Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Framing the Past

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Framing the pastPicture 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.

Framing the pastCohen Place entry (Photo: J Leech)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.

Framing the pastPaint-encrusted walls (Photo: E Kumm)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.

Coleman Senior at workW.R. Coleman, who trained George Kenyon (NFSA)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.

Framing the pastPaul Kathner & Ross Turner in the mid-1980sThe 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.

Framing the pastFrank Tait & George Kenyon with the chamber pots in the early 1950s (NFSA)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.

Framing the pastWinching away (NFSA)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.

Framing the pastSecond-floor workroom: seeing shadows (Photo: Judy Leech)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.


Thanks to:
Mimi Colligan
Claudia Funder, APAC
Paul Kathner
Elisabeth Kumm
National Film & Sound Archive
Matthew Peckham
Simon Piening
Rosemary Simons
Rohan Storey
Ross Turner



Read 1715 times Last modified on Thursday, 20 September 2018
Judy Leech

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.