Judy has had a twenty-two year career at the ABC Television Studios as a graphic designer, with occasional forays into children's book illustrations. This was followed by ten years working with the Rex Reid Dance Company on costume, set and props design. Since the late 1990s Judy has been closely involved, in a design capacity, with many of the annual musicals presented by Melbourne High and Mac.Robertson's Schools.
With a beautifully presented selection of images, Dr. Caitlyn Lehmann—a cultural historian who specialises in ballet history, with particular expertise in the events of the 18th and 19th centuries—treated us to an inspiring and illuminating talk on ballet and balleticised performance at Astley's Circus.
Philip Astley (1742-1814) was an English equestrian, soldier and circus owner, and is regarded as the father of the modern circus. The circus industry traces its heritage to Astley's Amphitheatre, originally a riding school founded by Philip in London in 1768, where he and his wife Patty gave their trick-riding displays alongside other animal acts, acrobatics, and clowning.
Over the next forty years, the Astleys continuously expanded and improved their establishment, as well as rebuilding again and again after successive fires. The venue went through a variety of name changes from Astley’s Royal Grove to Astley's Amphitheatre of Arts. The Astleys went on to establish other permanent bases throughout the British Isles and Europe.
In the early 1780s, as Caitlyn has written, the success of ballets by Jean-George Noverre and the celebrity of the Vestris (father Gaetano and son Auguste) at London’s opera house inspired a wave of spoofs, satires and loving send-ups among the city’s theatrical establishments. Astley's Amphitheatre played its part by announcing an ‘astonishing’ new spectacle of dancing on horseback by John Astley, Philip and Patty's young son. John’s horseback dancing, comprising both ‘comic and serious dances’, was originally meant to lampoon the ballet, but instead became the mainstay of the Astley’s entertainments during the ensuing years, with John fusing physical athleticism to refinement, and introducing elegance into the motley milieu of circus. Over time, ballet itself also became a significant component of the circus’s offerings.
Fast-forwarding to the 1850s and Melbourne, Australia: in September 1854, London-born G. B. W. Lewis (1818-1906) opened his antipodean version of the famed Astley's Amphitheatre on the corner of Spring and Little Bourke Streets. The venue, owned by his business partner Thomas Mooney, was attached to the Mazeppa Hotel (named after the famous poem by Lord Byron) which encompassed shops and boasted ‘stablings for ten horses’ (The Argus, 22 September 1855). Lewis had left his home in Deal, Kent, and headed to Australia, like many performers, attracted by Victoria's Gold Rush and the thought of the inevitable audiences.
Although possessed of management, riding and gymnastic skills, Lewis was beset by ill luck and Melbourne’s Astley's Amphitheatre closed less than a year after opening. In 1855, George Selth Coppin (1819-1906), actor-manager and entrepreneur, leased the building as the Royal Amphitheatre, which, finally, became the Princess's Theatre two years later. Almost three decades later, the New Princess's, built in the fashionable French Renaissance style, replaced the original building.
Just last year—2018—there was a variety of events celebrating the 250th anniversary of Astley's first shows. These took place in London, Monte Carlo and around the United Kingdom with new plaques unveiled, monuments created, plays performed.
Caitlyn Lehmann has given papers at Oxford's New College, at Melbourne University, in Castlemaine and Dunedin; has written articles for London's Dancing Times, Dance Australia, and the Australian Ballet's magazines and programmes; contributed to a BBC documentary, curated exhibitions—the list goes on and on. To learn more about her please refer to her utterly intriguing website, www.vintagepointe.org.
Once again, it was very hard to tear ourselves away from the post-talk gathering conducted below The Channel in one of the Arts Centre's many cafe bars!
Grateful thanks are due to Dr. Caitlyn Lehmann, to Dr. Mimi Colligan and to Joshua Cowie and the Arts Centre staff.
Held at The Channel on Saturday, 15 June 2019
West Australian born Michael Pearce: actor, dancer, visual artist and designer for dance, drama and opera companies in Australia, New Zealand, Europe and Asia. Initially intending to be an actor, Michael commenced his studies under Wal Cherry in Adelaide. It was around this time that he met the impressive and inspiring Zora Semberova, a Flinders University Faculty member. In 1938 at the world premiere of the ballet Romeo and Juliet—with Sergei Prokofiev's score—she had danced the role of Juliet for a Czechoslovakian ballet company. (It was not until a year later that Galina Ulanova danced that same role, but in Leningrad and with a different choreographer.)
Michael began his professional career in 1972 as resident designer for the State Theatre Company of South Australia under the directorship of George Ogilvie—but not before taking to the stage in the role of a policeman in the Feydeau farce Cat among the Pigeons, directed by Ogilvie, in 1970. Anne Fraser was the designer and Michael became an assistant to her, and to Hugh Colman, the latter introducing him, a little further down the track, to Margaret Lasica's dance classes in Melbourne, having earlier attended Cheryl Stock's ‘Primitive’ series of dance classes in Adelaide. Michael was associated with designers Kristian Fredrikson, Richard Prins and Shaun Gurton, among others.
In 1976 he headed overseas to Europe, the United Kingdom and the United States where he had the good fortune to meet the legendary Marilyn Wood, a founding member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company who went on to a ground-breaking career as a ‘choreographer of cities’, creating the first-ever site-specific performances.
Since returning home in 1978 to Australia, Michael has designed sets and costumes, dyed and hand-painted costumes, exhibited pastel and charcoal works on paper—in Australia and in Asia—undertaken Asialink Residencies, taught stage design at the Hanoi Academy of Theatre and Cinema, is a regular guest teacher at the Victoria College of Arts and was Artist-in-Residence in Hong Kong and Visiting Fellow at the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts. He was an original member and co-creator of the performance trio ‘Chrome’ which performed at festivals and events throughout Australia, Europe, Canada and the United States.
He has designed for Australian Dance Theatre, Sydney Dance Company, Netherlands Dans Theatre, New Zealand ballet companies, Dance North, The Australian Ballet, Vietnam Opera Ballet Theatre—for the Melbourne Theatre Company, Playbox, Nimrod, Sydney Theatre Company, South Australian Theatre Company, Hong Kong Arts Festival—the list goes on and on! He is the recipient of three Green Room Awards for best Dance Design.
Michael's talk ran in tandem with an exhibition of his pastel works on paper at 45Downstairs, ‘Unfolding’, which many of us were fortunate enough to see—and his talk also coincided with performances of the work ‘Unspoken Dialogues’, part of The Australian Ballet's New York season in May. He has designed nine works for the company and is a frequent collaborator with their resident choreographer Stephen Baynes.
We were delighted to be given the opportunity to view examples of his work—a slide-show, a costume or two, a set model—and once again we felt the hour was simply not long enough to take in all that he had achieved—and was still achieving. To remedy this, in nearby Bombini Buzz a group of us kept ‘Michael Pearce in Conversation’ for at least another hour!
Judy Leech concludes her look at the life and work of Australian scenic artist William Constable, with particular focus on his creations for the ballet stage and his designs for Edouard Borovansky’s company. Click here to read Part 1 of this article»
Nineteen fifty-one was to be an important and momentous year, being both the Centenary of Victoria and the Jubilee of the Commonwealth, and a year of the most extraordinary artistic achievements for William Constable!
In February, as part of these celebrations, the National Theatre Arts Festival Committee held a Theatre Arts Display in the Print Gallery of the then National Gallery in Swanston Street, Melbourne. The artist, teacher and stage designer John Rowell (brother of William and uncle to Kenneth) was appointed convenor and various items, equipment, costumes and designs were lent by the Myer Emporium, J.C. Williamson Ltd, the Ballet Guild and the Victorian and New South Wales Galleries. Puppeteer Don Nicol and Swinburne Art College lecturer Mrs Winter, and her students, created a puppet theatre, complete with performances.
Over one hundred items were exhibited, including those of John Brunton, W.R. Coleman, Phil Goatcher, Ann Church, J. Alan (George) Kenyon, Daryl and Norman Lindsay, John and Kenneth Rowell, Loudon Sainthill, George Upward—to name only a few—and, of course, Bill Constable.
Alan McCulloch (also represented) wrote an excellent and enlightening foreword entitled ‘Designing for Theatre’. ‘The year 1909,’ he wrote, ‘When Serge Diaghilev produced the first Russian ballets in Paris, marked the beginning of a new era in the art of designing for the stage.’1.
The Constable designs displayed were decors for Petrouchka, Aurora's Wedding and Scheherezade. A celebration indeed.
On the 6 April at Sydney's Empire Theatre the ballet Petrouchka was premiered. The choreography was by Borovansky, after Michel Fokine, with the music of Stravinsky, a ballet first presented to the world in 1911, at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, by Serge Diaghilev's Russian Ballet. Forty years later, William Constable truly did the ballet justice. In the original 1951 programme Thomas Essington Breen wrote: ‘His work is exciting, imaginative and real theatre. While principally confined to the perceptual, Constable's decor is always at one with the dancing, the while commanding separate attention and yet fusing into the whole. When Constable appends a faded and forlorn-looking rose on the heart of Petrouchka, one respects his innovation. Constable says that the rose makes Petrouchka seem most pathetic—and I agree with him. Pursuits may consider this to be sacrilege, but, set in the subtle variations given by Constable to the costume, it is not.’2.
Breen was a journalist (plus a man of many passions and interests) on The Sydney Morning Herald where he covered his long-term loves, the ballet and the theatre. He had married the sculptor Charlotte ‘Bill’ Hart and her clay figurines of Petrouchka and other characters from the ballets were displayed in the foyer of the Empire.
Breen also wrote of Petrouchka that Constable's decor for the opening scene had ‘more theatre feeling’ than Benois' original which preserved the real appearance of a Russian Fair. And, again, of Constable's costume design for Petrouchka: ‘It shows a masterly conception of the character's profound tragedy. If anything, Constable has deepened this aspect of the character.’3.
In 1976 the late-lamented Ballet Victoria (originally Laurel Martyn's Ballet Guild) staged this ballet at the Palais in St Kilda and their sets were based on the original Alexandre Benois designs of 1911. Dennis Law was the Scenic and Property supervisor. Where are these designs now—where indeed are those of Benois? not to mention those of Constable?! But the Petrouchka of 1951 will long remain in the memories of many—the combination of Stravinsky's music, the Fokine based and inspired choreography and Constable's vividly imagined and executed sets (assisted by Michael Biddulph) and frankly, gorgeous costumes.
Opening scene from Petrouchka, 1951.
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.
Scene from the one-act ballet La Boutique Fantasque, 1951.
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.
Two weeks later, La Boutique Fantasque premiered in Sydney. The music was by Gioachino Rossini, arranged and orchestrated by Ottorino Respighi, and the choreography was by Leonide Massine, on which Borovansky based his. In fact Borovansky stole the show, time and time again, dancing the role of the bewildered and befuddled shopkeeper. In 1919, in the original Ballet Russe production, this role was played by the legendary Enrico Cecchetti.
This is a ballet that really should be re-staged—it is a delight from start to finish, although one should be prepared, very possibly, to be moved to tears by the sad plight—albeit temporary—of the two ‘can can’ dolls! Many a local ballet school has attempted to reproduce this ballet but what it requires is a fully professional re-creation, and as close to the original 1919 designs of Andre Derain as possible—or to those of Constable in 1951!
On the 4 May 1951, Aurora's Wedding (the final act of the full-length ballet, still in the planning stage, The Sleeping Princess) had its first performance at Sydney's Empire Theatre. Another magnificent backdrop by Constable, and a mere fourteen days later the premiere of The Outlaw, and Boro's second major work on an Australian theme, relating to episodes in the life of Ned Kelly, the country's (in)famous outlaw. Boro commissioned the music and worked closely with the composer Verdon Williams (the following year he was appointed Musical Director of the National Theatre Ballet), Clive Turnbull wrote the Prologue, and after hearing the story and the score, Constable set to work on both the sets and the costumes.
In this same year, on the first of June, there occurred one of the most important events of the season. A new work set to the music of Schumann, his Piano Quintet, Op. 44. The ballet Chiaroscuro was contemporary in all senses of the word. Choreographed by the Australian Dorothy Stevenson, a highly-regarded and stunningly beautiful dancer, for both the abstract decor and the costumes Constable made much use of shades of grey, and of yellow and white. Winding motifs were appliqued on the costumes, setting off the sensitively-lit and extremely striking ‘modern’ decor.
Drop curtain design for The Outlaw, 1951.
Photo by Barrie Avery, from Ballet in Australia by E.H. Pask.
Chiaroscuro in performance, 1951.
Photo by Hal Williamson, from Australia Dances by Brissenden & Glennon.
What with the preparations in 1951 for so many new ballets, the Paint Frame at Sydney's Theatre Royal would have been stretched to its limits, and this just happened to be the year that Paul Kathner commenced work in the painting department, thanks to Bill Constable and to a newly created vacancy, brought about by the departure of a staff member having been diagnosed with a form of colour-blindness. Paul had been working as an office boy at J.C. Williamson's in Sydney and had become curious about the painting of scenery, having avidly followed the ballet, from Kirsova's Company and the Ballet Rambert tour, through to Boro's.
Once again, I am greatly indebted to the words and findings of designer Rosemary Simons.
Paul, at sixteen, was now assistant to Bill—who headed the Scenic Art team—a team consisting of Rupert Browne and Irishman Tommy Moor. Daily, Paul had to arrive before Constable and prepare the paint and equipment, which included setting up the pallet—large movable tables for blending paint—assembling and positioning the required buckets of water, ensuring the glue-size was heated to the right consistency and making sure the primer, made from a combination of whiting, glue-size and water, was mixed and ready. This was an established daily routine for Paul although, generally, Bill was not a highly regimented person, in fact could be quite haphazard in his approach. Nevertheless, he taught Paul the craft of ‘getting a show on stage’.
Constable and Rupert Browne were the two most influential scenic art teachers in Paul's career—the former a graphic artist and serious painter and Browne, who had been formally trained and worked alongside Constable on many of the ballets. Paul spent a lot of time just watching Rupert paint. Bill painted his own designs and his scenic art style was often tailored to the needs of these designs—he invented techniques to suit. In those days it was common practice for designers to execute their own designs. Paul was greatly influenced and impressed by Bill's commitment to designing ballets while listening to the ballet's score, allowing time for the music to sink in. He maintained that a good ballet design was an exercise in ‘painting the music’.
Constable at work painting his own décor for Petrouchka, 1951.
Petrouchka souvenir programme.
The glue formula as discovered on the wall of the Paint Frame at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne.
Photo by Judy Leech.
Still in this same year, 1951, Paul, Rupert and Bill moved to Melbourne, to the King's Theatre, to work on Boro's Sleeping Princess. At this time the theatre, near the corner of Russell and Little Collins Streets, was principally a cinema, however scenic artists could hire the old paint frame located above the stage. Paul remembers it as a ‘lovely paint room’, bigger than either the Princess or Her Majesty's paint rooms, with skylights so large you could paint relying just on natural light.
On the first of December, Melbourne was treated to the premiere of a ballet by Paul Grinwis (Belgian dancer and choreographer who had, that same year, choreographed and created the decor and costumes for his interpretation of L'après-midi d'un faune) entitled Les Amants Éternels —The Eternal Lovers—(a story) telling of Romeo and Juliet united and awake in the after-life. Constable created a surrealistic and very dramatic decor in ochre and grey—shades of Dali and Loudon Sainthill! Set to Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet fantasy overture, this was the only original work that year to be included in further seasons, its final performance occurring in 1960, with a 1954 revision of the work by Grinwis, when the ballet gained in dramatic force and showed more clearly the struggle between Love and Death.
Scene from the one-act ballet Les Amants Eternels (The Eternal Lovers).
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.
Scene from Act 1 of The Sleeping Princess, a ballet in three acts and a prologue.
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.
Intended as a Christmas attraction, on the 22 December 1951, at Her Majesty's Theatre in Melbourne, the full length ballet The Sleeping Princess was presented and again, Constable was responsible for the designs. The ballet was first produced at the Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, in January 1890, but was not seen by the west until a good thirty years later, when it appeared in London and was presented by Diaghilev's Ballet Russe.
Boro's ballet boasted three intervals and an astonishingly long list of cast members, including students from Madame Borovansky's Ballet School. According to many, the production, set in five scenes (with 300 costumes), was far too colourful and the costumes distractingly lavish, but according to the programme notes it was ‘the first production in Australia of the most spectacular ballet ever produced’.4.
How many assistants, over 1950-1951 would Constable have needed in order to create this staggering line-up of ballets? (It was not until 1960 and long after Bill had left Australia for the UK that Ross Turner—much later to found, along with Paul Kathner, the firm Scenic Studios—joined Williamson's and the staff of scenic artists and designers based at Her Majesty's Theatre's Paint Frame in Melbourne.)
Due to the sudden death of King George VI in 1952 the proposed Royal Visit by Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip was cancelled, which meant the cancellation also of a Royal Command Performance of the Borovansky Ballet. It was not until early 1954 that the company reformed (having been somewhat decimated in late 1952) and once again Constable's work was displayed upon the ballet stage, although in the interim he had been far from idle, producing glorious settings and costumes for four important opera companies, one of which happened to be the début performance of Joan Sutherland!
January 1954 saw Constable's fabulous designs for the ballet Symphonie Fantastique, with choreography by Kiril Vassilkovsky based on that of Leonide Massine. Vassilkovsky had danced here in the original Ballets Russes production in 1939-1940. Two months later Fokine's Prince Igor was presented, and in April the ballet Candide. In one of the company's 1954 programmes, Constable wrote ‘ballet is a blending of three arts ... a meeting of the poetry of movement, music and painting—a poem distilled of three arts and beyond the need of the spoken word’.5.
Set to Hector Berlioz's powerful and haunting score, for Symphonie Fantastique Constable produced surreal and strikingly macabre decors for the ballet's five scenes. They follow the drugged Musician's wandering mind where he imagines his Beloved, the woman whose image haunts him, has been transformed into the leader of a Witches' Sabbath. Constable presents a ballroom, a peaceful rural place, a landscape with spinning-top-like shapes and a further two settings. The Age reviewer wrote that the ballet ‘has many memorable moments. Among them are the vermilion and white ballroom scene with its swirling choreography; the idyllic pastoral scene and the leering, grotesque March to the Gallows, with its Daumier-like costumes and attitudes’.6. And the Melbourne Sun's reviewer: ‘Here is a company of more than 50 dancers of world standard, a symphony orchestra, and a lavish artistry of costume and decor which would receive acclaim in any country.’7. It was a hugely successful ballet according to many, but to others, not, it is reported, a completely satisfying production. It would really be something to see it reproduced, with reference to either these designs of Constable, or those of the original designer, Christian Bèrnard.
The Polovtsian Dances from the opera Prince Igor, by all accounts extremely colourful and energetically danced, was a ballet that actually brought about the reinstating of the male dancer. The wild barbarity of these dances (Fokine's choreography, reproduced by Vassilie Trunoff, another of the Ballets Russes dancers) had been enthusiastically welcomed, back in 1909, when Diaghilev's company first presented them. The ballet is an excerpt from the second act of the opera, by Aleksandr Borodin. The original backdrop, by Nicholas Roerich, and of which there are many records, revealed an empty, desolate landscape, in which were pitched the beehive tents of the Polovtsi, with the smoke from their camp-fires trailing across the sky. We can only imagine that Constable produced something similar and that Roerich's wonderfully textured and patterned costumes also inspired him.
Symphonie Fantastique: Constable’s design for the Second Movement, the ballroom, 1954.
Image from Australia Dances by Brissenden & Glennon.
A scene from the one-act ballet Prince Igor, featuring Eve King and Vassilie Trunoff, 1954.
Photo by Argus. Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.
For Candide—a ‘Farcical Ballet in One Act—A Parody by Kiril Vassilkovsky’—Constable made use of a screen for the Lovers and others to hide behind, a lovely light Rococo-inspired setting. The music, chosen from Rossini overtures, thoroughly matched the choreography and the telling of the tale, an adaptation from Voltaire, with a cast of characters that included Candide, Cunegonde, Paquette, Pangloss and The Baron. Bill designed the scenery, Jean Miotte the costumes. Miotte (1926-2016), was a French abstract painter, in the style known as l'abstraction lyrique. Born in Paris, he was greatly influenced and inspired by the Ballets Russes. Unfortunately, the ballet Candide was only moderately successful and did not remain long in the repertoire.
Now we come to 1955 and Les Presages—or, Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony. In Paris in 1933 this ballet, choreographed by Leonide Massine, sparked a controversy worthy of the old Diaghilev Ballets Russes days, purely because it was danced to a symphony. Shock! Horror! Critics, musicians and angry balletomanes proclaimed that the use of a symphony for a theatrical dance work was sacrilegious. Simply—not on. Later, in London, leading British music critic Ernest Newman was overwhelmingly in favour ‘... the inner life of the work, as an organic piece of musical thinking, is not diminished but actually enhanced’.8.
In the Borovansky production, choreographed by Warsaw-born Yurek Shabelewski, the 1955 programme states: ‘The choreographic design of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony is inspired by the composer's notes to his score which reflect his fatalistic nature and his fear of the inadequacy of man in the face of Fate.’9. The ballet is in four movements—Action, Love-Passion-Fate, Volatility and Conquest.
In Australia Dances, Michael Brissenden (with Keith Glennon) wrote: ‘The most effective feature of the production was William Constable's scenic design.’10. Edward Pask wrote that the ballet ‘was designed in splendid style by William Constable’.11.
Candide: page from Borovansky Ballet programme, Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne, April 1954.
Scene from Les Presages, featuring Kathleen Gorham, Jocelyn Vollmar & Royes Fernandez,1955.
Photo by Herald Sun. Jean Stewart Collection.
In November 1955 the ballet, Francesca da Rimini, by David Lichine and Henry Clifford, and choreographed by the former, was presented at Sydney's Empire Theatre. With music by Tchaikovsky this ballet was first performed by Colonel de Basil's company in 1937 at Covent Garden and was now restaged by Lichine for Boro, with all new sets and costumes by Constable. The ballet was in two scenes, and featured a huge castle doorway at the rear of the stage, to the left a throne on a dais, and to the right a row of pillared casements. The richly coloured costumes created an atmosphere of Renaissance luxury and decadence. The story is taken from the Fifth Canto of Dante's Inferno. Boro had created the role of the chief spy, Girolamo, in the original 1937 production. In 1955, Frank Salter danced this role—he went on to write Borovansky: the man who made Australian ballet, a biography published in 1980 by the Wildcat Press.
Also in 1954 Bill was involved, in a major capacity, in the production of the film Long John Silver (and later the TV series The Adventures of Long John Silver) at Pagewood Studios in Sydney. He was appointed Production Designer on what was to be the first Cinemascope film to be shot in Australia. For more on this period in his career please refer to Bob Hill and his article ‘The Strange and Wondrous Tale of Bill Constable and the Cinemascope Pirates of Pagewood’.
On the 17 February 1956, David Lichine presented the world premiere of Corrida, a Spanish ballet set to music of Scarlatti—a dramatic and violent tale of a great matador who is driven mad over a love obsession that goes horribly wrong. This remarkable setting, with strikingly colourful costumes, was Constable's—I have counted up to two dozen!—last design for the Borovansky Company.
Design for the two-scene ballet Francesca da Rimini, 1955.
National Gallery of Australia, © Estate of William Constable, NGA 73.625.
Design by Constable for the Spanish ballet Corrida, 1956.
Photo by Barrie Avery, from Ballet in Australia by E.H. Pask.
But by the end of 1955, and at the conclusion of his work in Sydney with the film and television studios, and the ballet, with Sophie his second wife, and their very young daughter Deirdre (Dee), Constable had left their Castlecrag home in Sydney and set off back to London. Over the next sixteen years old acquaintances and connections were renewed, much film work ensued—he worked on at least a dozen productions, including The Trials of Oscar Wilde, Dr Who & the Daleks and Lord Jim—and in 1959 the London Festival Ballet, now the English National Ballet, commissioned him to design sets and costumes for the ballet London Morning. The music and libretto were by Noel Coward and the choreography by Jack Carter. According to The Sphere, a London illustrated newspaper, ‘Coward was commissioned to write the work (performed at London's Festival Hall) which brings to the stage a number of London characters and types in what some purists regard more as dance revue than true ballet’.12.
The choreographer Jack Carter was to create, five years later, the ballet Agrionia, in which Joyce Graeme dominated. She had directed the National Theatre Ballet Company here in Melbourne from 1948 to 1951, having stayed on after the Ballet Rambert's tours in the 1940s. Clement Crisp wrote of her ‘a superb dance artist—her Myrtha (in the ballet Giselle) with Ballet Rambert still remains the best I ever expect to see’.13.
Back in Australia that year, 1959, two days after delivering his usual opening-night speech in Sydney at the first performance of a revival of The Sleeping Princess, Borovansky suffered a heart attack. Less than a week later in hospital, he died, shortly after suffering a second attack. On the 18 December his death was announced to the audience, after the company—both shocked and stricken with grief—had somehow managed to perform, to ‘carry on’. When Constable had met up with him in London the year before, he had found him aged, exhausted, and in a futile search for a new assistant, an ‘artistic controller’, having very recently lost his long-time personal assistant/stage manager Colleen Gough. He felt that he had been abandoned—by everyone. Their farewell was intensely distressing to Bill, and he realised that it really was, this time, goodbye.
Rough sketch for the ballet London Morning, Act 3, Buckingham Palace, 1959.
National Gallery of Australia, © Estate of William Constable, NGA 87.50.
Commemorative plaque for Edouard Borovansky.
Australian Ballet Centre, Melbourne.
In 1966 Constable was back in Australia, briefly, to design the sets and costumes for the Australian Opera's (now Opera Australia) Boris Goudonov. Sadly his sets were replaced three years later as they were thought to be ‘over-saturated with colour’.14.
But in 1973 Constable returned permanently to Australia. He worked briefly for J.C. Williamson and was asked to design the house curtain for Her Majesty's Theatre in Sydney, which, happily, was recently discovered in Adelaide and now hangs in the Queensland University of Technology Gardens Theatre. The original 1973 design depicts the muse of the theatre, instead of the rather obvious phoenix, rising from the ashes, flanked by candy-striped banners symbolising light entertainment and sombre ones symbolising opera and tragedy. This theatre had first burnt down in 1902 (having been built in 1887) and then again in 1970. Two other major works of Constable's, during the 1970s, were lost to fire or demolition.
A digression I feel must be made, in view of several recent articles dealing here with theatre design and ballet: very understandably, through J.C. Williamson's, Constable had become acquainted with Sir Frank and Lady Tait and their three daughters, Isla, Ann and Sally. Over the 1950s and later, when he had returned to Australia in the early 1970s (and after Frank Tait's death in 1965), Bill had become a real friend of the family. Ann, an artist (illustrator and doll-maker) in her own right, and because of their shared interests and passions, was most probably the one closest to him.
Principally Constable was now concentrating on painting, exhibiting extensively artwork and prints of Central Australia and the Great Barrier Reef. So many paintings, illustrations, set and costume designs for theatre, ballet, opera and film—his list of achievements is staggeringly long. In late 1987, and into 1988, the Performing Arts Museum (now Australian Performing Arts Collection) mounted an exhibition and celebrated his life and work as ‘one of Australia's most noted stage, film and television designers: a lifetime of achievement presented against an exciting insight into the development of the performing arts since the 1930s’.15.
When William Constable died, on the 22 August 1989, in Melbourne, you may be sure his easel, paints and brushes were not so very far from his side. His establishment of the stage designer as a profession is one of his many important legacies to us, and most particularly, as I hope I have somehow managed to convey here, to the world of ballet.
- Theatre Arts Display, National Theatre Arts Festival, Melbourne, Feb 1951, p. 2.
- Borovansky Ballet Jubilee programme, Apr 1951, p. 17.
- Borovansky Ballet Jubilee programme, Dec 1951, p. 16.
- William Constable article in Borovansky Ballet souvenir programme, 1954.
- J.B. McA., ‘Brilliant spectacle at ballet opening’, The Age (Melbourne, Vic), 1 Feb 1954, p. 2, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/206087351
- The Sun (Melbourne, Vic), Jan 1954.
- Valerie Lawson, ‘The Birth of Symphonic Ballet’, 2007.
- Borovansky Ballet programme, 1955, p. 17.
- Australia Dances by Alan Brissenden & Keith Glennon, p. 29.
- Edward H. Pask, Ballet in Australia, p. 81.
- The Sphere (London), 15 Aug 1959, p. 39.
- Clement Crisp, unidentified clip, Sep 1964.
- Frank Van Straten, ‘William Constable 1906-1989’, 2007.
- Performing Arts Museum Exhibition schedule, 1987.
Alan Brissenden & Keith Glennon, Australia Dances: creating Australian dance 1945-1965, Wakefield Press, Kent Town, SA, 2010
Valerie Lawson, ‘The Birth of Symphonic Ballet’, 2007, https://dancelines.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/Pages-from-Destiny-2007.pdf
Edward H. Pask, Ballet in Australia: the second act, 1940-1980, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1981
Frank Salter, Borovansky, the man who made Australian ballet, Wildcat Press, Sydney, 1980
Theatre Arts Display, National Theatre Arts Festival, Melbourne, Feb 1951, p. 2.
Frank Van Straten, ‘William Constable 1906-1989’, 2007, Live Performance Australia (website), https://www.liveperformance.com.au/halloffame/williamconstable1.html
Again, I am most indebted to the following:
Australian Performing Arts Collection, AusStage, Alan Brissenden, Deirdre Constable, Mimi Colligan, Claudia Funder, (the late) Keith Glennon, Bob Hill, Barry Kitcher, Joan Kerr, Elisabeth Kumm, Paul Kathner, (the late) Edward H. Pask, Michelle Potter, Simon Piening, Frank Salter, Olga Sedneva, Viola Ann Seddon, (the late) Jean Stewart, Rosemary Simons, Ross Turner, Frank Van Straten, and Pamela J. Zeplin Waite
William Constable’s career as a scenic artist spanned some sixty years, working for leading companies in Australia and Britain, but as Judy Leech explains, it was through his close association with Edouard Borovansky from 1940-1956, that he honed his craft.
What would the Reverend Archibald Henry Constable, rector of Bendigo's St John's Church of England, make of the fact that one of his housemaids, on her day off, had taken his four year-old son, William, to a performance of a play! The reverend gentleman deplored the theatre and he had forbidden his three sons to ever attend.
The young William recalled, not the play nor the actors, but the colours, the painted walls and doors of the settings—his first experience, or exposure to, scenic design. The year was 1910.
In his teens William received some training or guidance in water-colour painting from the artist Meta Townsend, wife of Reginald Sturgess. These two had both been students at the National Gallery Art School of Victoria from 1909 to 1914. It was not until 1926, at the age of twenty, when William's apprenticeship at the Jolimont Workshops was terminated, that he could commence full-time study at the National Gallery, which was followed by a move to the UK and a period spent at St Martin's School of Art in London. He found work as a graphic designer and became involved in experimental theatre: at theatres such as the Embassy, in Swiss Cottage, now home to the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. He was influenced by the modern school of stage design first introduced by the English designer Gordon Craig and the Swiss architect and theorist of stage lighting and design, Adolphe Appia. These experiences set his passion for life.
Returning to Australia in the early 1930s William Constable was engaged by Gregan McMahon to contribute his design expertise to the inaugural production of James Bridie's Jonah and the Whale at the newly opened Garrick Theatre in Melbourne.
Thus began a long and astonishingly varied career in scenic design, for the theatre a long, long list of plays and operas in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane, New Zealand and the UK, for film and television both here and during the years he spent in London from 1955 to 1972. He illustrated books, produced paintings, prints and murals, his work was exhibited across Australia and England.
But the principal subject or aim of this article is to be Constable's design for the ballet, most notably for one particular ballet company here in Australia.
Constable acknowledged his formative experience with the McMahon company and later, his indebtedness to the three tours of the de Basil and Ballets Russes companies, from 1936 to 1941, visits that had an extraordinary impact upon designers for the stage, local artists, dancers and choreographers. At the conclusion of these tours, or a dancer's contract with a company, a number—around one dozen—preferred to remain in Australia, and for an understandable variety of reasons, given the current state of the world. A few endeavoured to set up schools or companies, others were to join forces with these new ventures. Edouard and Xenia Borovansky opened an Academy of Dance/Russian Ballet in Roma House in Elizabeth Street, Melbourne (Czechoslovakian born Edouard —originally Eduard Skrecek—met his future wife Xenia Smirnova when they were both members of Anna Pavlova's company), others, including Valentin Zeglovsky, were to join the soon-to-be-formed Borovansky Ballet Company.
Roma House, oil-painting by Daryl Lindsay.
Image from Borovansky Ballet in Australia and New Zealand by Norman MacGeorge
John Rowell's portrait of Edouard Borovansky.
Australian Ballet Collection
Constable met Borovansky through the photographer Eric Rowell when they both attended the 1939 opening of the Roma House Studio. This was the start of a creative partnership and friendship to last until Boro's untimely death in 1959.
Constable's early designs, Vltava, Pas Classique and Autumn Leaves in 1940 were for the Roma Studio's recitals to help raise money for war charity benefits, from 1939 through to 1943. His first professional dance commission was for En Saga in 1941, a ballet choreographed by Laurel Martyn (who had danced with Sadler’s Wells and Borovansky and was later to form Victoria's Ballet Guild) and performed at a Red Cross Gala in Melbourne University's Union Theatre. The ballet was, essentially, an expression of hatred and rebellion against war. With a Finnish poem as a basis, and with the music of Jean Sibelius—chosen from one of his Tone Poems—Constable created costumes inspired by the folk-dress of Finland against a bleak, windswept backcloth. The whole production was greatly admired—the principal dancers, the choreography, and most importantly, the design.
The following year, 1942, the newly-formed company presented Les Sylphides at the Princess Theatre—designs by Constable, no doubt following the usual romantic woodland-glade tradition. That same year, Harry Tatlock Miller, journalist, art critic and expert in paintings and antiques, assembled an exhibition of Australian art for ballet and theatre, which included work by Constable, Loudon Sainthill, Amie Kingston, Elaine Haxton, William Dobell, Daryl Lindsay—among others. Many of these artists had contributed designs for another ballet company, albeit a short-lived one, formed by the Sydney-based Hélène Kirsova, another one of the dancers who had ‘stayed behind’.
Ribbon Dancer from The Red Poppy ballet, never realised, c.1942.
Image from Present Day Art in Australia, edited by Sydney Ure Smith
Act 1, the ballet Giselle, 1943. Photo by Jean Stewart.
Image from Three Centuries of Ballet by Cornelius Conyn
In the early 1940s the dancer Valentin Zeglovsky, who had also chosen to remain in Australia, set up a school in a studio in the house in which he lived in Potts Point. He submitted patent applications to the relevant authorities for four ballets, one of which was The Red Poppy, a ballet first created for the Bolshoi in 1927 and the first Soviet ballet with a modern revolutionary theme. Who knows exactly what Zeglovsky had in mind—the original version had over sixty separate segments or divertissements! The most famous, and remembered, being the Russian Sailors' Dance. The music was by Reinhold Glière, the original choreography by Lev Laschiline and Vasily Tikhomirov.
There is no evidence of Zeglovsky's version, apart from Constable's beautifully rendered costume designs, shown here. A tragic waste! From Zeglovsky's autobiography, his Ballet Crusade, we know he danced in the original ballet with the Riga State Opera Company in 1929.
Design for Constable's Façade, 1942.
National Gallery of Australia, © Estate of William Constable, NGA 87.1940
Façade in performance, 1943. Photo by Jean Stewart.
National Library of Australia, PIC P348/BB/299 LOC Album 810/9
In 1943 the ballet Façade was to be presented by the Borovansky Ballet and with these designs Constable decided not to attempt to follow the lead of the London production at Sadler's Wells. When he began to prepare his designs, he had no knowledge of the score—he knew only the outline of the crazy plot. Once he had heard the music he scrapped all his designs and started over again. His keen musical sense dictated his designs—'you paint the music’ he was often quoted as saying. He considered the English costumes and decor far too literal and conventional for William Walton's marvellously ‘mad’ music.
The original Façade was first produced in July 1940 in London with sets and costumes by John Armstrong. The one-act ballet was freely adapted from poems by Edith Sitwell, but Walton's orchestral suite Façade was first used for a ballet by the German choreographer Gunter Hess, who created a series of six divertissements for his German Chamber Dance Theatre. First performed at the International Musical Festival in Siena in 1929 the Hess production inspired the Camargo Society (later to be known as Vic Wells, Sadler's Wells, and ultimately the Royal Ballet) to commission the English choreographer Frederick Ashton to create their own version.
George Upward, a scenic artist featured in previous THA articles, executed Façade’s scenery. He was well established as a designer and scenic artist with Kathleen Robinson and Alec Coppel's Minerva Theatre at Potts Point in Sydney when Constable, in 1941, was given his first commission for the play Mr Smart Guy. (Hélène Kirsova's 40-member ballet company had a six-week season at the Minerva Theatre in the same year, before relocating to His Majesty's Theatre in Melbourne.) Constable went on to create the designs, over the years, for at least two dozen productions at this theatre. Obviously, and as Scenic Director, he was under some form of contract with them as the scenery and costume designs for Façade were by courtesy of Robinson and Coppel's Whitehall Theatrical Productions. He would have used the company's paint-rooms and workshops at the Minerva Theatre, as Whitehall had held the lease since 1941, only vacating the premises in early 1950 when Metro Goldwyn Mayer purchased the building.
But for the most part, sets for Boro were constructed and cloths painted in Melbourne, in the dedicated areas behind His Majesty's Theatre in Cohen Place, once Brown's Lane.1. Constable, and Upward, called on the talents and expertise of scenic artists such as J. Alan (George) Kenyon and his son John, Rupert Browne, Cecil Newman and many, sadly un-named, assistants. Ballet programmes now, invariably, inform us where sets have been built, scenery painted, costumes created, and so on. Very few, back in the 40s and 50s, were so enlightening.
Constable and scale model of the Minerva Theatre stage, 1943/44.
Image from PIX Magazine, November 1944
The ballet Vltava, 1943.
Photo by Theon N. Mirfield.
In 1943 Constable created the designs for Vltava, a ballet he had first worked on during the studio recitals period. The music was written by Bedrich Smetana as part of a cycle of compositions entitled My Country (or Má Vlast). The ballet expresses the River Moldau, as it flows from its source to the sea, and old Bohemia with its legends, its castles, forests and plains.
Giselle, with very traditional decor and costumes by Constable, followed in 1944, and another exhibition of designs and drawings, created in connection with the company, was displayed in the foyers of the J.C. Williamson theatres. Constable again, along with Alan McCulloch, John Rowell, Daryl Lindsay, William Dargie and Len Annois. Also in 1944, Act 2 of Swan Lake was staged—designed by Constable.
The following year, 1945, would appear to be a year devoted to a formidable string of dramatic and comedic productions, predominantly in NSW for the Minerva, Independent and New Theatres, and for the Tivoli circuit.
Bill working on Terra Australis, 1946.
National Library of Australia, PIC P348/BB/251 LOC Drawer R6
The ballet Terra Australis, 1946.
National Gallery of Australia, © Estate of William Constable, NGA 87.1943
For the ballet Terra Australis, in 1946, Constable designed the decor for the Sydney version only. Eve Harris was responsible for the original Melbourne one and her design was criticised for its lack of depth. In the 1947 season Constable produced a new backdrop using a row of totem poles of diminishing height to create an illusion of greater depth. Terra Australis premiered in May 1946 and, as Boro's first work on an Australian theme, was considered his most important original creation. Based on a story by Tom Rothfield, the ballet was set to a score by Esther Rofe and told of the struggle between the white man, the Explorer as danced by Martin Rubinstein, and the Aboriginal (Vassilie Trunoff, late of the Ballets Russes), for the possession of Australia, represented by a young girl, as portrayed by Peggy Sager. Helen Ffrance created the role of the Earth.
The original costume designs by Leon Bakst for Diaghilev's 1910 production of Scheherazade in Paris had a considerable impact on fashion, French in particular, popularizing loose and flowing oriental-style garments. Obviously Constable used these designs, in 1946, as an inspiration—Edward H. Pask in his Ballet in Australia: the second act—claimed that ‘those of William Constable and Leon Bakst evoked a great deal more of the supposed sultry, mysterious and perfume-laden atmosphere than any subsequent production’. The photographs recording Boro's 1946 Scheherazade illustrate just how exotically dramatic and sumptuous the ballet was—if only there existed some film footage in colour!
Set design for the ballet Scheherazade, 1946.
National Gallery of Australia, © Estate of William Constable, NGA 87.1941
Scheherazade in performance, 1946. Photo by Jean Stewart.
Image in Three Centuries of Ballet by Cornelius Conyn
In this same year Constable was responsible for the designs for Coppélia and, thanks to Boro's wonderful characterisation as Dr Coppelius, and Edna Busse as Swanhilda, this ballet became a firm favourite of the company's repertoire. (In 1960 Kenneth Rowell was commissioned to create new designs for the ballet and in 1979 it was Kristian Fredrikson's opportunity.)
For the next two or three years Constable produced many designs for a variety of theatre companies, principally, again, in NSW. As financial assistance had been withdrawn from JCW, the ballet company had disbanded, but in August 1949 Boro's Educational Ballet Club was formed and programs were again presented at Roma House, even though a number of the dancers had headed for Europe or sought employment elsewhere in Australia.
The Black Swan, the second of Boro's Australiana ballets, was premiered at Roma House in September 1949 (but was fully and theatrically presented at the Empire Theatre in Sydney in June 1951). The story, set in three acts to the music of Jean Sibelius, tells of the 17th century visit to Western Australia by the explorer Captain Brandt of the Dutch East India Company. Of the decor and costumes the Age critic wrote: ‘William Constable's sets are superb: his design for the Black Swan's costume produced something ethereal and beautiful … However, more effective lighting on a larger stage would improve it [the set], but as it was presented last night the melancholy loneliness and wonder of an undiscovered land were not suggested’. No doubt with the re-staging of the ballet two years later these faults were rectified!
A newly re-formed Ballet Company assembled in late 1950, to commence rehearsals for a new season.
The ballet Coppélia, 1946.
Image from Australian Notes on the Ballet by Jean Garling
The ballet Black Swan, 1949.
Image in Three Centuries of Ballet by Cornelius Conyn
But earlier, in July 1950, Sydney was treated to the premiere of Rex Reid's Corroboree, choreographed for Melbourne's National Theatre Ballet Company, and to the world-acclaimed music of John Antill. It was built up from snatches of tunes of the indigenous people at La Perouse that Antill had heard and which had then taken him eight years to compose and complete as a score. The Sydney Morning Herald critic wrote, following the ballet's premiere on the 3 July 1950—‘Constable's decor, a rocky desert outcrop rising to a garish sky, is a masterpiece of theatre design’. And much later Olga Sedneva, writes: ‘… [he used] bold organic shapes, strong details, variation in textures and contrasting colours in set designs …’.2. He created a minimalistic composition that accurately translated to the desert of Central Australia to contrast with the night sky’.3. The ballet travelled to Perth and then to Melbourne in early 1951.
And, leaping ahead, in Sydney on 6 February 1954, a reworked version of Constable's set for Corroboree was the highlight of a royal gala for Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. Beth Dean (originally from Denver, Colorado and a lecturer, choreographer, writer and critic) was commissioned to completely re-choreograph the ballet. Dean and her husband Victor Carell had made an extensive study of the music, legends and dance of the Australian Aborigines. A more authentic production of Corroboree was created as a consequence.
Original study for Corroboree, c.1950.
Image from Australian Notes on the Ballet by Jean Garling
The ballet Corroboree in performance, 1950.
Photo by Hal Williamson.
And how interesting it is to observe the progress and development of Constable's style, or styles, from those first designs for the studio through to those of Terra Australis, Scheherazade and Corroboree. The early ballet decors, somewhat two-dimensional, simply replicated what had gone before, with other companies, but soon the versatile and creative Constable was illuminating our stages by demonstrating his true artistic prowess!
Nineteen fifty-one was to be an important and momentous year, being both the Centenary of Victoria and the Jubilee of the Commonwealth, and a year of the most extraordinary artistic achievements for William Constable!
- See Framing the Past, https://theatreheritage.org.au/on-stage-magazine/general-articles/item/558-framing-the-past
- See ‘Rediscovering the Stage Designs of Bill Constable: Corroboree and other ballet designs’, Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts, 18 October 2016, https://smsa.org.au/events/event/rediscovering-bill-constable-ballets-lost-designer
- See also William Henry Archibald Constable, Design and Art, https://www.daao.org.au/bio/william-henry-archibald-constable/biography
Cornelius Conyn, Three Centuries of Ballet, Elsevier Press, Houston, 1953
Jean Garling, Australian Notes on the Ballet, Legend Press, Sydney, 195-
Norman MacGeorge, Borovansky Ballet in Australia and New Zealand, F.W. Cheshire, Melbourne, 1946, available online, https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-498778442
Edward H. Pask, Ballet in Australia: the second act, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1982
PIX Magazine, vol. 14, no. 19, November 1944, available online, https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-449744968/view?sectionId=nla.obj-478973642&partId=nla.obj-449934804#page/n17/mode/1up
Sydney Ure Smith (editor), Present Day Art in Australia, Ure Smith, Sydney, 1943 & 1945
Valentin Zeglovsky, Ballet Crusade, Reed & Harris, Melbourne, 1943
I am indebted to:
Australian Performing Arts Collection, AusStage, Tom Breen, Alan Brissenden, Cornelius Conyn, Frederick W.L. Esch, Jean Garling, Bob Hill, John Hood, Joan Kerr, Barry Kitcher, Norman MacGeorge, Edward H. Pask, Michelle Potter, Frank Salter, Olga Sedneva, Jean Stewart, Frank Van Straten, Pamela J. Zeplin Waite, Kenneth Wilkinson, and Valentin Zeglovsky
Frank Van Straten’s new book, Her Majesty's Theatre, Melbourne: The Shows, The Stars, The Stories was launched in style at The Maj on Monday, the 26th of November 2018 as Judy Leech explains.
Having tripped lightly and fantastically along the obligatory red carpet, we proceeded into Her Majesty's foyer and upwards – to the accompaniment of Mr. Norman Camm on piano, surely a most fitting way to take the stairs to an already packed and effervescent Melba Foyer.
Fortified and invigorated by
"This French champagne,
So good for the brain",
we found many familiar faces to acknowledge; much mingling and networking ensued.
But then – let the show begin!
To start, a brief description of the order of events. Enter, stage left, Mr. Mike Walsh, "the man who saved The Maj", then Miss Nancye Hayes, joined later by the young Beau Woodbridge and Miss Donna Lee, and finally, and most importantly, the author himself Mr. Frank Van Straten. We saw projected images of the shows, we watched the stars, we heard the stories ...
Nancye spoke of Frank's magnificent new book (designed by Miss Jenny Zimmer) as a "treasure of a tome" and she regaled us with tales of the many productions she, and others such as Toni Lamond and Jill Perryman, had performed in, from My Fair Lady, and onwards – shows "that were the fabric of my early and extremely formative years" – How to Succeed in Business, Camelot, Hello Dolly, Pajama Game, Sweet Charity – to name just a few.
"But that was yesterday," Nancye said, "and this theatre is very much of today and the future." Beau Woodbridge then took the stage – "the young man who on the opening night of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was seen in the role of Jeremy". Beau spoke of this experience and also gave us "Waving through a window" (a song by Ben Platt, from the Broadway production Dear Evan Hansen), accompanied by Mr. Andrew Patterson on keyboard.
Interspersed throughout the presentation (produced by Mr. Peter A. Adams) were video clips and slides, and the recorded and illustrated words of Frank Van Straten.
Following Beau's segment Nancye spoke of "A powerhouse of a performer, Gloria Dawn was cast in the role of Mama Rose in Gypsy and what a performance as the stage mother from hell! Also in the cast was her very own daughter", Donna Lee, who gave us a delightful and energetic rendition of "Some People", a song first sung by Ethel Merman in 1959 – the lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, the music by Jule Styne.
With an inspiring speech Nancye Hayes launched Frank's stunningly impressive book –
"This book is important. It is more than a collection of people and stories and this wonderful building – it is, more importantly, about us – the way we were. The importance of history is that it allows us to take a good look at ourselves and is a permanent record of what made us laugh and cry and, as such, is a social history of us all. When Mike took over the theatre it had seen better days but thanks to his determination and generosity Her Majesty's Theatre Melbourne will continue well into the next century. Bravo Mr. Walsh!"
Donna and Beau treated us to one of Jule Styne's most memorable songs from Gypsy, "Wherever we go". Then, to the strains of Irving Berlin's "Let's go on with the show", it was time for the cast – Nancye, Mike, Frank, Donna, Beau and Andrew - to take their well-earned bows.
But, quite literally, this spectacular book must have the last word:
"It's great – ah it's great,
So grand! So grand!"
Indeed yes – and what a swell party it was!
With apologies to Cole Porter – and probably quite a few others …
Picture this: a structure sixteen metres high, sixteen metres long and four metres wide. Inside, and halfway up its height, a floor secured at each short end but with a gap along each long side. Into these two gaps are slotted wooden frames, with a system of pulleys, weights and winches, on which an expanse of canvas (and in earlier times, lengths of stitched-together Irish linen) would have been attached.
This basically is what a small group of us were privileged to inspect one Wednesday in July, led by Matthew Peckham, Manager, Production and Capital Works at Her Majesty's Theatre, and a recent and very welcome addition to the Theatre Heritage Australia committee.
The paint frame, in Cohen Place (once Brown’s Lane), the lane behind the theatre: how often we had read about this, speculated about it, had longed to be admitted to explore it for ourselves. And we had heard so much - and so very recently - about the paint frame from Paul Kathner and Ross Turner (at the launch of the Scene Books in May), both of whom worked here back in the 1960s and 1970s, right up until the demise of the J.C. Williamson conglomerate.
After the refurbishment by William Pitt and the re-opening and re-naming of the theatre in 1900 - from the 1886 Alexandra Theatre (architect Nahum Barnet) to Her Majesty’s Theatre - three new buildings were added to the rear of the theatre. In 1902 a scene dock, and in 1904 a three-storey dressing room, followed, in that same year, by the paint frame.
Over the years there has been much activity in this particular part of the city - Melbourne's "theatre land". Close by, what is now the Chinese Museum once housed storage facilities and workshops for set and props building, across the way a costume hire business operated (J.C. Williamson's) and upstairs a vast studio - the Sunroom - was used for daily ballet classes and as a rehearsal space for visiting companies. Where the statue of Dr Sun Yat Sen, founder of modern China, stands (note his two left feet!) an art gallery, the Munster Arms, once existed, along with several other shop-fronted dwellings.
A roller-door opened straight onto the downstairs, or bottom half, area. What immediately impressed was the height of the ceiling (eight metres) compared to the narrowness of the actual workroom, and the paint-stained, encrusted, dribbled and spattered walls, framed and criss-crossed with wooden beams and braces. (We were pleased to see much evidence of current usage - work-benches and tools, aluminium ladders, electrical equipment and what has obviously quite recently been installed, light fittings and wooden-beamed ceiling - this last placed at the halfway point of the sixteen metre wall.)
Around the walls, old shelves, benches and cupboards, all thickly caked with the paint, size and grime of "ages past". To our left three flights of steps led us to the top half of the "frame". This is where the gaps on either side could be viewed - a strange sensation as they had the effect of drawing you to them. In addition, the floor felt "sprung", although not in the 21st century sense of the term - and not advisable to put it to the test! Huge windows at either end of the space, the ones backing onto the rear of the theatre were blacked over, the others, facing west, were clear to the sky.
Across from the doorway to the stairs, a few steps led up to a series of small rooms - a "tea-room" that overlooks the Chinese Square. Stuck to the walls could be seen scraps of newsprint or scribbled names or numbers. On one surface there were curled and brown clippings from papers with the names of some of the artists who had worked within the building. These were headlines cut from various papers of the day.
Ross (Turner), Paul (Kathner), Hayden (Spencer), Bill (Constable), Peter (Pettit) - to name a few. A steep series of steps, ladder-like, led down to a little room below. None of us ventured to explore, though greatly tempted! Mysteriously, the floors of these various rooms no way corresponded to the floor of the upstairs work level …
No evidence now, of course, of any canvas, let alone one actually being worked on. Matthew told us how several artists painted at various levels at the same time, depending on the expertise one would be concerned with detail work such as foliage or architecture, others with skies, sea- or land-scapes. Paint at the top may well drip down onto those below: ideally sequences could be timed, for example a washy sky or background could be executed first up. The old brick walls also boast the odd diagram, a small sketch or trial of an effect or pattern - the walls are mesmerizing, you could examine them inch by inch and create story after story.
The following has been generously provided by designer Rosemary Simons, who takes up the story. Towards the end of the 1950s, Ross Turner, later to found, along with Paul Kathner, Melbourne's Scenic Studios, was taken by Jack Coleman, a member of the famous theatrical Coleman family, to visit the paint frame at Her Majesty's Theatre. At the time, both Jack and Ross were working at GTV Channel 9. It was on this visit to this historic building that Ross met the scenic artist Cecil Newman.
When Cecil Newman died, not very long after this visit, a vacancy was created in the JCW scenic art department. Jack Coleman was a close personal friend of George Kenyon, and the head scenic artist. William R. Coleman (1863-1932) had trained George Kenyon along with Dresford Hardingham and George Upward. In this way scenic art techniques had been passed down for many generations. Not only were these people scenic artists, they were also stage designers. At the start of the 20th century this became less the case in other parts of the world: however Australia did not follow suit until the period between the two world wars. That is the time when many scenic artists' design activities lessened and they instead became the interpreters of specialist stage designers' ideas.
George Kenyon, aka John Alan Kenyon (his birth name), was born in London in 1898 and arrived in Australia after the First World War. A stylish dresser and an ex-Navy man, he took great pride in his formal scenic art training, inclining him to be somewhat dismissive of those who had not been similarly trained. In Ross Turner's view, George's designs might not have been artistically brilliant but were technically so. Kenneth Rowell's designs, on the other hand, might not have been technically brilliant but were artistically so/ were the reverse. This transition from the old school to the new, in stage design and scenic art, was an important period in theatre: George typified the old school and Ross, later joined by Paul Kathner, represented the new.
Paul was working in Sydney under and for William (Bill) Constable and the avant-guard designers and directors at the independent theatres. JCW, meanwhile, imported a lot of their designs (but nevertheless took a huge gamble in commissioning John Truscott to design sets and costumes for the production Camelot).
Rupert Browne worked mainly as a freelance scenic artist but had been resident scenic artist at the Palais Theatre in St. Kilda, around the 1930s. Dresford Hardingham was similarly placed at the Princess. By the 1960s, Rupert (freelancing still) and Dres did not have constant commitments to productions and they were both often free to work at Her Majesty's paint frame - when extra "hands" were required. Both being close to retirement, they were keen to pass their knowledge on - first to Ross and subsequently to Paul.
The scenic artists before Ross and Paul's generation were so competitive: they had portions of the backdrop to paint, as if there was an invisible line between each artist's section. The master painter had to come in and link all the sections together at the end. Even if they all had similar training, they each had their own theories and styles. When Ross and Paul were painting and Dres and Rupert came and gave advice, they often contradicted each other. At times the pressure was such that, if, for instance, Dres was approaching to examine your work, you made sure you painted along the lines of their respective styles.
When Ross Turner joined JCW in Melbourne the painting staff at Her Majesty's consisted of George Kenyon, his son John, and the "splodger" (scenic artist assistant or labourer) Wilson Browne who, according to Ross, was "a diligent old Scotsman who took upon himself the task to be in charge of every teaspoon of material within the paint frame".
The paint department worked out of the paint frame, which was specially constructed in the English tradition. It was very tall, twice the height of a backcloth, but not very wide, owing to real-estate constraints. Roughly, the room had the scaled-down proportions of an English cathedral. Traditionally it would have had skylights with canvas blinds to block out direct light, however these had been removed in the re-roofing of the building.
Down the centre of the room were two long pallets sitting back to back, large movable tables for blending paint before applying it with brushes to the backcloth. At one end of the pallets was a large box for brushes, and at the opposite end, a working table. At the end closest to the door were the gas jets for heating up the glue size. The whole room smelt of that glue. There were rows of shelves containing ceramic chamber pots, individually marked with hand-written labels and each containing a pre-mixed colour pigment. Collectively they represented the traditional range of scenic art pigments.
On the landing at the top of the stairs, there was an old lead-lined sink. On the walls of the staircase climbing up to the painting level, hung hundreds of stencils of wallpaper patterns, architectural details and frieze decorations. The stencils were painstakingly drawn and cut out of heavy oiled brown paper. They were cut between shows, when the paint room was quiet, then added to the stock. Also stored were old square kerosene tins of dried pigment, each carrying a rather flamboyant handwritten label, and ceramic demijohns - which was how the pigments arrived, when imported during the years prior to the First World War.
The hand winches for the paint frame, looking like remnants from old sailing ships, were used for raising and lowering backcloths which had been attached. When you needed a new cloth to be attached, you called in the head mechanist and he arrived with a team to load the frame with this new one. Not that long before Ross Turner started at the paint frame, arrangements were so formal that paint staff were ushered into the office and the door closed, to make sure the painters were kept separate from the backstage labourers. In the theatre hierarchy of that time, the paint room staff were considered superior to the back-stage crew, in fact the head scenic artist was the most highly paid person on the theatre staff - possibly earning more than some of the performers.
Paint frame smells were quite distinctive and they struck you as soon as you entered the space. The main smell was from the glue, which was made from rabbit skins. This same aroma wafted out over the audience on opening night as the curtain rose, but slightly reduced in intensity over time. The toilet, a fixture dating from the time when Melbourne was first sewered, was beneath the staircase. This tiny closed room was shared with the gas meter, creating quite a cocktail of odours.
In Melbourne's cold winter weather, the paint frame was very drafty and utterly impossible to heat. At the height of summer, due to the high ceiling, it was far more bearable. The floor was mopped regularly - three or four times a week. The pallets were washed every day. Every morning, each pot on the pallet was given a good stir. If a new colour was needed, it had to be mixed up from the dry pigments.
Despite this cleaning regime, the paint frame was less than ideal as a work-space, but appealing, since it was so very steeped in tradition. Work clothes varied: Ross worked in a white boiler-suit, a legacy of his Channel 9 days, others wore a mixture of old garments, but when they left the paint room, they were encouraged to wear collar and tie. To work in, George Kenyon favoured a smock over his suit - he often wore a bow-tie.
But to return to the present, or to be more precise, early July 2018. Something I found later, on viewing the photographs taken: over and over again the rooms' painted walls gave an effect of ghostliness as if all those layers of paint, glue and the years of dust had built up a sort of ethereal presence. See for yourselves! I was seeing shadows where there should have been none …
Matthew gave us so much expert information and technical details that all of us left, eventually, bent on researching and reading up on as much as we could find on this grand old lady, Her Majesty's Theatre, and in particular, her beguiling paint frame and those who worked within its high and intriguing walls.
Claudia Funder, APAC
National Film & Sound Archive
After a brief but illuminating introduction by THA's Diana Burleigh, from the wings emerged our speaker for the day, Robert Ray - dancer, director and choreographer extraordinaire.
Robert spoke - with wonderful visual accompaniment - of his childhood and first encounters with theatre, and in particular, the comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan. We learnt about his dance training in Australia (and later in New York), his appearances in J.C.Williamson's musicals, productions such as Charlie Girl, My Fair Lady and Hello Dolly, and appearances with other companies and groups, including those in London, Western Australia and New South Wales.
These experiences led to a career in choreography - works were commissioned by various Australian and New Zealand ballet companies. Among others, he created The Sentimental Bloke, City Dances, Three Sisters and Poems. For this last ballet Robert chose several poems of Sir John Betjeman - set in England of the mid 1920s - and transformed them into dance poems, with music by Jim Parker. The Poet Laureate was delighted at these visual choreographic adaptations. Similarly, C.J.Dennis would have been delighted with Robert's Sentimental Bloke (music by Albert Arlen, arranged, adapted and orchestrated by close friend and colleague John Lanchbery), George Gershwin with City Dances and Anton Chekhov with Three Sisters! Robert's most acclaimed work was The Sentimental Bloke for the Australian Ballet company in 1985, which also famously triumphed in Russia in 1988.
He made a second career in opera, and went on to choreograph for companies here in Australia, in Canada and America. He worked with Dame Joan Sutherland, creating the dances in Adriana Lecouvreur, The Merry Widow and Hamlet, he directed and choreographed for Gilbert and Sullivan Victoria. His enthusiasm for G&S was certainly bearing fruit! Robert also regaled us with many instances of his careers' ups and downs, highs and lows, back-stabbings and shenanigans galore, all part of what Jean Cocteau called "the red and gold disease", or how he described the love of theatre.
For over a decade Robert was a faculty member of the Australian Ballet School where he taught across a broad range of dance disciplines. He studied the Russian ballet system with Evgeny Valukin (head of ballet training at Moscow's Russian Academy of Theatre Arts) before creating and implementing a Russian-based dance program at the Australian Ballet School.
In the late 1990s Robert joined the staff at the Victorian College of Arts and wrote and established a post-graduate diploma in classical ballet teaching. In 2010 he was invited to New York as lecturer to staff at two major dance schools. He recently completed four years as Artistic Director of the Joffrey Ballet School. He continues to direct and choreograph for Gilbert and Sullivan productions both here and in the United Kingdom.
Although our time was well and truly up as regards our arrangement with the Arts Centre, many of us stayed on to ply Robert with question after question over a drink (or three) in Hamer Hall's - aptly named - Bombini Buzz Bar!
Almost exactly five years ago, THA members caught their first glimpse of the JCW Scene Books: on Saturday May 26, 2018, we launched their digitisation (and public access via Flickr) at The Channel, Arts Centre Melbourne.
It has been a long process, and an ongoing one, beginning with that tour of Preston's Scenic Studios back in May 2013. Much time and effort was spent assembling and lodging a submission to the Public Record Office of Victoria, which proved, obviously, to be successful. Next action – "The Great Scene Books Heist" in 2015 and the months necessary for their digitising by Australian Microfilm Services (AMS). The books were returned to Scenic Studios the following year and the long, slow process of adding descriptive text and metadata to the 1000s of images on Flickr by several THA committee members began.
On Saturday, THA's president Simon Piening started proceedings with a brief overview – to a background of thirty or so projected images selected from the books – and introduced Frank Van Straten AM, who was instrumental in setting up the original Performing Arts Museum back in the 1980s in this very building. Later, for a period called the Black Box, now The Channel, the venue holds many memories for Frank – as it does for many of us present.
Frank spoke also of the rescue – one shared with the late Sir Frank Tait's widow, Viola Tait – of two other Scene Books, now safely housed in the Australian Performing Arts Collection, here within Hamer Hall, which led into the introduction of the next speaker, Ross Turner, master painter and co-founder of Scenic Studios, and former custodian of the ten scene books, six of which were shortly to be "unveiled before our very eyes".
At the demise of what was known as The Firm, Ross, J.C. Williamson's Head of Scenic Art, along with Paul Kathner – also present at the Launch and due to speak shortly – saved several volumes, crammed with wonderful black and white photographs of theatrical productions, dating from the late 19th century to the 1930s. Ross and Paul set up Scenic Studios, a company that continues to produce backdrops and a wide range of theatrical products and services. Ross spoke about his involvement in and love of the theatre, he mentioned the artists and designers who encouraged or influenced him, most notably George Kenyon and Rupert Browne.
Paul Kathner OAM was then introduced and delighted us again – Paul was THA's guest speaker at last year's AGM at the Prahran Mechanics' Institute – with his tales of his experiences working for JCW, and prior to that St Martin's Theatre – among other companies. Both Paul and Ross painted a wide variety of sets for operas, ballets, dramas and musicals. These were for JCW and for other organisations who commissioned the paint department at The Firm to undertake scenic art.
Simon thanked the speakers and then asked Frank to "do the honours" by launching the completed project with the unveiling of the books – not without a dramatic cloud of dust – for all those present to view.
The majority of the books are huge – and heavy! The three small albums (Books 2, 9 and 10) were on display, one a sketchbook with a dedication by John Henry Hennings, son of the legendary scenic artist John Hennings. The drawings and ground-plans are by George Gordon, for Dion Boucicault's late 19th century production of "After Dark". The other two albums, of London's St James' Theatre (1890s), contain highly detailed and very clear photos, images used as guides for the Australian scenic artists working on the same production.
Book 5 – 63x51x6 (25"x20"x2.5") – comprises plans and elevations, drawn predominantly in pencil. These were to a scale of half an inch to one foot, a ratio of 1 to 24 – not so different to the scale commonly used today of 1 to 25. Dozens of productions are represented – rarely is there mention of a scenic artist or designer but there are several references to stock back-cloths being used – "Phil Goatcher's standard forest cloth" sort of thing.
Book 8 – 50x37x9 (19.5x14.5x3.5) – also on display, was originally a SHARE REGISTER, CALL & TRANSFER book, the stationer's label dated 1910. Another weighty tome! The photos show stage sets, back-cloths and lighting rigs and they are labelled with the name of the production and the act number. There are a few printed programme segments attached, relating to individual scenes.
But it was Book 6 that really intrigued many of you! Another enormous volume it contains more than 450 photographs – productions such as the Gilbert & Sullivan comic operas, The Silver King, London Pride, Daddy Long Legs, The Belle of Brittany and Monsieur Beaucaire. However it was originally an earlier ledger for accounts – which can be seen beneath the photos and also sandwiched between the pages bearing the images. The accounts date from the late 1890s – for rent shops, the Princess Theatre, admission prices, wages, production costs, etc. etc. All in black or red ink, executed in a beautiful copper-plate script. Such interest was generated at the Launch that there have been suggestions that these unique records should now be made the subject of a separate project! We will keep you notified.
The afternoon ended with an invitation to join the speakers and the committee at Bombini Buzz Bar – to enable us all to toast the Scene Books in time-honoured tradition!
THA would like to thank the following people for making the JCW Scene Book project a success:
Diana Burleigh, THA Committee member
Mimi Colligan Theatre historian, THA Committee member & past THA President
Joshua Cowie, The Channel, Arts Centre Melbourne
Tim Fisher, former Senior Curator, Australian Performing Arts Collection
Gavin Jennings, Special Minister of State
Peter Johnson, Architectural Historian & THA Committee member, THA webmaster & former THA President
Paul Kathner OAM, Scenic Artist & Co-founder of Scenic Studios
Elisabeth Kumm, Theatre Historian, THA Committee member & current THA Secretary
Judy Leech, Artist & Designer & THA Committee member
Simon Piening, THA President & THA webmaster
Brendan Pierce, Scenic Artist & current owner of Scenic Studios
John Rickard, Adjunct Professor
Meredith Sherlock, Here’s Proof
Delia Taylor, THA Committee Member & former THA Secretary
Ross Turner, Scenic Artist & Co-founder of Scenic Studios
Frank Van Straten AM, Theatre Historian & former Director of the Performing Arts Museum
Staff of Public Record Office Victoria
Staff of AMS Imaging
A round of applause for all concerned!
IMAGES FROM THE LAUNCH
Click on images below
Thousands of black and white photographs of backcloths, sets, props and curtains: where to begin? How to present a constructive and informative overview from these ten volumes covering J.C.Williamson and the years immediately before, and then into, the first two decades of the 20th century.
First things first: we wanted to discover more about the actual artists and designers themselves. Who they were, where they trained, what brought them here – to work, ultimately but not exclusively, for James Cassius Williamson. Impossible to relate in detail the backgrounds and careers of them all – rather, mention a few of those whose work is represented here within these Scene Books – although those are merely the tip of the iceberg. And to include a little colour: after viewing so many black and white images it is easy to forget the originals were far from monochromatic, although not what could be termed "Glorious Technicolour". Or were they?!
The set designer, the scenic artist, painter or designer – fine lines exist but are often smudged over – so how to determine who exactly does what? The set designer will draw up a whole stage setting (see Book 5, Plans and Elevations, or the sketches in Book 9), build a scale model or maquette, but not necessarily design, let alone paint, the cloth hanging at the back. This is up to the scenic designer and/or artist who will be bound to have an assistant or apprentice or two – or more. Their work must incorporate many different skills in order to advance or to, ultimately, pass on the craft. Knowledge of, or at least familiarity with, the roles of mechanist, carpenter, lighting director, costume designer, props maker and so forth is invaluable.
There exists still today, at the back of Her Majesty's Theatre in Melbourne, a paint room, commonly known as the Paint Frame. It had a tall frame onto which the backdrops were tied and to allow painting access to the whole of the drop, the structure could be wound up and down. The artist worked from a stationary platform. This was after the style of the English scenic art procedures. Today's scenic artists stretch and secure the cloths to the floor, in the European style, involving a totally different method of working.
Years later, cloths may need to be repainted, refurbished or completely redesigned. There may well be strict rules governing certain back-drops – you did not "play fast and loose" with the designs for the D'Oyly Carte productions.
The cloths we see here in Books 1, 3, 4, 6, 7 and 8 may be the original work of the resident theatre artist, or may be replicated or adapted from a black and white photograph (see Books 2 and 10 for examples of these), or a drawing or sketch in colour, from England or America, or wherever the production had originated. For instance, the designers for the St. James's Theatre (London) productions of Lady Windermere's Fan in 1892 were H.P. Hall, Walter Hann and William Harford, for The Importance of Being Earnest in 1895 again H.P. Hall and Walter Hann, and for Much Ado About Nothing, T.E. Ryan in 1896, and two years later, William Lewis Telbin and H.P. Hall. The numbering that can be seen, usually bottom left hand corner, on many of the photographs related to whatever system of storage had been set up (with cloths rolled-up, folded or hung) by the Head of the Scenic Art Department or the leading Scene Painter.
In Australia one of the first artists whose work appears within these Scene Books was Edinburgh-born George Gordon, son of a very highly regarded scenic artist and landscape painter, William Gordon. From a very early age George (born in 1839) worked in London, initially for his father, and then under Thomas Grieve and Henry Telbin for Charles Kean, at London’s Princess Theatre, to later be appointed leading scene painter at the Royal in Bristol.
In 1879, at the age of forty, and five years after the death of his father, George, along with his wife and seven year-old son John (who was to follow, ten or so years later, in his father’s professional footsteps), arrived in Australia, brought out by Arthur Garner to accompany his, Garner's, London Comedy Company. Along with the older and very established scenic painters John Hennings, Alfred Clint and John Brunton, George worked for the firm Williamson, Garner and Musgrove (in 1911 to become J.C.Williamson Limited) in a position he held until the time of his death – precisely on his sixtieth birthday in 1899 – as a result of a fall whilst alighting from a Melbourne tram.
His work was much in demand – memorable not only for its accuracy and realism but because it had great general appeal. He was responsible for the original Drop Curtain/Act Drop for the new Melbourne Princess’s Theatre in 1886. George and son John were the scenic designers for the late 19th century production of Royal Divorce. Other work included The Ruling Passion (1889), The Geisha (1898), Down on his Luck (1895 – a tableau vivant painted by Frederick McCubbin to which Gordon "has supplied a fine natural background"), many Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, and the spectacular pantomime Aladdin (1882).
Around 1891, ten or so years after George Gordon, London-born Philip William Goatcher (1851-1931) arrived in Australia, attracted by an offer of one thousand guineas a year. He, also, was the son of a scene painter and was first apprenticed to his father. Whilst still in his teens he made a visit to Australia where he had the good fortune to study under John Hennings, who had come to dominate Melbourne’s stage design. Goatcher then headed to New York where he went on to become a highly regarded designer. After two return trips to England, a marriage, four sons and a divorce, he became associated with the successful Savoy Operas in London and ultimately with J.C.Williamson, who held the Australian copyright on the works of Gilbert and Sullivan.
During his years with JCW he created countless stage designs for the G & S operettas, for The Arcadians, and The Silver King, the annual Christmas pantomimes – not to mention the scenery for the premiere in 1911 of Williamson’s extremely successful musical The Chocolate Soldier. No doubt he would have worked with, possibly along-side, George and John Gordon, as he did with William R. Coleman and his son (also William) and the Littles, again father and son.
To return to Philip Goatcher – a very popular and well-read man with a passion for Havana cigars – in 1906 he moved to Western Australia for health reasons (he suffered from chronic bronchitis) and set up a painting and decorating business in the capital, Perth. He was known for creating, for a number of theatres, outstanding drop curtains, only one of which still survives, painted for the Boulder Town Hall in W.A. Other examples of his theatre work exist in Kalgoorlie, Collie and New Norcia, all in that same state of Western Australia. Melbourne's Block Arcade has preserved some of his work, painted originally for the Singer Sewing Machine Company, on the ceiling of the Crabtree and Evelyn shop, at the entrance to the Arcade.
John Little, based in Carlton, Melbourne (Lynch Street, located beside the Royal Dental Hospital opposite the Melbourne University tram stop), supplied stage scenery from the 1870s up until at least the 1910s. John, born around 1850, and his son William (John Little & Sons after 1895), painted drama and pantomime scenes for various theatre firms and companies all over Australia. William, born around the mid 1870s, worked with George Dixon (of a similar age) and Leslie Board on productions such as Get Rich Quick Wallingford (1912), A Night Out (1922), Never Say Die (1914), Lilac Time (1924) and It Pays to Advertise (1916).
Leslie Board was born in Sydney in 1883. He began working for JCW in the early years of the 20th century as a pupil of George Gordon. Later he went on to become their Chief Scenic Artist. He toured England and Europe, studying productions from a scenic and artistic viewpoint. Apart from JCW's Oh Boy! (1918), Nightie Night (1921) and The Sign on the Door (1921) – just a few found here within the Scene Books – he was the scenic designer for the 1916 production of The Royal Divorce, George Gordon being the original designer back in the 1890s. Leslie Board is represented in the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
William R. Coleman was born in Lancashire in 1863 and first worked as an apprenticed artist, aged seventeen, at the Queen's Theatre in Manchester. At twenty he progressed to Head Painter at Liverpool's Prince of Wales Theatre before moving south to work in Bristol. Here he would no doubt have heard all about – and been encouraged by – George Gordon, his move to London, migration to Australia and subsequent success there. William arrived here not long after George's death (and ten years after Philip Goatcher's appearance on the scene) and was, at first, resident at Melbourne's Princess and also at Sydney's Theatre Royal. Initially under a five-year contract, JCW's appreciation of Coleman's ability resulted in an agreement between the two of them which lasted over twenty years. One of Coleman's sons, also William (born 1889), went on to design and paint for Frank Thring Snr's recently developed talkies' industry.
The two Colemans worked on the productions Kissing Time, Yes Uncle, Maid of the Mountains, Mary, Katinka, pantomimes, and many, many other plays and musicals. In 1913 Coleman Snr. worked with George Upward, the next generation of scenic artist, on the celebrated pantomime The Forty Thieves. Coleman accumulated glowing credits for over thirty years. Australia had well and truly come to realize that magnificent scenery filled their theatres just as it did in London!
Geelong-born George Upward (1880-1951) had the very good fortune to be apprenticed to Philip Goatcher (who had been, in his turn, influenced and trained by John Hennings and George Gordon) who mentored him and passed on as much of his craft as was possible. Upward became a most revered and prolific scenic artist, painting for the firm of JCW for fifty years. For six days of the week he would commence work at 9 am, finishing around 11 pm. He was responsible for the scenery and scale models of innumerable productions, he was the first designer to introduce the revolving stage. He left a most extraordinary legacy. Upward worked on (along with the Colemans and/or Leslie Board and George Dixon), to mention only a mere handful, Bird of Paradise (1917) Cinderella (1914), Under Fire (1916), Lightnin' (1919), Boomerang (1916), Penelope (1917), The Sign on the Door (1921), Mary (1922), plus, inevitably, all the G & S operettas.
The scenic artist J. Alan Kenyon worked in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide as set designer, artist and prop-maker having arrived from England shortly after the First World War. Born in 1898 in Woolwich, he died in Australia in 1972. He was JCWilliamson's scenic artist for the early 1950s Borovansky Ballet productions of Swan Lake and Graduation Ball.
And to the "daddies" of them all, the scenic artists of an earlier generation and to whom they all owed so much – William John Wilson (1833-1909), John Hennings (1835-1898), Alfred Clint (1842-1923), Harry Grist (1847-1932), John Brunton (1848-1909) and Walter Brookes Spong (1848-1929) – and whose work and lives influenced so many of the artists mentioned here, endless ovations are most assuredly due, if not in fact, long overdue.
Australian Variety Theatre Archive
Anita Callaway - "Visual Ephemera:Theatrical Art in nineteenth-century Australia"
John Gordon - "Scene Painting in Australia" ("Lone Hand" 2.11.1908)
Performing Arts Collection, Melbourne
Leann Richards - "The Lost Art of Painting a Scene & Making a Scene in the 1800s" (Stage Whispers)
Scenic Studios, Melbourne
Viola Tait - "Dames, Principal Boys......and All That"
Frank Van Straten OAM
And very special thanks to Dr. Mimi Colligan and Elisabeth Kumm
REVIEW OF A THA EVENT by Judy Leech
In the talk entitled "Hidden Theatrical Gems Revealed"!" on Tuesday, May 27, 2014 at the State Library of Victoria, we were shown a selection of playbills, posters, photos and memorabilia from the SLV's George Selth Coppin Manuscript Collection by theatre historians Mimi Colligan and Elisabeth Kumm. These items had been in the possession of George Selth Coppin's daughter Lucy (one of his seven daughters - there were also two sons, young George and Frederick).
When Miss Lucy Coppin died, in 1960 at the age of 87, she had been assisting E.D.A.(Alec) Bagot in the preparation of a biography of her father. Miss Coppin left the papers to Alec Bagot providing, once the book was completed, he gave them to the Commonwealth National Library of Australia - now the National Library of Australia. Coppin the Great duly appeared in 1965. When Bagot died, three years after the book was published, his widow and son complied with Lucy Coppin's directive. After some time, most of the collection was distributed to the State Library of Victoria.
The selection shown represents just a tiny fraction of a vast collection, one containing a wealth of Australian theatre history - material that has been worked intensively and extensively by the State Library of Victoria's Joan Maslen and Shona Dewer.
Among the items displayed by Mimi and Elisabeth were:
GEORGE SELTH COPPIN 1819 - 1906
Playbills for "Coppin's Farewell" as Billy Barlow (Geelong's Theatre Royal, December 1853); Cremorne Gardens (November 1856); Dion Boucicault's "Elfie, or The Cherry Tree Inn" (July 1871) - a world premiere; "The Streets of New York" (March 1872) and Opening of the New Theatre Royal (Melbourne, September 1872).
Photographs of Madame Celine Celeste as Miami in "Green Bushes" (1867); Mr. and Mrs. Coppin in their homes in Richmond (Pine Grove) and Sorrento (The Anchorage); hand-coloured portrait of George Coppin as Sir Peter Teazle in "School for Scandal" (1845) plus a carte-de-visite of Coppin (New York, 1865);
JOSEPH THOMAS (BLAND) HOLT 1851 - 1942
Playbill for "The Breaking of the Drought" (1902); Posters for "The Great Rescue" (1907) and for the film "The Derby Winner"(1915), a British silent film adapted from the 1894 play by Augustus Harris, Henry Hamilton and Cecil Raleigh; Photos of his wife Florence Bland Holt (née Griffiths Anderson); vision scene settings of "The Breaking of the Drought" (1902) and photographic stills from the Franklyn Barrett film of the same name (1920); Postcards advertising 'real water effect' in the production "Never Despair" (date); Drury Lane album of scenes and photographic reference for the 1893 (London) play "A Life of Pleasure" set in England and Burma.
George Selth Coppin was born in Sussex in 1819 in a village not far from the seaside towns of Brighton and Worthing. His father was an actor, and by 1826 George too was acting, singing and playing the fiddle in England, Ireland and Scotland. In 1843 at the age of 24 he travelled to Sydney with Maria Burroughs, an actress nine years his senior - she took the name Mrs. Coppin.
They toured New South Wales and Tasmania for the next three years and in June 1845 formed a company in Launceston, moving to Melbourne for a season at the newly opened Queen's Theatre, at the corner of Queen and Little Bourke Street. The repertoire included "The School for Scandal", plus Melbourne's first performances of ballet. The following year Coppin spent some time in Adelaide. Not only involved in theatre he had interests in hotels, politics, racing, mining and freemasonry.
In 1849, after a short illness, Maria died. A period in Geelong and the Victorian Goldfields followed for George, plus a return to London, in 1853 (the Haymarket Theatre) where he engaged the tragedian Gustavus Vaughan Brooke for an Australian tour. In December 1854 he returned to Melbourne with a prefabricated iron building which became the Olympic Theatre - the "Iron Pot" - where the Comedy Theatre now stands. The year after he married Harriet Hillsden, Brooke's widowed sister-in-law. During the 1850s he ran three theatres, four hotels and the Cremorne Pleasure Gardens in Richmond. (He was a member of various legislative assemblies and councils off and on up until 1895.)
In 1854 English actor-manager Clarance Holt (originally Joseph Frederick Holt), at the suggestion of George Coppin, came to Melbourne with his first wife Marie (nee Brown). He played in Geelong, Hobart and Launceston, Sydney, the Victorian Goldfields and New Zealand. In 1858 he returned to Melbourne with his family, including his seven year old son Joseph Thomas (later, known as Bland) Holt. Holt senior leased theatres in Victoria and New Zealand (his son received his education in both these places), but in 1864 he returned to England.
Two years after the death of his wife Harriet, George Coppin married his eighteen year old step-daughter Lucy Hilsden. The following year, in 1862 shortly after the birth of their first child, George opened the Haymarket Theatre (and the adjoining Apollo Music Hall) in Bourke Street, Melbourne. He engaged the American actor Joseph Jefferson for the Haymarket opening. He also managed to secure English actors Charles and Ellen Kean (and in 1874, James Cassius Williamson and his wife, Maggie Moore).
In 1865 at the age of fourteen, Bland Holt was a professional actor and toured England and the United States of America for the next nine years. He settled in Australia in 1876. His father back in the UK kept in close touch and he was able to secure for his son the rights for "The New Babylon", a melodrama by Paul Merritt and George Fawcett Rowe. Bland established his own company in Sydney in 1880.
The 1880s saw George Coppin back in theatre management (although he had announced his retirement in the late 1860s - none took this seriously), he set up a lucrative copyright agency, a post-office savings bank, Victoria's St. John's Ambulance - plus Australia's very first roller-skating rink. With Bland Holt, in the 1890s, he produced several lavish pantomimes. In 1900, Daisie Coppin, his youngest daughter, appeared regularly as a danseuse at Melbourne's Bijou Theatre, under the banner of Harry Rickards.
After falling ill in March 1906 at his property in Sorrento, George returned to his home "Pine Grove" in Richmond, where he died. He was survived by his wife Lucy and their two sons and five daughters, and by two of his three daughters from his first marriage to Harriet.
Meanwhile Bland Holt had become known as the King, or Monarch, of Melodrama, and he was famed for his productions' spectacular effects - involving horses and hounds, balloon ascents, pigeons, diving feats - plus the first motor-car ever to be used on stage. He frequently starred as a comedian in these productions - which he ensured were stylish - extravagant - expensive. But they paid off!
In 1883 after the death of his first wife - stage-name Lena Edwin - Bland returned to England and stayed for almost four years. He toured sensational melodramas for Sir Augustus Harris, manager of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and for whom Clarance Holt was provincial agent. On Bland's return to Australia he remarried; an actress, Florence Anderson, whom he had employed in England. For the next twenty years Bland and Florence became Australia's favourite stage comedians.
Bland Holt's company staged meticulous, opulent and spectacular comedy-melodramas and plays right up until the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1909 both Bland and Florence decided to retire, following a tour of the Continent, North America and New Zealand, accompanied by private secretary Lucy, George Coppin's daughter. The Holts spent the next thirty years or so in some comfort and style in East Melbourne, Kew and at Miss Coppin's holiday home, The Anchorage in Sorrento, Bland died in June 1942, Florence four years later. There were no children.
The style and business perspicacity of Coppin and Holt equalled that of their English or North American counterparts - they both, in their interpretation of theatre, shared more than a touch of the showman. The legacy of their ventures surpassed their artistic successes on stage and this legacy led the way for others - individuals who aspired to model themselves on these two great Australian actor-managers.
We are very grateful to Mimi Colligan and to Elisabeth Kumm for sharing their passions and their research with us, bringing these two men to our attention, reminding us of our fascinating theatrical heritage, and making us more aware of these two quite extraordinary men.