mixed people’. At the back, a band of musicians, the figures supported by clay bases; in front, a group of women, on wooden bases.

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