The Livermore Bros. Court Minstrels and the fantasies of Leopold Bloom

The Livermore Bros. Court Minstrels and the fantasies of Leopold Bloom

Livermore Brothers (fl. 1860 -- 1890s). The Only Court Minstrels... Livermore Brothers, sole proprietors. Agricultural Hall, Bridgenorth [sic]. Nottingham: Stafford & Co. Ltd., [1887]. Color lithographic poster, 52 x 32 cm. Old marginal faults, largely invisible; mounted on linen.

     A striking poster from this important troupe that redefined minstrelsy in England and left a lasting impression on young James Joyce.

     Although it drew from American vernacular traditions, minstrelsy was a transatlantic phenomenon. British audiences were fascinated by the exoticism of the “Jim Crow” character when the American performer Thomas “Daddy” Rice introduced it to British audiences in 1836. J. W. Raynor and Earl Pierce’s Christy Minstrels were so popular after their debut in 1857 that “christies” was adopted as a generic term for minstrel show.

     The tension that led to a uniquely British form of minstrelsy, as Michael Pickering explains is, arose from a bespoke blend of polite and plebeian culture. Minstrel shows in England were intended as cross class respectable family entertainment, contrasting both with the music halls of the working class and the concert galas that catered to the privileged few. The exaggerated physicality and plantation melodies were supplemented or altogether replaced by refined sentimentalism and orchestral selections. The racist masquerade changed too. The “tatterdemalion plantation Black,” Pickering notes, was replaced by the elegantly attired dandy, “with his constantly unrealized pretension to grandeur and good living.” What in America was slapstick became in England a racialized comedy of manners.

     This anglicization of the minstrel show reached its apex at the hands of the Livermore Brothers, who built “family” music halls “altogether free from vulgarity,” and whose christies were animated by ballads, quartettes, and operatic selections. The Livermores’ Court Minstrels dressed as Royal courtiers, fully liveried and topped with powdered wigs. The poster offered here is a vibrant relic of that peculiar hybrid entertainment, an advertisement for an engagement in Bridgnorth (misspelled on the poster), a town in Shropshire. Although it is undated, February 9th and 10th fell on a Wednesday and Thursday in 1887. The text highlights the extravagance of the production:

THIS COMPANY appears in ELEGANT COURT DRESSES of the reign of George II, which together with the MAGNIFICENT STAGE APPOINTMENTS, form a pleasing contrast to the old stereotype Evening Dress Suit, and comprising as it does SUPERB VOCALISTS! INIMITABLE INSTRUMENTALISTS! IRRESISTIBLE COMEDIANS! UNAPPROACHABLE DANCERS!


     The Court Minstrels played in Dublin in 1894, which is when James Joyce is presumed to have seen them. In the Circe chapter of Ulysses, Leopold Bloom invokes the company in his fleeting thoughts on Black performance:

[Molly] often said she’d like to visit [Nighttown’s haunts of sin]. Slumming. The exotic, you see. Negro servants too in livery if she had money. … Even the bones and cornerman at the Livermore christies.

The bones and cornerman Joyce describes are depicted in the present poster: the cornerman on the left with a  tambourine, the "bones" on the right with his percussive instrument.

     While we imagine that other examples of this poster must have survived, we cannot find a record of it in any of the library catalogues we have consulted, and the central image does not appear to have been reproduced in any history of British minstrelsy – or in any study of Joyce.

Select References

  • Bowen, Zack. Joyce, minstrels, and mimes, James Joyce Quarterly, 39 (2002) 813-819.
  • Featherstone, Simon. The Blackface Atlantic: interpreting British minstrelsy, Journal of Victorian Culture, 3 (1998) 234-251
  • Pickering, Michael. Blackface minstrelsy in Britain. London: Taylor & Francis, 2017.

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