Paul Kathner OAM, 17/07/193516/03/2023


Following the death of scenic artist Paul Kathner, a memorial service was held at St. Mary’s Church in North Melbourne on 31 March 2023. On the occasion, Paul’s godson, KEITH O’DONNELL delivered a eulogy, which we have the privilege of publishing in full.

Paul KathnerPaul Kathner in his studio, 2015Never be afraid to let your colours shine.

Sydney 1953. National Service Personnel perform searchlight drill over the Harbour City. But tonight, one light is different ...


Paul Francis Kathner was born in Sydney on the seventeenth of July 1935, the only child of Rupert William and Clarisa Edna Kathner. After schooling he studied art at East Sydney Tech. and was assistant to Bill Constable and Elaine Haxton creating décors for the new Borovansky Ballet Company. Paul designed and painted sets for the Independent Theatre, the John Alden Company and the Elizabethan Opera Company in Sydney. 1963 saw a move to Melbourne and his succession of John Truscott as resident designer and Scenic Artist for St. Martin’s Theatre. As a young man he took the opportunity to travel extensively around Europe. After St. Martin’s, Paul worked with J.C. Williamson’s and upon their closure co-founded Scenic Studios with Ross Turner in 1976, only going into semi-retirement in 1998. Paul designed for the Australian Opera, the Australian Ballet, J.C. Willamson, Melbourne Theatre Company, Melbourne City Opera, Hong Kong Ballet and Port Fairy Spring Music Festival amongst many others. He designed and painted numerous liturgical banners, vestments, fixtures and fittings including the votive candle stand at Christ Church Brunswick, interior banners for St. Andrews Brighton, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the police chapel Glen Waverly and a backdrop for this parish church which will be on show later today. Paul observed and painted the Australian landscape, creating until the very end of his life. His final show of new work will take place at Tacit Gallery, Collingwood during May of this year. In 2017 a distinguished career was recognised with an Order of Australia.

Over the last thirty-five years Paul lived and painted and entertained at his flat in Arden Street, North Melbourne, having moved from South Yarra. He led a full and meaningful life, surrounded by friends, faith and good fortune. Enjoying mostly robust health, Paul gradually declined and became more housebound after his early eighties. A hernia, heart issues, emphysema, a massive stroke, the slow onset of dementia and several falls left him always philosophical, slightly bruised but never beaten. On the sixteenth of March after two nights at Royal Melbourne Hospital he succumbed to multiple organ failure and died peacefully. He was eighty-seven years of age.


Paul constructed his first model theatre as a child and built many more afterwards. An encyclopaedic knowledge of the performing arts and their history both in Australia and abroad was lifelong. He had a deep and passionate relationship with music, with an understanding that extended beyond polyphonic, ballet, operatic and modern classical. It would be quicker and easier to name composers absent from his collection of records and later CDs than to list them all. Many of his records having performed double or even triple duty as ash trays and/or coasters. Favourites included Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Schumann, Schubert, Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Mozart, Mendelsson, Stravinsky, Prokofiev and an entire pantheon of liturgical composers. Paul’s infectious enthusiasm frequently saw friends join him in hearty renditions of his beloved Gilbert and Sullivan. His conducting the overture to The Mikado followed by his simultaneous interpretation of all three roles from ‘Three Little Maids from School’ was legendary in many lunchtimes. When once asked if he had a preference to be either blind or deaf, Paul replied “blind” without a moment's hesitation. Music was that important to him.

My godfather loved a party. Lunch, dinner, opening night or otherwise. Paul’s younger escapades saw him fall fully robed and face first in a chancel, fall asleep with his head in a bowl of soup (subsequently left there by fellow diners) and fall—in a state of heavy refreshment - into a Venetian canal. Not necessarily in that order. So many boozy dinners, post mass lunches—sometimes at Chinese restaurants and invariably prior to even boozier evensongs. Off-colour jokes, searing political and historical commentary, fun, food, fellowship, wisdom, compassion, those mischievous eyes and wicked laugh. Paul smoked for half a century, observing that it is better to smoke here than in the hereafter. Paul smoked enough for one lifetime and drank enough for three. A taste for beer, wine and sherry, combined with old age rendered him useless as an organ donor but probably of great value were he ever to be wrung out by a distillery. The fact that he lived to be eighty-seven with a good quality of life was either miraculous or proof that the Good Lord was not that keen for Paul to join him. At least not yet.

A man well viewed and well read. Books and media were bought and devoured by Paul. Fiction, factual, historical, the shelves at Arden Street heaved under the weight of exhibition catalogues and a suspiciously large number of volumes about Europe around the Second World War—also known as ‘Paul getting in touch with his German heritage’. His collection of art books was only slightly larger than his stash of Midsomer Murders DVD boxed sets. Who knew there was so much of it? Surely the entire population of Midsomer County must have been wiped out several times over by now. Then there was his studio, that sacred space for artists. Easel in the centre, palette right hand side, ripe with the aroma of oil and turpentine, its walls covered with paintings and marker drawings.


Deep faith and theology defined Paul’s life, particularly his stalwart presence at the Canterbury Fellowship and finally here with the extended family of St. Mary’s North Melbourne. Understanding of faith, scripture, theology, music, ritual and art equipped Paul with a unique Christian philosophy and outlook which he challenged and cherished throughout his life.

Paul sketched and sketched and sketched. Years later he would recall delight as a small boy going sketching in the country with his father. Later, my father and others would drive Paul around the Victorian countryside to make black and white studies for paintings that he would then reproduce in colour back at his studio. He had a great eye for post-colonial Victoria. Red brick, bluestone, coastlines, cliffs, rock formations, industrial and urban scenes and his always amazing renditions of clouds and the sky. So many of us own a Kathner painting or drawing. Paul may be gone from our lives but not from our hearts or our walls.

Throughout his career Paul worked on most major productions. Cats, Phantom of the Opera, Les Mis, the State Theatre Curtain, and Truscott Arches. Enjoyed by millions over the years. Not all are fortunate enough to work at something they love and many younger artists had the great fortune to be given a break by Paul and to learn from him.


The inevitability of a long life is that those who love and inspire us often go before. Paul rightly regarded himself as blessed in life with the love and care of those he loved. He was not maudlin about friends who had died but he did miss them. For all family and friends who enriched Paul’s life we say thank you. To the medical professionals, GP Doctor Pavlidis, to his principal carer Jenny, to Barney and Frank and the friends and neighbours who cared for him in his dotage we say thank you. For the life, loves and legacy of Paul Francis Kathner, Artist, we express our profound gratitude.


Sydney 1953. National Service Personnel perform searchlight drill over the harbour city. But tonight, one light is different. One searchlight is bright pink, having been covered in a theatrical lighting gel.

An irate Drill Sergeant confronts a young cadet.

“What do you think you're doing?”

“I thought it looked nicer!”, replied a young Paul.

Tonight and forevermore, one light is different.

Never be afraid to let your colours shine.


Watch an interview with Paul talking about his career: