Written by Fiona Melhuish, UMASCS Librarian
The Spellman Collection of Victorian music covers is one of my favourite collections, and looking through the many boxes of covers never fails to fascinate. The cover designs can be beautiful, imaginative, funny, the height of Victorian kitsch and sometimes just very strange, so it was a difficult, but enjoyable, task to choose 26 covers from a collection of around 2,500 to include in our new exhibition.
One of the greatest strengths of the collection is its range and variety which make it a very rich source of images covering a wide range of subjects. Around 800 of the 2,500 or so covers have been digitised, and are available to view online via the Visual Arts Data Service (VADS) website. The extensive use of keywords in the cataloguing of the VADS images make it easy to search for images of specific subjects.
Victorian sheet music covers offer a colourful and fascinating insight into the popular songs and performers of the day, and also into the art and printing, politics and social history of the Victorian era. Pictorial sheet music covers first appeared in the early 1800s, and reached the height of their popularity in the second half of the nineteenth century. One of the most important developments in the history of sheet music covers was the introduction of lithographic printing in England in about 1800. This invention made the mass production of coloured illustrations far cheaper than ever before.
The reasons for the great demand for sheet music include the introduction of the upright piano, which became popular in middle class homes from the early nineteenth century, and the popularity of the music halls and their performers from the 1850s onwards. The covers feature illustrations of virtually every aspect of Victorian life, including historical events, royalty, eccentric society ‘types’, and love and marriage.
Some of the most memorable covers feature the vivacious and eccentric stars of the music halls, from the risque Marie Lloyd to the extraordinary performer James Henry Stead, who could leap up and down with both feet at once over 400 times in succession!
The exhibition will be on display in the staircase hall outside the Special Collections Service reading room until 31 October 2018, and is open Monday – Friday 9am to 5pm, Last Thursday of the month – 9am to 9pm and Saturday & Sunday – 10am to 5pm. Please ask a member of the MERL reception team for directions.