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The G.B.L. Wilson Photographic Archive at the Royal Academy of Dance
George Buckley Laird Wilson, known as 'GB' to his friends, studied science at Cambridge and was an engineer by profession. His interest in ballet was inspired in the 1920s by a visit to the Diaghilev ballet and he became an enthusiastic follower of Colonel de Basil's company during the 1930s. In the early 1940s, Wilson's commitment to ballet was secured when he befriended the young Beryl Grey and it was through her that he was introduced to key figures in the ballet world: Arnold Haskell, Ninette de Valois and Marie Rambert.
Haskell was a distinguished writer on ballet and became an important influence on Wilson, introducing him to the academic side of the ballet world. In 1946 he proposed that Wilson be elected as Vice-Chairman of the Royal Academy Dancing's Production Club Committee, and in 1948 appointed him as an associate editor of his Ballet Annual publication. Haskell recognised Wilson's 'encyclopaedic knowledge' and recommended him to Penguin publishers as a suitable editor for their proposed ballet dictionary. After many years of dedicated research the first edition of Wilson's Dictionary of Ballet was published in 1957, and went on to be revised and republished in hardback twice in 1961 and 1974.
Wilson's enthusiasm for ballet and his quest for knowledge took him beyond the UK and into the main ballet centres of Europe. A car owner since 1931, Wilson would often go out of his way to ferry passengers around in his favoured 'Rover' cars. Autograph books containing a photo and message from all of the professional dancers who travelled in his cars provide wonderful documentary evidence of the extent of his friendships and his generosity. Wilson amassed a total of 24 of these 'visitors' books between 1949 and the early 1980s. Included are dancers from many countries, and famous names such as Rudolf Nureyev, Gelsey Kirkland, Maurice Bejart, Bronislava Nijinska, George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Moira Shearer, Peter Schaufuss and William Forsythe. These books and their accompanying index (meticulously compiled by Wilson himself) form part of the archive left to the Royal Academy of Dance.
Wilson's insider knowledge and contacts with the ballet companies of Europe enabled him to act as a careers adviser to students graduating from the Royal Ballet School, helping them to find places in companies abroad, often driving them there as well. He was also a librarian for the Royal Ballet School (from 1971); Curator and founding committee member of the British Theatre Museum from 1957; and ballet critic for the Jewish Chronicle from 1965. Despite such dedication to ballet and the arts, Wilson never abandoned his scientific background and in 1954 he was appointed as guide-lecturer and then Deputy Keeper for the Department of Civil and Mechanical Engineering at the Science Museum. He held this post until his retirement in 1975
However, it was Wilson's interest in photography and his friendships with dancers that have led to the existence of this rich photographic ballet archive. A keen photographer since childhood, Wilson began photographing ballet in 1941. His enthusiasm and his ability to build lasting friendships gave him access to dancers not only in performance situations but also off-stage, in rehearsals and at social functions. Once the Second World War was over, Wilson's photographs began to appear in publications such as The Ballet Annual and Ballet Today and in 1957 he began his regular 'Off-Stage' column in the Dancing Times which continued until his death in 1984.
Sources and Further Information:
Anon. (1984) Obituary: G.B.L. Wilson. Dance and Dancers, October, p. 39.
Cecil-Smith, Fiona (1984) The Grand Tour: An Audition Guide to Europe. Dancing Times, November, pp. 125-126.
Clarke, Mary (1984) Obituary: G.B.L. Wilson. Dancing Times, September, p. 1011.
Guest, Ivor (1985) In Memoriam: G.B.L. Wilson. Dancing Times, April, pp. 592-594
Haskell, Arnold L. (1951) In His True Centre: An Interim Autobiography. London: Adam & Charles Black
Haskell, Arnold (1972) Balletomane at Large: An Autobiography. London: Heinemann
Morris, Geraldine (1983) The Many Faces of G B L Wilson. Dancing Times, July, pp. 780-781.
Wilson, G.B.L. (1974) A Dictionary of Ballet. Third edition. London: Adam & Charles Black