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‘What a bright beam we had cast into their lives’: Exploring the Papers of Priscilla Staples (Beecham) 1947–2018

Volunteer Anna Tomkinson writes about her work on the Priscilla Staples (Beecham) Papers:

Photograph of Jeff Nuttall and Priscilla Staples (née Beecham). Photographer unknown. The University of Manchester Library.

Priscilla Staples née Beecham (stage name Rose McGuire) was born on 19 July 1947 and was the creative partner and long-term mistress of Jeff Nuttall. Beecham’s and Nuttall’s worlds collided in mid-1960s London when the capital was undergoing a countercultural revolution. Beecham was seventeen when she embarked on an eight-year relationship with Nuttall. During this time, Beecham studied English at Nottingham Univeristy from 1966-1969 at Nuttall’s encouragement. Yet it was outside of academia where Beecham made her mark, collaborating with Nuttall on The People Show and The Jack Show that exploded onto the underground scene in 1972-74, performing everywhere from Yorkshire to Amsterdam. (During this period she went by the name Rose McGuire which is how she will be described in the remainder of this blog.)  The People Show and it’s off-shoot, The Jack Show, was influenced by Surrealism, Dadaism and absurdity with a preoccupation with all things sexual and scatological and was conveyed with merry aplomb before a disbelieving audience. Theatre broke free from its buildings and went out into the streets, telephone boxes and public toilets. This was the era of the anti-theatre movement which broke all the rules by actively involving and provoking the audience.

The University of Manchester Library was fortunate enough to acquire the collection through Dick Wilcocks who, after visiting the Off Beat: Jeff Nuttall and the International Underground exhibition at the Library in 2016, gathered up fragmentary pieces of ephemera such as photographs and drafted scripts when he visited McGuire in 2017. The collection is fragmentary and repetitious in character, featuring multiple versions of the same script.  This usefully allows readers to witness its growth and progress. This collection is important as it gives women a voice in the countercultural scene, depicting them as active agents rather than simply muses.

The physical collections are complemented beautifully by the oral history interview that Dick Wilcocks conducted with Rose McGuire in 2017. The interview describes how when she initially met Nuttall she thought him a ‘pompous prick’ who looked like a character out of a Dickens novel, before she saw him again in a club, and changed her mind. A colourful picture is also painted of other countercultural figures. Alexander Trocchi was ‘gorgeous but all over the place’ and William Burroughs ‘looked like a lizard.’

The aim of 1970s performance art was to regurgitate society. More active than reform, it believed in evolution, focusing on how the imagination could make it possible to think beyond what Nuttall believed were the ‘bland’ politics of the day.  Better Books, an avant-garde bookstore managed by Nuttall’s friend, Bob Cobbing, was at the forefront of this movement, hosting exhibitions and happenings. In this hive of creativity, art was created that thought beyond societal norms and adopted a framework of the ‘aesthetics of obscenity.’ This explains the theory behind many of the pieces in this unique collection.

A prime example that exhibits the abandonment of aesthetic norms is a second-hand notebook which once belonged to a person called Annie Collins. It is a cloth-bound volume with writing from numerous owners overlapping, including everything from classic British recipes to algebraic equations to scrawled children’s drawings. Rose McGuire presumably used this book to work through ideas for her Jack Shows and other creative endeavours. Drawings include a red dancing monkey with birds, cats and trees all portrayed dancing in a way not dissimilar to a pagan ritual or cult. Another drawing depicts a face in which the nose is replaced by a yellow bird. The drawings often include motifs of animal which perhaps evoke carnal connotations.

Painted illustration from a notebook in the Priscilla Staples (Beecham) Papers. The University of Manchester Library.

‘Annie Cousins’ notebook provides a space in which McGuire could explore various dark and surreal voices. In line with the Dadaist tradition that McGuire and Nuttall aspired to achieve in their art, the book highlights the importance of combining the perverse with the nonsensical to awaken society to its reality and strive to imagine change. Yet not everyone was ready to have their imagination challenged. A hand-written slip of paper in the collection appears to give a reaction to a Jack Show from the early 1970s. It demonstrates the opposition that they faced from audiences, in this occasion they are described as  ‘dirty, filthy homos’ who deserve to have ‘buckets of human (shit) [thrown] in [their faces].’  It is, of course possible, that the note itself was part of the show!

While the Priscilla Staples Collection comprises only a small box of material it vividly illustrates the compelling world of 1970s performance art, from hostile diatribes to bold artistic beginnings.

Letter found in the Priscilla Staples (Beecham) Papers. The University of Manchester Library. It is not known whether this was a prop used in a Jack Show performance or a genuine response from someone in the audience.

2 comments on “‘What a bright beam we had cast into their lives’: Exploring the Papers of Priscilla Staples (Beecham) 1947–2018

  1. Fascinating stuff Anna. It’s good to know that people like you are scrutinising the collection. Did you get to the piece which I sent for the Nuttall box – ‘Jeff Nuttall’s Isabel’? Isabel was one of his names for her. Her use of Rose stems from her middle name of Rosamunde. I was at her funeral in Loughborough on 6 July this year. The cancer finally caught up. From Dick Wilcocks

  2. Hello, I have been comunicating with James Charnley on his book about Jeff Nuttall.
    I used to be a friend of Priscilla, and I have some of her works on paper form performances, and some photos of her . If you are interested I could send you some stuff.. regards, June Stapleton

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