From the RAD archives

A recent display at RAD headquarters showcased the photographic work of GBL Wilson. Here, we’ve reproduced the materials shown from the GBL Wilson archive collection for you to enjoy at home.

About ‘GB’

George Buckley Laird Wilson, known as ‘GB’ to his friends, studied science at Cambridge and was an engineer by profession. A keen balletomane, his commitment to ballet was secured in 1942 when he befriended the young Beryl Grey and she introduced him to some of the key figures in the ballet world at that time, including Ninette de Valois and Marie Rambert.

Wilson had been a keen photographer since childhood and began photographing the ballet in 1941. As his contacts and friendships in the ballet world developed, he gained access to dancers not only in performance situations but also offstage, in rehearsals and at social functions. After the second World War his photos 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.

A car owner since 1931 Wilson would often ferry dancers around taking them wherever they needed to go. In 1949, at the suggestion of Tamara Toumanova, Wilson started a ‘car visitors’ book’ and by the early 1980s he had amassed 23 volumes containing signatures, photos and messages from all the dancers who travelled in his car. The books were meticulously indexed by Wilson himself and include famous names such as Rudolf Nureyev, George Balanchine, Moira Shearer, and William Forsythe.

Wilson also became great friends with Arnold Haskell – a distinguished writer – who, in 1944, recommended him to Penguin Publishers as a suitable editor for their proposed ballet dictionary. In 1948 Haskell also appointed him as an associate editor of his Ballet Annual publication. 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 never abandoned his scientific background working as a guide-lecturer and then Deputy Keeper at the Science Museum from 1954 until his retirement in 1975. However his interest and enthusiasm for ballet led him into many other roles including Vice-President of the RAD’s Production Club (1946-1958); Curator and founding committee member of the British Theatre Museum from 1957; Ballet Critic for The Jewish Chronicle from 1965, and Librarian for the Royal Ballet School from 1971.

The rich photographic archive which he bequeathed to the RAD provides a comprehensive record of ballet activities in Britain and the dance centres of Europe between 1941and 1984. A large proportion of the collection has been digitised and is available for viewing online.

Video presentations

These presentations of GBL Wilson’s work (below) ran to accompany the display.

Choreographers at Work


The ballet photos (1940s – 1965)


The ballet photos (1966 – 1970s)

Photo gallery

These photos show a mixture of GBL Wilson’s informal images, as well as performance and rehearsal shots of some of the most famous names in ballet. You can find more from the RAD collection on the ArenaPAL website.

GBL Wilson by Dame Beryl Grey

In August 2007, Dame Beryl Grey looking back on her friendship with GBL Wilson:

GB, as he was known to everyone, was one of my very best friends. It was Arnold Haskell who brought him backstage to meet me, after my first performance in the full-length Swan Lake on June 11th 1942. This was at the then called New Theatre, St Martins Lane, London, and it was my 15th birthday. After this introduction GB became one of my most devoted fans, sending encouraging little notes, then inviting me out to tea. He would often come home and visit my parents and take us out for short drives, a great treat as petrol was then rationed. When I had a few days break from performances I would visit his home in Trowbridge where his mother would make me very welcome. She reminded me of a Victorian painting, dignified, gracious and always perfectly groomed.

After the war when he was at the Science Museum he would take great pride in explaining to me the exhibits there. He himself had a formidable brain and it was always stimulating to be with such a knowledgeable person. His intellect was brilliant. One of his greatest hobbies was, of course, photography and GB took so very many of me, both on and off stage, all of which I shall ever treasure.

Inevitably, after I became a freelance Ballerina in 1957, and I travelled extensively, we met less often but our friendship never wavered. In a copy of his first Ballet Dictionary he gave to me is this inscription:

“This book is entirely due to you. If you’d not become my favourite dancer (and favourite mortal too) in 1942, the train of events leading up to this would never have been started and my whole life would have been very different – so thank you!”