Suggested words

Queer the Pier: Vesta Tilley

This is a legacy story from an earlier version of our website. It may contain some formatting issues and broken links.

As a community curator for Queer the Pier, I had a variety of different roles contributing to several aspects of the exhibition. A large part of my time was spent helping to create the arcade game section of the exhibition with the project’s building team.

To tell the stories from Brighton, Hove and Sussex’s queer history, we decided to build themed pieces that emulated a pier experience whilst preserving the LGBTIQ+ history that we wanted to include in the exhibition. 

Alongside exhibition pieces such as the re-imagined fortune telling machine and zoetrope, we created an automata machine, telling the story of Vesta Tilley, whose real name was Matilda Alice Powles, (1864-1952). A highly successful music hall singer and male impersonator, her career spanned over 50 years from 1870 to 1920, and she performed at the Brighton Hippodrome in Middle Street. She wore men’s clothing on stage, challenging gender stereotypes, and although married to Walter De Frece, through dress and performance, she played with gender roles and paved the way for future female comics and male impersonators. 

To create the arcade game section of the exhibition, we worked with Brighton Museum’s Exhibition Designer, Alex Hawkey, who throughout the summer and autumn months helped a group of the community curation team to build automaton machines and pier-themed games. The piece I started working on upon joining the Queer the Pier team, was the Vesta Tilley automaton machine, and with Alex kindly helping every step of the way, I got to building. Below is a photo diary of some of the key stages of building the machine: 

Figure 1: Alex’s design that the Vesta Tilley machine was based from. 

Figure 2: For research, I went to visit the now closed Brighton Hippodrome that Vesta Tilley had performed in to get a better idea of the location of the building within Brighton on Middle Street. 

Figure 3: After a few attempts at other methods, we decided to draw the Brighton Hippodrome proscenium which would frame the automata machine parts.

Figure 4: The next stage was to create cut outs to form Vesta’s body.

Figure 5: Fitting the pieces together before dismantling for shaping.

Figure 6: The next stage was shaping the pieces to make them more 3D.

Figure 7: Fitting the pieces together.

Figure 8: I then created curtains to fit under the proscenium illustration.

Figure 9: Painting the finished shaped pieces.

Figure 10: She’s nearly there!

Figure 11: After the plinth was ready, the next stage was to cut the head hole out for a photo opportunity!

Figure 12: Creating Vesta’s hat and starting to put sections together.

Figure 13: Beneath the wooden stage, the mechanism which makes the figure dance by turning the handle, was then fitted.

Figure 14: After some final adjustments, it was complete! 

After spending time in the studio building and making, it was great to see the Vesta Tilley automata machine standing proudly in the exhibition ready for visitors to enjoy. The opening night of Queer the Pier was heart-warming, not only to see everyone’s incredible hard work come together, but also to see people celebrating queer history and Brighton’s diverse LGBTIQ+ community. Watching people interact with the arcade games and turning the handle of the Vesta Tilley machine to watch it dance and listen to the accompanying famous Vesta Tilley song ‘Jolly good luck to the girl who loves a soldier’, was a delight. 

Below is a diagram to show where the Vesta Tilley automata machine is placed within the exhibition. 

See the Vesta Tilley automation in action

Video by Daren Kay and Gary Moyle


Zoe Smith, Queer the Pier Community Curator