Theatres of illusion

Giuseppe Badiali, ‘A mausoleum’ (RIBA Drawings Collection)

Stage designs
by Wynne Jeudwine.
Country Life Books, 1968.

If we may accept the definition of fantasy as the act or art of imagining impossible or improbable things, then its manifestation comes in all kinds of shapes and sizes, manners and places. Long before moving images on a screen one way to experience a fantasy world was to enjoy it in what the author of this volume terms “the theatre of illusion”.

A key element for the theatre’s visualisation, which steadily developed through the 16th and 17th centuries, was stage design. Graphic art specialist Wynne Jeudwine tells us that the theatre of illusion was concerned “not so much to reflect and enhance the mood of the drama as to create a sense of wonder,” with its ingenious perspective, colour effects and created spaces for movement.

During what the author terms “the years of glory”, between 1640 and 1730, set designers attempted to build on and outdo their predecessors and contemporaries; and though only their drawings remain (most of those in this book chosen from the collections of the Royal Institute of British Architects) these sketches have merits as works of graphic art. We nevertheless have to work hard to imagine the impossible or improbable things that may have once been conjured up within their material if illusory forms.

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