Gore was fascinated by the ballet, and in particular by the spectacular productions for which the Alhambra Theatre of Varieties in Leicester Square was famous (figs.1 and 2).1 The art critic Frank Rutter (1876–1937), one of his friends, recalled that the pictures which resulted from these visits were:
Magical paintings dancing with colour and movement, in which – unlike almost every other recent painter of ballets – Gore appeared to be absolutely unconscious that Degas had ever treated similar themes ... Degas, giant as he was, viewed the ballet with blasé, cynical eyes; Gore saw it quivering with wonder and delight. Never shall I forget going with him to Covent Garden when he saw the Russian Ballet for the first time. At the fall of the curtain he turned to me, his eyes shining with moisture, and whispered ‘I’ve often dreamt of such things – but I never thought I should see them!’2
Rutter was writing about Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes company, which performed in England for the first time in 1911. Dating from the year before this, Rule Britannia depicts the finale of the patriotic ballet Our Flag, which opened at the Alhambra on 20 December 1909 (fig.3). It was immensely popular and ran for twenty-three weeks. The star of the show was the Danish ballerina Britta Petersen, whom Gore shows here in her Union Jack tutu performing the final dance, ‘Rule Britannia’ (fig.4). Generally known as ‘Mlle Britta’, Petersen had been imported by the Alhambra to compete with the success of her fellow Dane, Adelene Genée, who danced at the rival Empire Theatre of Varieties in Leicester Square. Born on 30 October 1888, Petersen enrolled at the ballet school of the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen in October 1899, and graduated in 1904. She started as a dancer in the theatre’s corps de ballet in 1906, and left on 6 April 1908, the year she premiered at the Alhambra.3 The Dancing Times in 1915 published Mlle Britta’s photograph and, in the past tense, perhaps referring to her death or retirement, described her as ‘a Danish danseuse, who achieved considerable success at the Alhambra, and also at the Coliseum, and who was one of the first to introduce classic dancing into South Africa’.4
Description and studies
Frank Rutter, Some Contemporary Artists, London 1922, p.127. This book is dedicated to ‘S.F.G.’ [Spencer Frederick Gore] and ‘H.G.’ [Harold Gilman].
Information from Lilo Skaarup, Archives and Library, Royal Theatre, Copenhagen.
Dancing Times, June 1915, p.305; press cutting in the Theatre Museum collection.
Sketch, 9 September 1908; press cutting in the Theatre Museum collection.
All information from an Alhambra programme in the collection of the Theatre Museum for the week commencing 30 May 1910.
‘Alhambra Theatre’, Times, 14 October 1908, p.13.
‘Alhambra Theatre’, Times, 21 December 1909, p.10.
Sheffield Telegraph, 13 May 1909.
Sheffield Telegraph, 19 May 1909.
Reproduced in The New English Art Club Centenary Exhibition, exhibition catalogue, Christie’s, London 1986 (169), and Spencer Gore in Richmond, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Richmond 1996, p.15.
Reproduced in The Painters of Camden Town 1905–1920, exhibition catalogue, Christie’s, London 1988 (66).
Alfred Rich (1856–1921).
Spencer Gore, letter to John Doman Turner, 22 November 1910, private collection, no.29.
Spencer Gore, letter to John Doman Turner, 26 November 1910, private collection, no.30.
Walter Sickert, ‘A Perfect Modern’, New Age, 9 April 1914, p.718, in Anna Gruetzner Robins (ed.), Walter Sickert: The Complete Writings on Art, Oxford 2000, p.355.