The English Opera Group was a small company of musicians formed in 1947 by the composer Benjamin Britten, later Lord Britten (1913-1976, alongside the artist John Piper and others. The group’s first project was Albert Herring, depicted in the present lot, and first performed at Glyndebourne, with sets designed by Piper, on 20 June 1947. George Lascelles, 7th Earl of Harewood (1923-2011) was a key supporter of the group, through his own opera interest. He served as editor of Opera magazine from 1950-53 and as a Director of the Royal Opera House, Chairman and later Managing Director of the English National Opera.
Alongside his deep appreciation for opera, Lord Harewood also had a close friendship with both Britten, and his partner, the tenor, Sir Peter Pears (1910-1986). Lord Harewood served on the board of the Opera Group Association, which was formed to support the company philanthropically. Lord Harewood in his foreword to The English Opera Group: 1946-1956 promoted his feelings towards the art form and the organisation he promoted: 'to have one organisation concentrating on new works, commission them, advising on them and even more important, performing them, is vital to the gradually evolving English operatic scheme'.
The production of Albert Herring in 1947 met with mixed reviews in the press but was noted for the visit of H.R.H. The Princess Royal, to its gala performance and the opera going public were particularly impressed by Piper’s approach to stage design. Desmond Shawe-Taylor (1907-1995), the music critic, saying 'I have…nothing but praise for the stylized late Victoria profusion of John Piper’s designs’. (D. Shawe-Taylor, Glyndebourne, New Statesman and Nation, June 18, 1947).
These early set designs by Piper for the company are particularly dynamic and evoke the group’s post-war vision for a culturally-informed Britain, Piper himself described the company in 1957, saying 'In its ten years of life, the group has not once employed a designer who is without a reforming instinct' (J. Piper, quoted in Ed. V. Stroeher and J. Vickers, Benjamin Britten Studies: Essays on An Inexplicit Art, Woodbridge, 2017, p. 111).
We are very grateful to Rev. Dr Stephen Laird FSA for his assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.