Dublin actor’s Abbey Theatre archive is a treasure trove of Ireland’s national theatre

A FAMILY archive of Ireland’s national theatre created by one of its most charismatic characters is due to be sold at auction.

The collection relating to the Abbey Theatre during the first half of the 20th century is a treasure trove of photographs, programmes, drawings and memories of the influential Dublin players.

It is an especially significant archive as the contents shine a light on the theatre’s rich heritage in the years before the original building was engulfed by fire in 1951.

Catalogued across five lots from Lot 18 to Lot 22, the ‘eclectic’ collection goes under the hammer in Richard Winterton Auctioneers’ Winter Fine Art Sale on Tuesday, November 9, starting at 9.30am at The Lichfield Auction Centre, Wood End Lane, Fradley Park.

View the online catalogue here

Founded by WB Yeats and Lady Augusta Gregory in 1904 as a national theatre for Ireland, the Abbey Theatre’s ‘revolutionary’ beginnings to tell the Irish story continues today with a mission to produce urgent, ambitious and courageous work.

Lot 18: This large Irish linen printed handkerchief was sold by the Irish Players at $1 each in 1913 as a fundraiser for keep Sir Hugh Lane’s paintings in Ireland.
Lot 18: This large Irish linen printed handkerchief was sold by the Irish Players at $1 each in 1913 as a fundraiser for keep Sir Hugh Lane’s paintings in Ireland.

Yeats’ presence proliferates through the remarkable archive, initially compiled by distinguished Irish actor Michael J Dolan and now consigned for auction by his granddaughter Lorraine Biggs.

A lead player at the Abbey in the 1920s who toured America with the company, Dolan also took on the roles of stage manager, general manager and director at the theatre.

Towards the end of his career he appeared in Hollywood movies such as Saints and Sinners (1949), the 1951 adaptation of Scrooge starring Alastair Sim and Captain Horatio Hornblower starring Gregory Peck, also 1951.

Dolan played the doctor in Hornblower and his own hand-annotated script features in the auction, as does an original still from Saints and Sinners.

When he died in Dublin at the age of 70 in 1954, Mr Dolan’s archive passed to his daughter Patricia, who kept it meticulously and continued to add to it.

Following Patricia’s death in 2000, it was inherited by her daughter Lorraine.

Lot 19: Twelve Nights at the Abbey Theatre, a signed limited edition book of drawings by Grace Plunkett.
Lot 19: Twelve Nights at the Abbey Theatre, a signed limited edition book of drawings by Grace Plunkett.

“My mother was meticulous how she kept everything,” said Lorraine, who lives in Uttoxeter, Staffordshire.

“It is such an eclectic collection – the Abbey Theatre has produced some amazing actors and many of the items are featured in reference books on the Abbey Theatre.

“It is also such a personal archive to my grandfather and his career in the theatre and movies.

“But it has been in my cupboard for so long now – I would like to see the collection to go somewhere where it can be seen and enjoyed by more people.”

The auction features a rare example of ‘The Abbey Handkerchief’, a large Irish linen printed handkerchief sold by the Irish Players at $1 each in 1913 as a fundraiser for a building to display Sir Hugh Lane’s gift to Ireland of great paintings in his collection.

Illustrated with a group scene of the players and individual portraits, the print has signed signatures in the cloth including WB Yeats.

Lot 20: Rare Abbey Theatre programmes and five issues of The Arrow, edited by WB Yeats.
Lot 20: Rare Abbey Theatre programmes and five issues of The Arrow, edited by WB Yeats.

There is also a collection of autographs, signed photographs of the players – including one with WB Yeats – plus signed photographs from James Cagney, Jack Dempsey, Shirley Temple and Jack Warner – the Dixon Of Dock Green star appeared in 1951’s Scrooge with Dolan and was a personal friend of the family.

An autograph book contains individual messages from stars such as Cyril Cusack, Richard Attenborough and Joe Loss and there are also Christmas cards plus portraits and photographs of Mr Dolan, including one taken while he was touring in Chicago.

A framed photograph shows the Abbey Theatre Irish Players outside the Broadway Theatre in Denver, Colorado, in 1932 and a copy of The Playgoer magazine from February 1933 documenting the Abbey Theatre Players’ performances at the Wilson Theatre in Detroit.

Lot 21 includes dozens of autographs, movie stills, letters, newspaper cuttings and books from the collection of distinguished Irish actor Michael J Dolan, plus Dolan’s personal hand-annotated script to the 1951 movie Captain Horatio Hornblower, starring Gregory Peck.
Lot 21 includes dozens of autographs, movie stills, letters, newspaper cuttings and books from the collection of distinguished Irish actor Michael J Dolan, plus Dolan’s personal hand-annotated script to the 1951 movie Captain Horatio Hornblower, starring Gregory Peck.

A framed cartoon featuring the principal players in a production of Noah, drawn by Sean Coughlan at the Abbey Theatre, includes Mr Dolan in the title role plus Cyril Cusack and Barry Fitzgerald, both of whose acting dynasties continue today.

The sale also includes Twelve Nights at the Abbey Theatre, a signed limited edition of drawings of performances by Grace Plunkett, issues of The Arrow magazine edited by WB Yeats from 1906, 1907 and 1909 and original programmes dating back to 1922.

The collection is expected to fetch £1,000 at auction, although bidding may rise significantly higher.

Rob French, ephemera specialist at Richard Winterton Auctioneers, said: “The Abbey Theatre is arguably Ireland’s leading cultural institution, operating through a pivotal time in the country’s history.

“When I first started going through the collection I thought it was a unique snapshot from a period when this great artistic institution was building up a strong reputation, especially in America, where its performances helped US audiences reconnect with their Irish heritage.

Lot 22 includes a cartoon featuring the Abbey Theatre’s production of Noah, a framed copy of a charcoal portrait of Michael J Dolan, a photograph of cast members from the 1949 movie Saints and Sinners and a framed photograph of The Abbey Theatre players outside the Broadway Theatre in Denver, Colorado, during a tour of the USA in 1932.
Lot 22 includes a cartoon featuring the Abbey Theatre’s production of Noah, a framed copy of a charcoal portrait of Michael J Dolan, a photograph of cast members from the 1949 movie Saints and Sinners and a framed photograph of The Abbey Theatre Irish Players outside the Broadway Theatre in Denver, Colorado, during a tour of the USA in 1932.

“But it is such an eclectic and comprehensive collection it was easy to go off at tangents and discover more of this wonderful history – from early programmes and drawings of performances to the personal elements relating to Michael Dolan and his links to Hollywood movies.

“What a bustling enterprise full of tremendous characters the Abbey must have been.”

View the online catalogue here

For auction, bidding, viewing and valuation enquiries, telephone Richard Winterton Auctioneers on 01543 251081 or email office@richardwinterton.co.uk.

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