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.
A few years ago when I found myself unofficial executor of Rex Reid's will I also found, stashed away in chests, boxes, suitcases and cupboards, many papers, letters, photographs, diaries and designs - all stored in Rex's dance-studio office and in the study within his apartment in Clifton Hill - some of which dated back to the early 1930s. In 1991, Rex had contacted the National Library in Canberra regarding a collection that he had particularly put aside and this, the year following his death in 2000 at the age of eighty-two, duly travelled north. Although I now have a brief description of the contents I never actually had the opportunity to look through them - something that I will never cease to regret! However, I soon came to discover, much else had remained.
This material principally dealt with two of Rex's closest friends, Georgian Natasha Kirsta and Australian designer Ann Church. Of Natasha much has been written - by Barry Kitcher, Philip Jones and South Australian Peter Ward - but of Ann very little, though her work survives: designs and actual costumes here in Melbourne's Performing Arts Collection and designs on the wall of many a friend or colleague - a little on film and videotape. Even though she died far too young, like, among others, Loudon Sainthill, Barry Kay and Hugh Stevenson, I felt I’d found enough to attempt a reconstruction, an appreciation, of her life's work.
In South Melbourne on the seventh of May, 1925, Ann Rachel Church was born to wealthy New Zealand merchant, Seymour Church, and his Russian-born wife Michlia Osporat. Michlia’s mother, born in the 1870s and reportedly a princess, had fled the Russian Revolution with her life, her many sons and daughters, and, inevitably, some very valuable jewellery. One of those daughters, Rachel, and Ann’s aunt-to-be, became a highly regarded dress designer – the Queen Mother was amongst her clientele - a brother Henri found fame as an artist and sculptor. Presumably Ann's parents met in England and she, as Seymour and Michlia continued to spend a lot of time abroad, attended an English boarding school. She finished her secondary education at St. Catherine's in Melbourne at fifteen or sixteen, even then building a reputation with her painting and drawing skills. Angela Cousens, with whom she travelled to the UK and Europe round about the beginning of the Second World War, described to Rex, many years later, the artwork she created, the murals she painted. She also spoke of the outfit Ann wore to a Young People’s Dance at Government House - a full-skirted red tartan, taffeta dress with red elbow-length gloves - a costume that surely presaged Ann's work to come.
Back in Australia, from 1942 to 1945, Ann studied art at the Melbourne Technical School of Art (now RMIT University) where Kenneth Rowell, too, was studying painting (and where Loudon Sainthill, at an earlier stage, studied art under Napier Waller and where both Barry Kay and Anne Fraser were, in the late 1940s, to commence their art courses). In 1946, Ann continued her studies at the National Gallery School, along with private lessons given by Frederick McCubbin's daughter-in-law - an artist, no doubt, in her own right and with her own name!
In 1949 Rex Reid, after studying and performing ballet in the UK and Europe, had rejoined Ballet Rambert at the end of their Australian tour and was now assistant to Joyce Graeme, the Artistic Director (and also ex-ballet Rambert), of the newly formed National Theatre Ballet Company. Rex was commissioned to create a ballet for the season in October of that year. Introduced, no doubt, by Kenneth Rowell, now a very experienced stage designer, Ann Church was launched.
Inspired by Katherine Dunham's dancers, her company having toured the USA and Europe in the mid to late 1940s, Rex created Les Belles Creoles, to music of Aaron Copland, his El Salon Mexico. Ann Church designed both sets and costumes - dancers included Margaret Scott, Mary Duchesne, Alison Lee and Marie Cumisky, along with Jack Manuel, Graeme Anderson, Bruce Morrow, Leon Kellaway and Ronald Reay. Rex danced the role of Sampson, Joyce Graeme that of Delilah. The ballet was described as "a colourful scene in a Creole bar, New Orleans in the nineties". Les Belles Creoles, along with The Listeners, Les Sylphides and Egypt, was presented at the Princess Theatre.
The costumes for this, Ann's first ballet, were wonderfully bold and brightly coloured - stripes, polka dots, checks, Harlequin diamonds, bobble-fringing - and black face! The music is a short piece, some twelve or thirteen minutes long, but judging from Harry Jay's photographic record, the dancers were incredibly energetic, the ballet packed full of movement, if not exactly of deep meaning. The set echoed the costumes in a style very much of the 1940s - reminiscent of the work of Andre Derain of whom Richard Buckle, in his book Modern Ballet Design (A. & C. Black, London, 1955) wrote "…evolved a formula for simplifying reality to make a decorative stage picture, and he had a Parisian eye, rare among serious painters, for what makes a good stage costume."
This was closely followed, once again at the Princess, by, for Christmas 1949, The Glass Slipper. Written by Herbert and Eleanor Farjeon, with music by Clifton Parker, it was presented by the Carroll Fuller Theatres in association with the National Theatre Movement of Australia. This was originally produced in London, Christmas 1944: among the cast then were Audrey Hesketh, John Ruddock and the Rambert dancers, including Joyce and Rex, Margaret Scott, Sally Gilmour, Brenda Hamlyn and Paula Hinton. Max Martin, an Australian painter and set-designer, recreated Hugh Stevenson's designs, Ann Church, assisted by Barry Kay (a few years her junior) designed the costumes (executed by Mesdames Cumisky and Beddoes). Joyce and Rex choreographed (Andrée Howard was the original choreographer) - William P. Carr was the producer.
The costumes for The Glass Slipper were obviously inspired by Hugh Stevenson's illustrations and designs for the original 1944 production. This pantomime-ballet called for a romantic, fairy tale quality - lots of chiffon and velvet, taffeta and satin – handfuls of sequins and pearls, rhinestones and jet beading. Ann's designs, on quite small sheets of cartridge paper, were most specific, covered in very particular instructions to the costumier. Have any of these costumes survived the years - Harlequin and Columbine, the Doctor, the Merchant, the captain, the Graces and the Spirits?
And then, in 1950 at the age of twenty-five, Ann found herself creating designs for Act II of Swan Lake (along with Margaret Scott's Peter and the Wolf, first performed at the parish Hall of St. Peter's, Eastern Hill, and Kira Bousloff's Prasnik) – followed by the ballet in its entirety. Involving well over a hundred costumes, these were made by Madame Cumisky, with assistants Frank Mitchell, Mrs Kaires and Walter Desborough. Head-dresses were executed by Barrie Irwin and the scenery, for three distinct settings, was built in the Princess Theatre workshop and painted by Dresford Hardingham. Swan Lake premiered in the first week of February in 1951 at the Princess Theatre as part of the National Theatre Arts Festival, celebrating the Centenary of Victoria and the Commonwealth's Jubilee. Joyce Graeme reproduced the choreography of Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov and also danced the role of the Queen Mother - Rex Reid that of Benno, the Prince's friend. Lynne Golding, having joined the company in late 1950, danced the tremendous dual role of Odette/Odile, partnered by English dancer Henry Danton.
The roles' truncated tutus were always a sore point with Lynne; she far preferred the soft, downy lengthier look of Anna Pavlova's La Cygne. Indeed, she based a tutu of hers, thirty years later, on this very model when she too danced the role for Lorraine Blackbourn and Edward Pask's Heidelberg Ballet Ensemble in 1980. And as for Odette's head-dress, Rex
famously told her "You're going to wear this crown if I have to nail it to your head!" He took great glee in repeating this little anecdote…
The programme notes for this season of ballets – Corroboree, Aurora’s Wedding, Romantic Suite, Les Sylphides and The Listeners - include a paragraph on Ann Church: “She is one of our most naturally gifted artists in the specialised function of designing for the ballet, and her work is seen to advantage in the decor and costumes for Swan Lake."
During that month of February a Theatre Arts Display was held in the Print Room of Melbourne’s National Gallery. John Rowell, Kenneth's uncle (and brother of painter William), a set designer and art lecturer of some note, assembled designs, models and puppets - the work of some forty-odd artists and designers. These included Ann, Barry Kay, Loudon Sainthill, William Constable, Robin Lovejoy and Clem Kennedy, and, not surprisingly, the two Rowells. Alan McCulloch, another contributor, wrote the catalogue's foreword.
(Eleven years before, in 1940, Harry Tatlock Miller had arranged an exhibition of Art for Theatre and Ballet under the auspices of the British Council in London. Included, of course, were several works of Loudon Sainthill, the two having met during the visit of the first Ballet Russe. The exhibition was held at the David Jones Gallery in Sydney, opened by Colonel W. de Basil, and later, in April of that year, at the Mural Ball of the Myer Emporium in Melbourne. Two years later he assembled another display - of “art for ballet and the theatre", but this time all the exhibitors were Australian. Another two years on an exhibition of designs and drawings, with Borovansky Ballet connections, was held in the foyers of the J.C. Williamson theatres.)
But late 1951 found Ann, Rex and Joyce in London again and Ann was soon in demand as a designer for Pauline Grant, who choreographed ballet segments for productions at the London Palladium. (The following year Lynne Golding also left the National Theatre Ballet Company and sailed to the UK - she too became involved with Pauline Grant and various productions at the Palladium and around England and Scotland.)
Through Rex, Ann met Natasha (née Heismond) and George Kirsta, the former with her own ballet company (which Rex subsequently became a member of) and George, Ukrainian artist, poet and designer of some significance, currently endeavouring to keep alive the Original Ballet Russe, after the death of Colonel W.de Basil in July 1951.
Kirsta had worked with Bronislava Nijinska, the Markova-Dolin and the Metropolitan ballet companies - among others - both in the UK and Europe. Unfortunately his attempt to reorganise the Original Ballet Russe was not successful, and another promising venture, Ballet Comique - which had employed many touring dancers and choreographers, had insufficient financial support and it too failed. Early in 1955, at the age of sixty five, George Kirsta died suddenly, leaving a daughter Alix and his second wife, having separated from Natasha long before in Paris around 1930.
In August 1952, Ann Church married French medical-student Raymond Hubert Michel Bury at St. Paul’s Church, Knightsbridge, London. Ann had met Raymond years before as their fathers had long been acquainted.
Ann, Ray and Rex spent much time together, holidaying in France and Italy - constantly in each other’s company. Early in 1953 Ann visited Australia briefly to supervise decor and costumes (strikingly bold, with cherry-red, purple, black and white dominating) for Alison Lee's ballet En Cirque for Laurel Martyn’s Victorian Ballet Guild. This premiered in May of that year at the Guild Studio Theatre in Bourke Street. Dancers included both Laurel and Alison, Marie Cumisky, Ann Finch, Laurence Bishop, Harry Leitch and Eric Brown, and at a later season Ray Trickett (much later still an additional pas de deux was created for Patricia Cox and Laurie Bishop). The music was by Tcherephine. Once again Madame Cumisky supervised the making of the costumes. The ballet was televised by the ABC in 1963.
Back in London, Ann found herself designing costumes for the ballets Rex was choreographing for various productions in theatres, nightclubs and casinos, in England, Europe and South America. Among these were La Matchisse, a traditional Spanish ballad ("sur les motifs Populaires de la Celebre March Espagnole"), Tango Bolero, Rhumba al la Dunham, and in 1954 Ann designed costumes for Carmen Miranda in the production Ring My Bell.
In 1955/56 she was responsible for all the costume designs for Rex and Natasha’s tiny touring company Les Cosmopolitains. Some of these designs survive, if not the actual costumes – due to the Suez Crisis of October 1956, when the company fell foul of the authorities whilst on tour in Cairo.
That same year Ann had been commissioned to produce designs for The Happy Hypocrite, to be presented by Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin's company, now the Festival Ballet. (In the late 1930s Antony Tudor had choreographed the dance sequences for The Happy Hypocrite , a musical play produced by Maurice Colbourne. Clemence Dane had adapted Max Beerbohm's tale, Ivor Novello wrote the music and played the lead, along with Vivien Leigh, Peggy van Praagh and Hugh Laing provided the ballet - and Motley, the decor!) Alas, the production was not to be. One wonders where these designs are now, who supplied the scenario and who was commissioned to write the music. Could there be any connection to the ballet John Meehan created for the Australian Ballet Choreographic Workshop in 1973 with a score by John Lanchbery? Certainly Lanchbery had had professional dealings with several London ballet companies in the late 1940s and into the 1950s – or had Markova and Dolin intended to use the American Herbert Elwell’s ballet score, first performed back in 1925?
Back home in Australia Rex and Ann - followed not long after by Natasha Kirsta - continued to collaborate; for example on the Tivoli Circuit's Say It With Stars, and in 1957 the ballet Fête de St. Valentin for the Ballet Guild, presented at Melbourne's Little Theatre. In the programme the ballet was described as a “romantic gathering of people sharing the pleasure of St. Valentin - mysterious twilight in a garden lit by Chinese lanterns sets the atmosphere; the choreographer's task is to maintain the spirit of romanticism in all the dance movements."
Using the music of Rossini, arranged by Britten, and drawing on the ballet Soiree Musicale, choreographed by Antony Tudor in 1938 for London Ballet and then Ballet Rambert, a sequence of dances was presented incorporating a Waltz, March, Canzonetta, Bolero, Tarantella and a Tyrolean dance for two.
Among the dancers were Audrey Nicholls and Eve King, Jack Manuel and Ray Trickett, Heather McCrae and Artur Turnbull (in May the following year a further five dancers were added). In lieu of payment Rex presented Audrey and Eve with their costumes. These, made by Dulcie Pattie and Nelleen Hodges, are now carefully preserved in the Performing Arts Collection here in Melbourne.
During the 1957 season of the ballet an exhibition of Ann's designs were displayed in the foyer - "her work is highly regarded by internationally famous dancers Georges Skibine and Maria Tallchief, and producer-choreographer Roland Petit.”
In 1959 Ann created decor and costumes for La Nuit est une Sorcière - a "Dance Drama in Two Scenes by Rex Reid and Ann Church". In addition to the design Ann wrote pages and pages of notes on the lighting; it was truly a co-creation. The book was by Andre Coffrant and the music, by Sidney Bechet, Rex had acquired the rights to back in the early 1950s, whilst in Paris. (A French ballet company presented their version in 1955 - Ballets de la Tour Eiffel - as part of the Aix-les-Bains Festival.) Premiering at Melbourne's Little Theatre (now St. Martin's) the dancers, from the Ballet Guild, were Ann Becher, Alison Lee, Heather McCrae, Jack Manuel, Kenneth Tillson, Laurence Bishop, John Bailey and Anthony Burke who, in 1951, had danced with George Kirsta’s recreated Original Ballet Russe. The setting, painted by Robin Wallace-Crabbe, was an old Victorian mansion, deep in the American South, Georgia or Carolina, at the turn of the nineteenth century. The ballet was re-staged several times over the years - by the Australian, the West Australian and Queensland Ballet Companies and was filmed by the ABC in late 1963.
In 1961/62 Ann was responsible for the design of The Erring Knight,or Knight Errant, another ballet of Rex's and directed for the ABC by Christopher Muir, with the music of Sir Edward Elgar. There were several other ballets commissioned by the ABC – also by HSV7; who knows what their archives may reveal - but who knows what was destroyed in the Channel 7 fire many years ago?
Ann and Raymond divided their time between Patterdale, a beef-cattle property in Main Ridge on the Mornington Peninsula, and a house in Pasley Street, South Yarra. Both houses were filled with antiques and objets d'arts - much entertaining went on. Both Ann and Rex were passionate about cooking and would hold wonderful lunches and dinner-parties. They maintained a wide circle of friends - artists, writers, dancers, musicians, students - and Rex, fascinated by all things Russian, delighted in the friendship of both Natasha Kirsta, the Georgian princess, and Ann, always very aware of her own rather special Russian heritage.
In 1960 Ann had begun working on some designs for a Melbourne Cup Centenary ballet whilst Rex worked with several of Borovansky's dancers, including Audrey Nicholls, Eve King and a young English dancer/choreographer Betty (surname unknown), apparently extremely talented. After Boro's death (in 1959) and the folding of his company, Geoffrey Ingram, now administrator of the newly created Australian Ballet, approached Rex to discuss a new ballet for the company's inaugural season. None of the suggestions particularly appealed to Rex, who brought up the idea for Melbourne Cup, even though it could not be staged until 1962, a year after the Centenary. Once agreed upon, Rex, Geoffrey and Ann researched the music and mores of the period, Rex adapted - commandeered? - Betty's choreography (presumably she had returned to the UK!) - and they were off!
The designs incorporate the Theatre Royal bar, the "Saddling Paddock", with banners advertising a production of Othello; at that time, 1861, the Theatre Royal was presenting seasons of opera alternating with drama. (On the enclosure awnings, Scene III at the Flemington Race Course, the names Spiers and Pond are emblazoned. These two were restaurateurs and entrepreneurs of those particular times, also responsible, coincidentally, for sponsoring in December that year, the All-England XI Cricket Team, a team that included, along with Captain H.H. Stephenson and William Caffyn, my great-grandfather Charles Lawrence…)
Harold Badger, son of the renowned jockey of the same name, rather appropriately arranged and orchestrated music of the era. Dancers included Kathleen Gorham, Barry Kitcher, Bryan Lawrence, Leonie Leahy, Warren de Maria, Suzanne Musitz, Caj Selling and Karl Welander. The ballet premiered on 16 November 1962 at Her Majesty's in Sydney, was filmed by the ABC in 1963 and in 1965 revised and included in the repertoire of the company's first overseas tour.
La Nuit est une Sorcière was restaged in 1964 by the Rex Reid Dance Players at Wal Cherry's Emerald Hill Theatre in South Melbourne. This group was drawn from dancers contracted to GTV9 and HSV7, J.C. Williamson and Garnet H. Carroll, the Victorian Ballet Guild - and from other sources. Among them were Robina Beard, Laurie Bishop, Patricia Cox, Mary Duchesne, Jack Manuel, Edward Miller, Barry Moreland, Audrey Nicholls, Kenneth Tillson and Artur Turnbull.
Also presented - "Sunday Night at Emerald Hill" – were Jack Manuel' s The Comedians (with a marvellous score by Kabalevsky), Beverley Richards's Merry Go Round (to Malcolm Arnold’s music) and a revival of La Matchisse - all with designs by Ann Church. The costumes for this last ballet, made by Ray Trickett, had also made an appearance within a ballet segment Rex choreographed for HSV7's Sunnyside Up, in the late 1950s or early 1960s. Ray, who was also one of the dancers, along with Laurie Bishop, Jack Manuel and Bill Maynard, went on to make and/or design costumes for many a ballet - who had, in fact, been doing so ever since the very early 1950s when he and his wife, dancer Maureen Davis, were both members of the National Theatre Ballet Company. Other ballets at this venue included George Dubowsky's Ivan, with music by Samuel Barber, decor and costumes Mirka Mora, and a Swan Lake Pas de Trois.
Also in that year, 1964, Ann was responsible for the costumes and settings within a production, released worldwide through United Artists, The Illusionist, a film by ABC director Brian Faull. Rex choreographed, George Dreyfus composed the music, Bill Armstrong was the sound recordist, Jack Manuel, Kathy Gorham and Rex played the three leads. The film was set in the Malvern Memorial Grammar School – transformed into a vast mansion, complete with ballroom, opulent drawing rooms, bed-chamber, haunted cellar and romantic loggia. A copy of the film is preserved in the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra.
For whatever reason, Ann was never to design for the Australian Ballet again - possibly there was some sort of disagreement with the management - although her designs were used when the company staged La Nuit in March 1963. (Rex choreographed The Visitation - a reworking of 1962's Errant Knight for them in 1979, but with new designs by James Aldridge, a South Australian artist who had become Rex's principal designer. The original costumes no doubt remained in the ABC's vast wardrobe department.)
In 1966 Ann produced decor and costume designs for Alison Lee's Harlequinade, a ballet for the Guild (shortly to be renamed Ballet Victoria), set to music of Ottorino Respighi. I am unable to find any reference to this other than in the Ballet Victoria's repertoire listing included in the lavish souvenir programme for the 1976 production of Petrouchka. Was it something inspired by the harlequinade within The Glass Slipper seventeen years earlier? Certainly Alison, in her two roles as either the Captain or as one of the Three Graces, may well have wished to create her own!
Jack Manuel's The Comedians was revived in September 1967 as part of a "Season of Intimate works” by Ballet Vic (along with Robin Grove's Apollon Musagête, Michael Charnley's Dear Dorothy Dix and Rex Reid's The Little Mermaid) at the Guild Theatre, 49 Bouverie Street, Carlton.
As for Ann Church's design style it is interesting to note the influence on her first works of Hugh Stevenson, the English designer who had accompanied Ballet Rambert on that memorable tour back in the late 1940s. But with Swan Lake one is reminded of early Loudon Sainthill, Wolfgang Cardamatis and Alice Danciger, followed, whilst living and working in the UK in the early to mid-1950s, by a curious, almost surreal quality. In the late 1950s and into the 1960s and 70s her line became much looser and sketchier and, more often than not, executed on a quite large colour-coated, not terribly durable, sheet of paper, with much use of Chinese white or opaque white. Certainly the designs for the English and European productions were invariably on a cream background and, as usual, surrounded by notes and suggestions on fabrics and on the making of the garment. In fact on one sheet she writes: "I found I had no more of this paper (which comes from Suisse and is not obtainable here)."
Ann needed to be constantly working, creating - her letters were full of the detailed research, instructions, suggestions and descriptions that she revelled in. Athol Willoughby, who through a chance meeting with Joyce Graeme became a student at the National Theatre Ballet School, a member of the Company, and then a full-time teacher within the school, treasures designs she produced for him when he opened his own school of ballet.
Ann's personal style was dramatic, theatrical - her clothes were chic and avant-garde: for work she favoured slacks and pedal-pushers, striped tops and espadrilles, her style the "gamin" look, long before the 1950s. Rex wrote: ‘She was moderately tall and slightly built, and wore her thick blonde hair in a straight, fringed Juliette Greco style which she later exchanged for a shaggy “chrysanthemum” cut.’
When Rex was appointed Artistic Director of the West Australian Ballet in 1970 Ann redesigned several earlier works for them and also, in 1973, she created designs for Margaret Scott's Classical Sonata, with music of Gioacchino Rossini, and Mary Duchesne's reproduction of Anton Dolin's Pas de Quatre, music by Cesare Pugni. In 1974 Ann collaborated with Jack Manuel to again restage The Comedians for Ballet Victoria. On the Sunday she wrote to Rex in Perth regarding the performance set for the following Tuesday,16 July: "We've only one day, tomorrow, to set the whole thing up!" This was presented at the Princess Theatre in a season which included ballets by Laurel Martyn, Garth Welch, Walter Gore, George Balanchine, John Meehan and Gail Ferguson. This, in 1974, may wellhave been her very last design commitment, for the professional theatre at least.
Ann Church died, survived by her husband Raymond, on 17 May 1975, infective endocarditis given as the cause of death. Rex, back living in his hometown of Adelaide (now joined by Natasha Kirsta, in 1974, after years living and working in Melbourne, running Rex and Kathleen Gorham's ballet schools), attended the "Return to the Earth", the burying of Ann's ashes, in the ceremony arranged by Raymond on their property in Main Ridge. Photos of the service, in the dramatic setting of Patterdale, show windswept figures in theatrical cloaks and capes - half a world away from its namesake, the valley set deep in the English Lake District.
With Ann Church and Rex Reid at the centre, my intention has been to offer a tribute, to spin a tale, a web of connections; to do justice to the stories and memories of Ann that Rex would, from time to time, regale me with when I was privileged to be given the opportunity to create for him designs - for sets, costumes and props - in the final decade of his long and productive life in dance.
With thanks to – Frank Van Straten OAM Elisabeth Kumm Lucy Spencer –Performing Arts Museum, Melbourne Lee Christofis Audrey Nicholls Jack Manuel Barry Kitcher Laurence Bishop Angela Cousens Rosemary Ryan Alan Brissenden & Keith Glennon’s “Australia Dances” National Film and Sound Archives And all those dancers, artists and designers whose names have appeared within this article.
Note re image captions above: 'PAC Melbourne' refers to Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne. If the collection is not stated, assume that it is a privately held.
Scenic Studios member's tour - May 7, 2013
In an area given over to factories, warehouses, studios, workshops and storage facilities, is it such a great surprise to find in Fink Street (surely named after 19th century Marvellous Melbourne's Benjamin Fink?) Preston, Australia's principal scenic design studios?
When entering this large, light-filled space what first meets the eye is the vast wall of scenic paint tubs, all with the distinctive yellow label designed by Scenic Studios' co-founder Ross Turner himself. The range of paints is huge, based on the Winsor and Newton palette, dating from the 19th century. In addition to these water-soluble, acrylic paints, there are special textures and glazes, primers and extenders and a shelf of "fluro" colours. Scenic Studios also stock various widths and weights of canvas, wool curtaining, gauzes and cloths for specific effects, velvets, muslin and scenic netting for cut cloths.
Upon a solid work-bench Ross set out various examples of some current scenic artists' work; backdrops for the Queensland Ballet Company's production of CINDERELLA – rather different from the upcoming Australian Ballet version (one scene incorporates a huge curtain of tinted fringing – presumably for the dancers to move through) and a musical note, a tiny part of a backdrop for the new production of HOT SHOE SHUFFLE, specially treated and glitter-sprinkled foam.
Scenic Studios include in their "repertoire" exhibition, display and museum design, also that required for television productions, conventions and parties.
Ross let us view his own designs for the Singapore Ballet Company's COPPELIA – beautiful watercolours working on a scale of 1 : 70.
Where digital printing is requested the original artwork is brought up to 50 – 70% colour strength and then worked on by hand for a more detailed and vibrant finish.
Hundreds of painted backdrops are for hire, for both professional and amateur companies and groups, and that includes schools (so many schools now regularly present musical plays – not many schools have the facilities nor the know-how to create their own backdrops for their shows). Sizes vary from 12 – 16 metres in width and 6 – 12 metres in height. These are folded and stored in large sacks. Canvas quality varies – this also affects the weight of the finished backdrop. The depiction could well be a toyshop, railway station, circus setup, forest, ballroom, village, Covent Garden, restaurant, city street – you name it!
Since its inception in the late 1980s Scenic Studios, the "brainchild" of Ross Turner and now "retired" Paul Kathner, has had a few homes – Kensington, Flemington and North Melbourne – and now here in Preston. This particular home is in two parts, the other half just opposite across the road. Because the ceilings here are a certain height, the painting of each backdrop is done on the flat, laid out upon the floor, that is, not attached to a vertical frame.
The canvas is fixed securely and squarely. If it is to be primed the ratio is 3 parts paint to 1 of water, starting from the "top" and working down with a team of people using big soft paintbrushes in a criss cross method. Backgrounds can also be applied using a spray-gun – from a canister the watered-down paint is filtered through a double thickness of gauze or nylon netting. Shoes off – sox only! Background colour is never mixed with white but with water, and gently feathered or sprayed with the same so that colour or tones merge into one another.
If not using a digital printing method the artwork is gridded up into squares and then transferred to the canvas (over the background colour or shade) via charcoal or chalk grid. With an upright, secured canvas flat the drawing or design can be projected from a transparency. It is important that every drawn detail makes sense – that it is recognizable when it comes to the painting stage – the more thorough the drawing the less work (and pain!) later on.....
So many do's and don't's and so many things discovered along the way – so many tricks and effects, not to mention happy accidents!
Nowadays not many set designers employ a painterly style and no scenic artists seem to be emerging from the production courses within the colleges. No longer do television stations hire, on a permanent basis, scenic artists as they once did, back in the 60s, 70s and 80s. But artists and designers are out there and once gripped by the theatre bug the task of producing a scenic background continues to teach the painter just so much.
Ross let us leaf through huge, and now, alas, rather frail and brittle, albums full of exquisitely clear black and white photographs of J.C. Williamson sets and productions dating back to the early 20th century. Although all are identified – many in fine copperplate hand – not a lot of dates are in evidence. The studio's library is a wonderful mix of art and reference books and magazines, journals and albums, and on the walls, along with many Scenic Studios production photos and contemporary theatre posters, there are several framed watercolours of designs for pantomimes, executed by an English artist and sent to Australia for the scenic artist here to reproduce. These were also around one hundred years old.
Is Preston the new Theatreland? where it all begins and where we were granted the opportunity to glimpse the processes involved in the creation of a backdrop, curtain or scrim, for a ballet, a play, an opera or a musical, a setting or display for an exhibition, museum or special event.
Note: A complete set of images taken on the day are available for members to view on our flickr site. These flickr images are available in various sizes for downloading (but are for personal use only).