Wilton’s Music Hall is a grand Victorian music hall in East London. In the 1860s and 70s, it hosted performances by acrobats, dancers, singers, comedians and novelty acts, who came to entertain local residents as well as sailors, merchants and dock workers.
The building has been astonishingly well preserved – the paint work may have faded but its spiral columns, barrel-vaulted ceiling and horseshoe-shaped gallery remain in tact.
The hall was taken over by the East London Methodist Mission in the late 1880s, who occupied it until the 1950s. It was later used as a rag warehouse and lay derelict from the 1970s until the mid 1990s but was occasionally used to shoot films and music videos. Promos for Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Relax, Kate Bush’s Wow and Annie Lennox’s No More I Love You were all shot there. It was also used to shoot scenes from Mr. Selfridge and Suffragette.
The building was recently refurbished with funding from the National Lottery’s Heritage Fund and is now a multi-purpose arts and cultural space, hosting plays, concerts, weddings and private functions. Wilton’s has also been running a series of learning and participation programmes to educate the local community about the building’s past and bring more visitors through the doors.
The latest of these educational projects is a collaboration between Wilton’s, New North Press and Year 6 pupils at Bigland Green Primary School in Stepney. The studio has printed, mounted and framed a series of playbill-style posters designed by pupils using wood and metal type from its extensive collection.
Posters reveal facts about the building and local trivia about the surrounding area. They also feature comments from children, who provided some funny and touching statements in response to facts:
Children designed the posters in a series of workshops with Wilton’s and New North Press after visiting the music hall. New North Press’s Richard Ardagh and Beatrice Bless then reproduced children’s designs using presses dating back to the 1860s. The pair followed pupils’ instructions on everything from type placement to colours, resulting in some vibrant and charming posters.
“The children’s designs were so colourful and full of energy and we really wanted to be true to that,” says Ardagh.
New North Press has also created a series of signs helping guide visitors around the venue. Signs were created using slab serif type and – like the posters – were produced as they would have been in the Victorian era. Each one was printed on to fabric which was then treated with two coats of fire-proof varnish and mounted on to MDF, before being placed in wooden frames with gilded edges.
“We wanted to use slab serifs as we felt they were in keeping with the time period of the building, and it’s something we have a lot of widths and sizes of,” says Ardagh. Most of the signs were hung using existing holes in the brickwork – though some have also been hung from the ceiling.
With signage, Ardagh says he wanted to avoid creating anything twee or kitsch, while being sympathetic to the style of the building. Toilet signs proved particularly challenging – with Wilton’s was keen to use modern symbols that would be universally understood, Ardagh had to devise a way to make them feel in keeping with the other signage. The solution was to use antique framing devices, adding a playful period detail.
The poster project was run by Wilton’s learning and participation manager David Graham and is the second collaboration between Wilton’s and New North Press – the studio previously created a letterpress poster to commemorate the building’s 150th anniversary, illustrating facts from its past.
It is one of a series of educational programmes launched by Wilton’s over the past year. The music hall has also run a young writer’s workshop, worked with younger children to create portraits of performers from Wilton’s past and has been co-running projects with the nearby Dickens Museum. Around 4,000 people have taken part in programmes so far, including schoolchildren from across London and Essex.
“[The posters and signs] look so at home at Wilton’s, it’s like they have always been here!” says Graham. “Learning and participation work is key to Wilton’s ethos and seeing the children’s research and design work immortalised in the building is truly wonderful.”