The Macready/Dickens Screen

The History of the Screen

The Sherborne House Screen is a most remarkable artefact. Created in the 1850's in Sherborne-according to family report, by the leading novelist of the day Charles Dickens (1812 - 1870) -and the leading Shakespearean actor William Charles Macready (1793-1873) (they were close friends) in Sherborne House where the former was a frequent visitor. It consists of four leaves, each 6' 3" x 2' 5" x 1.2" and is made of deal. It is likely to have been made by a local craftsman. Each of the eight panels was covered with some 50 art pictures. Such "scrap screens" were the height of fashion between 1840 and 1870 but few if any can compare in scale and artistic input.

After Macready's death, the screen remained in his family, spending most of its time in the family house in London but going to Paris for a while when the family lived there. Finally it went with Sir Nevil Macready to the White House in Odiham. It was from there that he donated the screen to the Friends of Sherborne House on the understanding that it would go to the house of its origin and be on public display.

When asked to write something about the family screen, he said

My great grandfather William Charles Macready and Charles Dickens were close friends and they amused themselves in their leisure hours by sticking pictures of contemporary interest until nearly all the surface was covered.
I recall the screen having pride of place in the drawing-room of my family's London house when I was a child in the 1930's.

The Pictures

The Paddock Project

There are around 50 pictures on each of the eight panels, all works of art, reproductions of paintings, etchings and lithographs. It is clear that the two men took great care not just in selecting the pictures but also in their artistic arrangement according to subject and symmetry. Each set of pictures must surely have been laid out carefully beforehand and placed in such a manner as to satisfy them both before sticking started.

Much work has been done by Catherine Waters and Rosa Coles from the University of Kent to identity the pictures. They developed a website - the Sherborne House Macready Screen - in order to facilitate public display of the screen, where individual (pre-restoration) images from each panel may be viewed online in close up.

Approximately 70% of the 480 images on the screen have been identified, most often from their reproduction in early nineteenth-century gift-books and annuals, such as the The Keepsake, The Cabinet of Modern Art and Literary Souvenir and Fisher's Drawing-Room Scrapbook. It is no surprise that many of them depict famous actors, writers and artists from the early modern period through to the mid-nineteenth century. But other important historical figures, events and places also feature, making the screen a unique window onto the cultural and historical interests of the families who made it and of their time.

The Cleaning and Conservation of the Screen

The screen had suffered much in its long life -the high spirits of children, the scratching of dogs, and above all the smoking habits of the family and their friends. To pay for the cleaning and conservation an appeal was launched for 20,000 which achieved it target very quickly indeed. It reached 22,000 which includes a sum specifically for the screen's presentation to the public.

The work was carried out by Rebecca Donnan whose speciality it is It was a long task involving long hours of labour over several months. The achievement is stunning, the transformation remarkable.

The Screen's Recent History and its Future

The long delay in the re-opening of Sherborne House has meant that opportunities for the public display of the screen have been few. Most of the time it has been in storage, but out of the blue came the request from The Museum of Modern Art in Edinburgh to include in their Exhibition entitled Cut and Paste - 400 Years of Collage running from July to October 2019. It proved to be a sensation and as one spectator remarked: it steals the show.

The Friends of Sherborne House, St Andrew's, Westbury, Sherborne DT9 3RA

info@sherbornehousedorset.org.uk