Clarkson's Wigs, Wardour Street, London
Now The Wong Kei Chinese Restaurant, 4143 Wardour Street
Above - The former home of Clarkson's Wigs, Wardour Street, London - Now The Wong Kei Restaurant - Photo M.L. September 2009.
People passing by the Wong Kei Chinese Restaurant on Wardour street, London today may be intrigued by the plaques on either side of the building's entrance which point towards it having been the home of something quite different in years gone by.
On the left side of the door is a plaque which reads: 'Sarah Bernhardt Laid The Foundation Stone Of This Building 1904.'
up on the wall of the building is a modern plaque which explains what
was going on in this building a hundred years ago. The Plaque reads
'Willy Clarkson 1861-1934
Theatrical Wigmaker lived and died here.'
The Business of Clarkson's Wigs actually began in premises at 45 Wellington Street in 1833 and Willy Clarkson, whose full name was William Berry Clarkson, took over the business from his father after he died in 1878. He was so successful that he had new premises built in Wardour Street, designed by H. M. Wakley, in 1904.
Right - A clock on the wall of Clarkson's Wigs reads 'Costumier Perruquier.' - Photo ML September 2009.
The foundation stone for Clarkson's new premises on Wardour Street was laid by the famous actress Sarah Bernhardt but although there is also a Coping Stone on the building supposedly laid by Henry Irving in 1905, it is thought that although he had agreed to do it, it is unlikely that he actually ended up laying the stone himself. Irving was not in London much that year, and, as this was the year of his death and he was not very well for much of it too, he probably could not find the time for the ceremony. Willy Clarkson, who had had the plaque made by then anyway, probably ended up laying it himself. There is no mention of Irving laying the plaque in contemporary newspapers.
Clarkson's Wigs was not just a Wig Makers but also a Theatrical Costumier and Property Maker. The ERA printed an interview with Willy Clarkson in their 10th of November 1900 edition in which all was revealed about the man and his business:
Let us for a brief space get to the "wiggeries." Not to know Willy Clarkson and his doings is to be out of the theatrical world, for Willy Clarkson, with the bright and easy (though sometimes anxious) manner is ever hovering "before and behind." Scarcely any big production in London to undertaken without the aid of the owner of the Wellington-street wiggeries.
He is the very front of all our unoffending, and needs no grim visaged war to smooth his wrinkled brow. Equally at home In the Gay City as he is in the English metropolis, he owns for patrons all the great artists of the earth, including Madame Bernhardt, Coquelin, Madame Rejane, Madame Melba, and all the European stars.
Right - An autochrome stereoview of Willy Clarkson by J. Innes of Challoner Street W. (Autochromes were early colour photographs) - Courtesy the Nigel Maister Collection.
To wander round Mr Clarkson's premises while he is alternately giving orders in English and French and politely attending to an uncertain customer who is not quite sure what she wants, to have dreams and visions of Guy Fawkes, Fairyland and pantomime world. Wigs and masks are in profusion, while of make-up pastes there is no end. It is not generally known, perhaps, that it was Hermann Vezin, I think, who was, if not the first, one of the first to make up with grease in this country. Previously, everybody had to make up "dry," when the hare's foot and hole amenia were the necessary adjuncts to the actor's dressing-case. Nowadays the hare's foot, at any rate in the dressing-rooms of London theatres, is a rare bird, and has fled with the busy feet of time and modern advancement. Alas! that it should be so, but grease paint was the invention of a German, and, for a long time, "made in Germany," was the only wear. Now, however, the best grease paints - and you can have them in all shades - are undoubtedly made in England.
Above - A page from a Clarkson's Wigs Catalogue Circa 1885 - Courtesy Jennie Bisset
"Will you walk into my parlour?'' insinuates Mr Clarkson in his blandest way; and we walk. Pictures everywhere and photographs and testimonials, and one gazes upon the actor of the past and of the present until one gets dazzled and feels like squinting. "Here is my sanctum, which, between you and me, is more sacred to other people than to myself, for I am rarely at home. I like to attend to all the chief business myself. When a leading actor tells me he is going to create a new part - a part, perhaps, historical or imaginary, but often that has never been done on the stage before, then I get a rough idea of what is required we set to work to design.
the general public a wig upon an actor's head is just a wig, and nothing
more. There is the actor and there is the wig. Of course, it suits the
character or the character fits the wig, just as you please. But - and
allow me to say but twice - there are wigs and wigs. Wigs, like men,
have character. To simply make a wig, say, for an ordinary old man,
is a mere nothing, if it is only a wig. But - once more - but every
man, from rogue and rapscallion to prince and pauper, has some peculiarity
about the hair. Even the brainless dude, whose name is Legion, has a
slight diversity here and there. And it is in the peculiarity of the
wig that the man, on the stage at his first entrance, so to speak, is
foreshadowed. I don't refer to the casual curly wigs notifying that
the wearer thereof is light-hearted, say, and perhaps is little bit
of a devil. Though, in parenthesis, you never find in real life, amongst
Englishmen anyhow, a downright villain or rascal whose hair curls. Ever
Our muttons are gutting cold. Character in wigs is my study. Each individual has some peculiarity, and that peculiarity is almost invariably indicated by the style or fashion of his hair, So in making wigs we bear this in mind as much as possible. Of course the clever actor outlines the kind of wig he requires, but when we know the part, it never comes amiss to make a suggestion. And usually our suggestions go into our wigs.
I think the study of hair, and how men have it cut or don't have it cut, would prove very interesting. As a man's hair is so is his mind - but the difficulty would be to form your basis - to fix the fundamental idea, as in physiology, from which you are to start and go forward.
Mr Clarkson talks most enthusiastically about the wigs
he makes and the art of make-up. From the theatrical point of view we
all know what comes from the Wellington-street house, but Mr Clarkson
does not confine himself to the stage. Scotland-yard calls for
Above - An advertisement for Clarkson's Theatrical Wigs - From the ERA, March 1857
"Wigs," says Mr Clarkson, "should be natural
to this house, for it has been associated with the art since the days
of William IV. My father began here in 1833, and since 1878, when he
died, I have carried on the business. And the business, I may say without
Wigs off the stage? yes, naturally; I mean, of course, that is to say, as naturally as they can be made. Many people off the stage (I refer to the general public) wear wigs and toupees. Nature or illness has been unkind to them, and we supply the deficiency. Some men can wear a wig and you would never know. Others, somehow, do let the fact be patent." To enumerate the multifarious calls upon Mr Clarkson would be absurd. He is the recognised "universal provider."
Above - An advertisement for Clarkson's Wigs and Lillie Powder - From the ERA, November 1889
"Make-up,'' continues Mr Clarkson" has made the most marvellous strides the past few years. At this time of year, by the way, one of our most important departments is the marking of properties' - property heads, as you may judge for yourself." And we judged, and were amazed at the originality and ingenuity displayed. Indeed, everything at Mr Clarkson's place, including Mr Clarkson himself, greatly impressed us; and we left with a distinct feeling of having added a little more to a small store of knowledge.
Above - An Indenture for the apprenticeship of Louisa Taylor to William Clarkson, Wig Maker, in 1886 - Courtesy David Sweetman, Great Grandson of Louisa Taylor, who, according to the 1911 census at the age of 38, was still working as a Wig Maker.
Willy Clarkson goes to court over Sunday Working for Women
PANTOMIME COSTUME MAKING.
At Bow-street, on Wednesday, Mr William Clarkson, costumier and wig maker, of Wellington-street and White Hart-street, was summoned before Sir John Bridge, under the Factory and Workshops Act, 1878, section 21, chap. 16, which makes it an offence to employ a woman in a factory on a Sunday.
Mr Blenkinsopp appeared in support of the summonses, which were twelve in number, and Mr De Fleury appeared for the defendant, who was represented by his manager, and admitted that an offence had been committed.
Mr Blenkinsopp stated that at 11'15 on the morning of Sunday, Dec. 26th, Mr John Henry Crabtree, one of Her Majesty's inspectors of factories, went to the defendant's premises in White Hart-street and there found fifteen women engaged in making pantomime costumes.
Sir John BridgeWere they old enough to decide for themselves as to whether they would like to work?
Mr BlenkinsoppQuite old enough, but if they had refused to work they might have been discharged. In cases of this kind women have not always got a free hand. This was the day after Christmas Day, and some of them might have preferred to go into the country to see their friends. Sunday is, of course, a sacred day, and people should be allowed to rest.
Sir John BridgeI quite agree with you. The only question is whether this was not an exceptional case, the Sunday falling between Christmas Day and the opening of the pantomime season. If everyone was supposed to be at rest, why was the inspector at work?
Mr Crabtree, the inspector referred to, gave evidence as to finding fifteen women at work on the defendant's premises on Sunday, Dec. 26th. He afterwards ascertained that they worked from ten in the morning till six in the evening.
Sir John BridgeDid the women seem annoyed at having to work ?
The WitnessNo, but their feelings on that point may have been mixed.
Sir John BridgeI suppose they get extra wages for this work ?
The Defendant's ManagerYes, sir.
Mr De Fleury said the defendant sent a large basket of pantomime clothes into the country, but owing to the great traffic on the railway it was not delivered. Consequently he had to send a second lot, or there would have been a fiasco at the theatre concerned. It was in consequence of this that the women were employed. 'They did not object. In fact, they rather liked it.
Sir John Bridge remarked that this was an exceptional casethe Sunday falling between two holidays and, perhaps, it would have been as well if the inspector had put the telescope to the other eye. Under the circumstances he would only impose a fine of 1s. with respect to each of the twelve summonses.
Mr Blenkinsopp explained that the prosecution had cost £3 9s, 6d, and Sir John Bridge ordered the defendant to pay that amount, having first obtained the assurance of the defendant's manager that it would make no difference to the women's wages.
I would like to thank Brent Fernandez and Jennie Bisset for their help and contributions whilst preparing this page on Clarkson's Wigs for the site in 2009.
Please note that the northern part of Wardour Street was originally named in the 1680s after Edward Wardour but the southern part, where Clarkson's Wigs was built in 1904, had been known as Princes Street until 1878, after this the whole street became Wardour Street, and remains so today - Thanks to Graham Hoadly for this information, who also writes: 'I have a jolly, if not particularly scholarly book called "The Strange Life of Willy Clarkson" written by Harry J. Greenwall and published by John Long Limited in 1936.
The writer describes the tragic circumstances of Clarkson's death in 1934, aged seventy four; he was found on the floor in his nightshirt with a deep gash in his forehead from which he never recovered. Greenwall hints of Clarkson's "effeminacy", his "sexual kink" and blackmail. He does however state that Clarkson was engaged for seven years to a Jenny Glover, who eventually married someone else. He writes that at his death his diamond ring and diamond collar stud were missing along with £250 in notes and gold that he kept in an escritoire. In his foreword, dated July 1935, Greenwall writes:
"Difficulties arose when arrangements were made to compile this book because of the number of sensational lawsuits arising from the death of Willy Clarkson and from certain events which preceded his death. These matters are being dealt with in the Law Courts, and so cannot be discussed here. I am making no attempt to defend the reputation of a dead man, but I am trying to picture a very colourful personage who, for so many years was a prominent figure in London life. His life and death were indeed strange, and I will leave it at that."
Greenwall writes that Clarkson's father, William Clarkson was apprenticed to a Court wig-maker and started his own business in Vinegar Yard, Drury Lane.
In the 1861 census Willy Clarkson is three weeks old and living with his father and aunt Maria Berry at 45 Wellington Street. He is still there with his Aunt in 1881, and as head of the household in 1891. I imagine therefore Willy Clarkson spent all his working life at either 45 Wellington Street or the Wardour Street premises. - Graham Hoadly.
Archive newspaper reports on this page were collated and kindly sent in for inclusion by B.F.