John Byrne stage set design to be displayed in V&A Dundee
V&A Dundee will display a theatre set in the form of a giant pop-up book, designed and painted by Scottish artist John Byrne, in the new museum when it opens on Saturday 15 September.
Made in 1973, the book was the original stage set for The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, John McGrath’s influential play about the history and exploitation of the Highlands.
Measuring more than three by four metres when open and over two metres tall, it is made up of five pop-up scenes painted by Byrne, including a Highland landscape, a croft house, a poppy-strewn war memorial and a Native American tipi.
The compact design, made of cardboard, meant the set was cheap to make and could be transported on the top of a van and quickly set up in village halls as it toured around Scotland. The actors would turn the page during the play to reveal the next scene.
The pop-up book was acquired by the National Library of Scotland in 2009 and is the largest book in its collection. The Library has granted a 25-year loan of the work to V&A Dundee, which will be displayed in the museum’s permanent Scottish Design Galleries.
Philip Long, Director of V&A Dundee, said: “John Byrne’s striking pop-up book is a fantastic example of imaginative design. Not only was it made to be portable on the long trips between towns and villages across the Highland and Islands, it also added to the magic of the play. It is painted like a children’s book, which deliberately creates quite a juxtaposition with the hard-hitting subject matter of the play.
“Due to its sheer size there have been limited opportunities for the public to see this stage set after the original 1970s tour of the play, so we are delighted that people will be able to enjoy it when they visit V&A Dundee.”
V&A Dundee and the National Library of Scotland are also working together on a project to digitally record the pop-up book so people all over the world will be able to look through its pages.
A virtual 3D model of the stage set has been created by photographing each page from thousands of different angles. Members of the public can view this on the National Library of Scotland website.
Dr John Scally, National Librarian and Chief Executive of the National Library of Scotland, said: “It will be difficult to let this important part of our collection go after years of careful restoration. But that is the whole point of preservation – to enable future generations to enjoy items of great national and cultural significance.
“We can’t think of a more fitting place for the stage-set to be on display than V&A Dundee. But for anyone who won’t be able to see it in person, we are thrilled to say we digitised the stage-set so anyone in Scotland – or indeed the world – can view a 3D model online. As we race to have a third of our collection in digital format by our centenary in 2025, this is one of the highlights.”
The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil was the first play to be performed by the theatre group known as 7:84 (Scotland).
The company used theatre as a platform to tell stories about the Highland Clearances, ruthless landowners and the North Sea oil boom, taking the play to village halls across the Highlands and Islands. During the first run more than 30,000 people came to see them perform.
Playwright John McGrath approached Byrne to make the pop-up book after seeing a giant pair of welly boots the artist had made for Billy Connolly’s The Great Northern Welly Boot Show.
Since acquiring the pop-up book, the National Library of Scotland’s conservators have carried out repairs and structural adjustments to preserve the stage-set beyond its intended life-span and enable it to go on long-term display.
The pop-up book will be displayed in V&A Dundee’s permanent Scottish Design Galleries which will include around 300 beautiful and innovative objects from the V&A’s world-famous collections of art, design and performance, together with objects from other lenders.
The galleries, which will be free to enter, will explore what is unique about Scotland’s design landscape and will represent a wide range of design disciplines from the decorative arts – including furniture, textiles, metalwork and ceramics – to fashion, architecture, engineering and digital design.
V&A Dundee will also feature an ambitious international programme of changing exhibitions showcasing the very best of design from around the world, as well as new design commissions and fast-changing installations.
V&A Dundee opens on Saturday 15 September.