Programme designed by Vanessa Bell for Lytton Strachey's A Son of Heaven


Dating from 1925, this is a theatre programme for a play by Lytton Strachey entitled A Son of Heaven: A Tragic Melodrama. The cover is designed by Vanessa Bell. Strachey and Bell were both part of the Bloomsbury Group, named after the area of London in which this circle of artists and writers lived and worked. The Bloomsbury connection extends throughout the programme, which includes advertisements for the Hogarth Press and for Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell’s decorating venture. Grant also designed scenery and costumes for the play.

The programme advertises two charity performances at the Scala Theatre that were to be held in July of that year to raise funds for the London Society for Women’s Service. The Society addressed ‘the problems of women’s employment and unemployment’. Philippa Strachey, sister to Lytton, was the Secretary of the Women’s Service House, where information, training and advice was provided to women workers free of charge.

Vanessa Bell’s design

Bell’s modern design features a bold border of block coral-red. It is broken up by mauve circles, a reccurring motif in Bell’s work. This frames a background of mauve dots that reveals, in relief, ‘A Son of Heaven’ in Chinese characters. A Son of Heaven is set during the Boxer Rebellion in the Winter Palace of the Chinese imperial court at Beijing, and follows the struggle for power between Empress Dowager Cixi and the Guangxu Emperor.

Who did the programme belong to?

The programme is part of the Higgens Papers which were acquired by the British Library in 2007, consisting of Grace Higgens’ diaries, letters and photographs. Born in Norfolk in 1903, Higgens worked for the artist Vanessa Bell and her family for over 50 years as housemaid, nurse, cook and finally housekeeper at Charleston, the farmhouse located in the South Downs of east Sussex.

It’s likely that Higgens attended a performance of A Son of Heaven. Her maiden name, ‘Grace Germany’, is written in pen on the inside of the front cover.

Full title:
Higgens Papers. Vol. lx. Theatre programmes; 'The Son of Heaven: A tragic melodrama' by Lytton Strachey, including advertisements for Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell as decorators and for the literary works of the Bloomsbury group, 1925
Pamphlet / Ephemera / Advertisement / Illustration / Image
Vanessa Bell, Scala Theatre
Usage terms

Scala Theatre: This material is in the Public Domain.

Vanessa Bell: © Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Except as otherwise permitted by your national copyright laws this material may not be copied or distributed further.

Held by
British Library
Add MS 83257 A

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