Songs in the parlour: Victorian illustrated sheet music covers from the Bellingham papers

Over the past year I have revelled in exploring an extraordinary collection of illustrated sheet music donated in 1990 to Auckland Libraries by Mr John Bellingham, an enthusiastic life-long collector. The sheet music lies within the context of his larger collection focussing on theatre, ballet and music in New Zealand, from the late 1800s till the early 2000s. The Bellingham collection includes programmes, scrapbooks, photographs, publicity postcards from visiting artists, books, theatre journals and even a few recordings.

Listen to a conversation about some items from the collection here

Victorian illustrated sheet music covers provide a surprising window into a by-gone era. They document experiments in typography and lithography that were bold and creative. New technologies at the time enabled sheet music to be used as a means of mass communication for a growing middle class. The songs themselves can also be interpreted as a social comment of the times.

What surprised and delighted me was how comprehensive the sheet music collection is in its depth and coverage. Drawing from British, American, French and German sources, it includes colourful examples of some of the most important lithographers of the time such as Michael Hanhart, Alfred Concanen, Edward Taylor Paull and Henri Siebe.

Image: Cover from: Alfred Cellier. One Summer night in Munich: Waltz. London: Chappell, 1880s. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, NZMS 1141.

M. & N. Hanhart were a London lithographic publishing house founded by Michael and Nicholas Hanhart. The firm's heyday is considered to be from 1839 till 1882. Michael and Nicholas Hanhart published a wide range of material including book illustrations and lithographic sheet music covers. Their best work was in the field of large chromolithographs. The Hanharts used a complex layering of tint stones to produce work unique in colouration and tonal values. E.T. Paull, an American, was the first music publisher to use five-colour lithography for his sheet music. As a consequence, music published by his firm is now highly collectible and has caused a renewed interest in Paull not just as a lithographer but as a composer.

Image: Cover from: Edward Taylor Paull. The circus parade: march two-step. New York: E.T. Paull Music Company, 1904. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, NZMS 1141. 
Looking through the collection we can also see the social developments which took place before the music industry’s period of rapid growth in the 1870s. Women composers begin to appear, showing how conservatories and academies of music were beginning to offer an academic grounding in music to both boys and girls. Alongside the influence of the women’s suffrage movement, which was gaining momentum, we see the rise of the woman composer.

Image: Cover from: Mrs Norton. Not lost but gone before. London: Chappell, 1866. 
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, NZMS 1141.   

One such composer was Mrs Caroline Norton, an English feminist, social reformer, and author of the early and mid-nineteenth century as well as a song writer. She was important to the history of the drawing room ballad and set an example for other women to follow. She raised the status of women interested in composing the music, not just the lyrics, for popular songs. Notice that this cover is black and white which was deemed to be more appropriate than colour for sacred, religious songs.

Image: Cover from: Miss M. Lindsay. The bridge. London: Robert Crocks, 1863. 
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, NZMS 1141.  

Maria Lindsay was another very influential woman composer and one of the earliest women songwriters to make a commercial success of her craft. Interestingly she wrote secular ballads as 'Miss M. Lindsay' and sacred ballads as 'Mrs J. Worthington Bliss.' For middle class women, having the leisure time to compose was only part of the story. Women's music needed to be heard and this eventually led to the phenomenon of the professional performer. Scottish-born Marie Loftus was an actress, singer, mimic, vaudevillian and music hall performer in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She performed in England and America. Loftus appeared in films and on Broadway in the 1910s and 1920s. One can see that on the cover of the music below, her name is almost in bigger type than the title of the song. The composer, Felix McGlennon, is almost secondary.

Image: Cover from: Felix McGlennon. That is love. London: Francis Bros and Day, 1892. 
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, NZMS 1141.

With the 1870s development of the music printing industry, music became a lot more affordable and accessible to the middle classes. The pictorial title page became an important selling point in the commercialisation of the ballad. On title pages, it was almost as if composers were subservient to illustrators. Derek Scott mentions in his book 'The Singing Bourgeois':

“The rage for pictorial ballads has, of course, given impetus to purchasers, which must prove highly beneficial to all concerned. The composer becomes a kind of lacquey to the artist, and they are thus enabled to turn out of hand a very saleable sort of commodity – the picture itself being well worth the money, and the song illustrating the illustration in such a manner as almost to bring tears into the eyes of the susceptible.”
A significant part of the music in the Bellingham collection is for piano solo and is clearly made to be played at social dances and gatherings or in the drawing room. Included are examples of common dances of the time such as quadrilles, lancers, polkas, gallops, waltzes and mazurkas. This was spurred on by the important development and rapid popularisation of the piano as a household musical instrument of the middle class. The piano became the central figure in the household, accompanying a variety of different musical forms and styles of song, from sacred through to humorous. 

There is some strong New Zealand representation amongst the sheet music covering World War I and II. Apart from the war time songs though, there is little content by New Zealand composers in the Bellingham collection. However, there are many songs sung by artists, either as soloists or as part of a musical show, who toured or visited New Zealand.

Image: Walter Billows. Jeanell Waltz. Dunedin: Charles Begg, 1911.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, NZMS 1141.

Walter Billows was a well-known professional photographer from Whanganui. He enjoyed sports and took a keen interest in music. He was president of Dannevirke Orchestral Society. Billows composed the sweet song 'Jeanell' which appears to be the only copy in New Zealand with one other copy listed as being held at the British Library.

Image: Bert Rache. The Rivals Waltz. Sydney: Albert & Son, 1910.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, NZMS 1141.

Bert Rache was originally from Wellington, then moved to Sydney. This piece 'Rivals Waltz' seems to be commonly included in dance albums and to have been played by all the leading bands in Australasia.

Bellingham arranged his collection of sheet music thematically. Themes covered include the sea and sailing, royalty, Franz Lehar and his contemporaries, Honolulu, Americana and American Indian songs, Asian culture, songs from the South African War and songs from World War I and II.

Image: Charles D’Albert. The Pirates of Penzance quadrille on Arthur Sullivan’s opera. London: Chappell, 1880. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, NZMS 1141.

Gilbert and Sullivan are also well represented in the Bellingham collection. This wonderful musical duo provided a line of continuity between the ballad of the nineteenth century and those of the early twentieth century. They cleverly introduced innovations in content and form that directly influenced the development of musical theatre through the twentieth century. Various arrangements by other composers enabled Sullivan’s memorable melodies to echo through many a drawing room.

By the middle of the 1890s the British drawing-room ballad seemed to have reached its peak, getting more and more complex and demanding on the performer. Composers in the United States, however, took a different approach by producing ballads in a simple and sentimental style. American composer Harry Von Tilzer commented that the clatter of pianos sounding from the open windows reminded him of tin pans. And with that comment Tin Pan Alley was born in New York and the popular style ballads flowed. The constant drive was for speed of production followed by aggressive marketing in order to push sales. By the 1880s New York was the centre of music publishing in the United States. From this time there was a reversal of influence and it was the United States, not Britain, that became dominant in the commercial music industry.

Image: Harry Pease and Ed. Nelson. Pretty Kitty Kelly. Sydney: Nicholson’s, 1920.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, NZMS 1141.

This extraordinary collection of illustrated sheet music is the result of a lifetime of collecting by Mr Bellingham. It sheds light on musical development since the mid-1800s through to the 1960s and reveals information about society at the time. The songs and music were an effective way to communicate morals, reinforce worldviews and stir up patriotism. Music provided a career path for talented entertainers as well as being a profitable boon for publishers. Music and songs must have brought much joy to households, right in their drawing room.

View some of the gems from the Bellingham collection on display at Tāmaki Pātaka Kōrero | Central City Library, in the Special Collections reading room, level 2, for the month of November 2020.

Author: Marilyn Portman, Senior Librarian Music


Pearsall, Ronald. Victorian sheet music covers. David & Charles, 1972.