The Ashcroft Theatre Safety Curtain

Henry Bird and his Theatrical Mural on the
Ashcroft Theatre Safety Curtain, Croydon

The Ashcroft Theatre’s safety curtain was painted by Henry Bird (1909-2000). Henry was born and died in Northampton. He was much influenced by Rembrandt, with whom he shared the same birthday, 15th July. Exhibitions of his work have included those held at the Royal College of Art; the Society of Mural Painters; the Tate Gallery; the Victoria & Albert Museum; and Lambeth Palace. Henry Bird was the subject of a TV documentary by Anglia in 1981.

Henry began studying part time at the Northampton School of Art when he was only 11, taking menial jobs to pay his way. He eventually gained a scholarship to the Royal College of Art, where he won all the major prizes including the Painting and Portrait Prize; the Continuation Scholarship; and the Royal College’s highest award, the Travelling Scholarship.

After graduating, Henry earned an income through painting decorative church interiors and also Inn signs for Ernest Fell. He became a lecturer in art history at the University College of Wales in Aberystwyth in 1936. Soon after taking up this post he married the actress Freda Jackson (1907-1990), whom he had met at Northampton Repertory Theatre (now known as The Royal Theatre), and where the company included Errol Flynn, who was reputed to have been Freda’s lover.

Henry and Freda’s careers began to run in parallel. After 5 years Henry lecturing at Aberystwyth, Henry became head scene painter in charge of the studio producing sets for the Old Vic and Sadler's Wells. Then in 1945 he became the resident designer at the Embassy Theatre until he returned to Northampton to take up a teaching post at the School of Art in 1950. For the last 50 years of his life Henry worked mainly for the adornment of his own county and painted a number of substantial mural schemes in the area.

A major mural was his fire curtain for the Royal Theatre in Northampton (1977). Henry regarded the words ‘safety curtain’ as instructions from the Fire Authority and preferred the words Sipario dipinto (painted Separator) for the work. This mural includes a series of vignette portraits of those who had been involved at the theatre, among them Henry’s wife Freda and Errol Flynn - but with each on the opposite side of the proscenium!

Fairfield’s management were so impressed with the Royal Theatre’s Sipario dipinto that they commissioned Henry to paint a mural on the Ashcroft Theatre’s Safety Curtain in Croydon. Local actor Peter Clapham (1925-2003) was at the forefront of activities and the work was completed in 1982. So as not confuse it with Northampton’s Sipario dipinto, the Croydon work was called The Henry Bird Theatrical Mural on the Ashcroft Theatre Safety Curtain, thus keeping the artistic work separate from the requirements from the Fire Authority!

Dame Peggy Ashcroft (1907-1991) appears as Ophelia in the centre of the mural. Her portrait is also included among the medallions painted at the bottom, depicting some of the many famous actors, writers and producers who have been associated with Croydon over the years. The old theatres of Croydon and the travelling fit-up theatres that were long ago erected on the original Fair Field are shown at the sides of the mural. Other theatrical images and symbols depicting Croydon, the theatrical arts and the passage of time, are included elsewhere on the work. Henry Bird signed this theatrical mural on Grimaldi’s goose, as he regarded this particular work as his ‘swan song’ in terms of major projects.

The Ashcroft Theatre Club was one of the main contributors to the mural project and promoted the theatre’s lottery appeal to raise funds. The lottery itself was drawn by the French singer and actor Sasha Distel (1933-2004) and Henry Bird marked the completion of his work with a presentation in the Arnhem Gallery. Peter Clapham summed things up with the comment “Henry Bird’s Safety Curtain Design for the Ashcroft Theatre is a celebration of the world of theatre and a link with Croydon’s own rich theatrical history”.

When after almost twenty years of constant use the mural began to show significant signs of wear and tear, the Ashcroft Theatre Club drew this to Fairfield’s attention. The Club paid for its restoration, and the work was undertaken by Lis Bird, Henry’s daughter-in-law. As the Club Chairman, Patricia Lawrence put it, “Members of the Ashcroft Theatre Club believe that this is a unique legacy, one worthy of preserving, so that it can be enjoyed by theatre-goers for many years to come. We hope that you will enjoy it too.”

 

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