Thursday, 05 December 2019 17:55

Loudon Sainthill's Canterbury Tales

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Loudon SainthillLoudon Sainthill (detail). Photo by John Deakin. 3LS 294; MS 11 Papers of Loudon Sainthill, Box 3, Folder 3. NGA Research Library & Archives. Gift of Harry Tatlock Miller, 1989. Image: NGA

In 1948 Loudon Sainthill lamented to a journalist from Sydney newspaper The Sun ‘There are no opportunities for a designer in Australia’[1] and this was why he would be going abroad in a few months’ time. The reporter also noted that at the time of the interview, Sainthill was clad only in a red sarong, chest and feet bare. For the past decade Sainthill had worked to establish himself as an artist and costume and décor designer in Sydney and Melbourne. At the time, very few visual artists designing for Australian theatre productions were well paid, and even fewer secured long term residencies within theatres until after World War II. In his biography of Sainthill, entitled Fantasy Modern, art historian Andrew Montana wrote ‘… it was creating décor and costumes for the stage that drove Sainthill. And he was prepared to go unpaid.’[2] His later success in London was testament to the enduring enthusiasm for this work that he first demonstrated in Australia.

  • Loudon Sainthill

    Loudon Sainthill and Jocelyn Rickards in the garden of Merioola circa 1948.

    Photo by Edgar Ritchard. Edgar Ritchard archive, National Art Archive|Art Gallery of New South Wales. Gift of Caroline Goldrick 2011., Gift of Jock Palmer 2011. Image: NGA.

  • Loudon Sainthill

    Loudon Sainthill at Chester Street London.

    Photo by Hans Wild. 3LS 293; MS 11 Papers of Loudon Sainthill, Box 3, Folder 3. NGA Research Library & Archives. Gift of Harry Tatlock Miller, 1989. Image: NGA.

 

Loudon Sainthill (1918–1969) was born in Hobart, and his family moved to Melbourne when he was a child. He was inspired by the Australian tours of Colonel de Basil’s Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo in 1936–37 and 1938–39. An exhibition of his paintings featuring the dancers and sets led to an invitation to travel to London with the company in 1939. Later that year Sainthill returned to Australia in charge of a major exhibition of theatre and ballet designs which toured the country coinciding with the ballet season. During his early career, Sainthill was one of a number of Australian artists who struggled to make a living from designing for the stage as opportunities for independent designers in Australia in the 1940s were very limited. The dominant theatrical production company at the time was J.C. Williamson Theatres Ltd, but costume and scenery designs were in most cases acquired contractually with shows purchased from the United Kingdom or United States of America.[3] These designs were then realised by local contracted scenic artists and wardrobe staff. Sainthill and his business and life partner Harry Tatlock Miller were active supporters of the plan for a large performing arts centre in Melbourne, which arose around the time of the separation of the National Gallery of Victoria and Museum and State Library boards in 1945. During the initial stages, Wirth’s Park had been selected as a site for the venue, but sadly Sainthill would not live to see it realised.

His plan to move permanently to London came to fruition in 1949 and he was soon regarded as ‘one of Australia’s greatest cultural exports’.[4] His name regularly appeared alongside Joan Sutherland and Robert Helpmann in Australian newspaper articles reporting on the triumph of creative expatriates working in London in the 1950s. At the height of Sainthill’s success in England, his designs were brought back to Australia when the Old Vic Theatre Company toured Shakespearean plays in 1955 and 1961. Sainthill was the only Australian designer employed by the company for the tours; the other two were British. His designs for The Merchant of Venice (1955), starring Katharine Hepburn, demonstrated his penchant for medieval imagery and settings—a recurring theme throughout Sainthill’s career. Other key designs of this nature included his Henry V pavilion the 1947 Red Cross Chelsea Flower Show in Sydney, his costumes for Sir John Gielgud’s production of Richard II in 1952, and Canterbury Tales in 1968. Sainthill’s references to a medieval aesthetic in his designs were not strictly historically accurate and his motifs transcend specific eras, but these productions nevertheless have similarities in their design focus.

Sainthill’s elaborate style was immensely popular in the 1950s, but by the 1960s it was at times criticised by some theatre practitioners who advocated for a more minimal aesthetic. This was part of a wider shift in direction for theatre, with productions taking a more on a stripped-back approach to staging and costumes, rather than creating a sense of grand illusion. The enduring popularity of Bertolt Brecht’s Epic Theatre movement which emerged in the 1920s and the arrival of Jerzy Grotowski’s Poor Theatre concepts on Western stages in 1968, led such changes in approach. By this time though, Sainthill was well established in the London theatre scene, and his designs were greatly in demand. Michael Benthall, who produced the 1951 Shakespeare Memorial Theatre production of The Tempest for which Sainthill designed the sets and costumes, described him as ‘the hardest working artist and one of the most talented I’ve ever known’.[5]

Arts Centre Melbourne, as custodian of the Australian Performing Arts Collection (APAC), has recently acquired a rare portfolio of costume designs by Sainthill from the Australian production of Canterbury Tales which toured nationally in 1969 and 1970. The acquisition comprises of 36 costume designs, along with a folder containing annotated copies of the designs, fabric swatches and theatre programs for the production.

  • Loudon Sainthill

    Costume design for King Arthur, Canterbury Tales, c.1967. Designed by Loudon Sainthill.

    Purchased with support of the David Richards Bequest, 2019. Arts Centre Melbourne, Australian Performing Arts Collection.

  • Loudon Sainthill

    Costume design for The Queen, Canterbury Tales, c.1967. Designed by Loudon Sainthill.

    Purchased with support of the David Richards Bequest, 2019. Arts Centre Melbourne, Australian Performing Arts Collection.

Canterbury Tales was a musical based on Nevill Coghill’s translation of Geoffrey Chaucer’s late 14th century collection of 24 stories, The Canterbury Tales. The work was conceived and directed and written by Martin Starkie with Nevill Coghill as co-writer. It was presented at the Phoenix Theatre, London on 21 March 1968. It was one of the last productions Sainthill worked on before his untimely death in June 1969. The London production was very popular with audiences, and ran for 2,080 performances. The musical was then transferred to New York in 1969, although was limited to only 121 performances due to exorbitant production costs. Loudon Sainthill won the 1969 Tony Award for Best Costume Design for this Broadway version. The Australian production opened at the Theatre Royal in Sydney on 17 May 1969, then travelled to the Comedy Theatre in Melbourne, His Majesty’s Theatre in Perth in 1970, and then back to Sydney and Melbourne. This was directed and choreographed by Sammy Dallas Bayes, who had been nominated for a Tony Award for his work on the Broadway production.

Canterbury Tales focused on four tales from Chaucer’s work:The Miller’s Tale’, ‘The Steward’s Tale’, ‘The Merchant’s Tale’ and ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’. The suite of designs acquired by the APAC represents the majority of the central pilgrim characters who narrate the tales, and a selection of other characters.

  • Loudon Sainthill

    Costume design for The Wife of Bath, Canterbury Tales, c.1967. Designed by Loudon Sainthill.

    Purchased with support of the David Richards Bequest, 2019. Arts Centre Melbourne, Australian Performing Arts Collection.

  • Loudon Sainthill

    Costume design for Pluto, Canterbury Tales, c.1967. Designed by Loudon Sainthill.

    Purchased with support of the David Richards Bequest, 2019. Arts Centre Melbourne, Australian Performing Arts Collection.

Many of the designs were specifically drawn for the Australian production, while others are labelled with the names of actors who performed in the London production, suggesting that these designs were created for the original production or alternatively they were rendered from those original costumes and used as a reference for the Australian wardrobe team. Some of the designs within the collection are highly finished and the intended final costume is easy to determine, while others are less detailed sketches, suggesting a silhouette without specific details about fabric and finishes.

Sainthill’s designs for both the London and Australian productions of Canterbury Tales were rendered in pencil, pastel and gouache on coloured cards. These cards created a reference point for Sainthill to work in relation to Derek Cousin’s set designs. This demonstrates Sainthill’s creative process and the way in which he considered the overall effect of his costumes as part of the larger production.

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    Scrapbook pages for The Carpenter and The Prioress costume designs, Canterbury Tales, c.1967. Designed by Loudon Sainthill.

    Purchased with support of the David Richards Bequest, 2019. Arts Centre Melbourne, Australian Performing Arts Collection.

A black display folder, acquired along with the costume designs, contains notes and fabric swatches for each costume, providing a wealth of detail regarding the design and construction process. Often these notes include reference to the fabrics used in London and New York. The notes also outline where an actor plays more than one character. For example, the design for the Prioress notes ‘Actress No 2 Prioress. Also plays Proserpina and Queen Guinevere’. Fabric swatches for the Prioress’ cloak and robe from the earlier productions are supplied, along with a sample of the veil fabric. In cases where major changes have been made from previous designs, this has been noted. For example, designs for the Cook include the notation: ‘This costume was simplified for reasons of economy—the leather decoration was omitted and strings of artificial onions were hung over the shoulder.’ This demonstrates that the designs for the Australian production were not all copies of the original designs for the London production, rather revisions were made by Sainthill with the budget for the Australian production in mind.

This folio of design and supporting material documents a key production in the career of one of Australia’s most important 20th century stage and costume designers. Now held in the APAC for posterity, this significant acquisition was made possible by the generosity of theatre producer Malcolm C. Cooke, and the David Richards Bequest, which provides financial support for the development and care of the Australian Performing Arts Collection’s design collection.

 

Arts Centre Melbourne respect the rights of copyright owners and have used reasonable endeavours to identify the owners of all copyrighted materials reproduced in this publication.

 

Endnotes

[1] “What's sarong?”, The Sun (Sydney, NSW), 8 February 1948, p. 5, https://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article229038631

[2] Andrew Montana, Fantasy Modern: Loudon Sainthill’s Theatre of Art and Life, New South Publishing, Sydney, 2013, p. 159

[3] Carolyn Laffan, “Setting the Scene: Australian stage design 19401965”, Creating a Scene: Australian artists as stage designers 1940–1965, Victorian Arts Centre Trust, Melbourne, 2004, p. 1

[4] Montana, p. 512

[5] “HIS ART IS ‘EXCITING’”, The Argus (Melbourne, Vic.) 10 August 1951, p. 13 (The Argus Magazine), https://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article23060380

Read 207 times Last modified on Tuesday, 10 December 2019 09:36
Kathleen Ashby

Kathleen is an Assistant Curator at Arts Centre Melbourne, working across Art, Design, Dance and Opera areas of the Australian Performing Arts Collection. She graduated with a Master of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne in 2015, and her previous work experience includes roles at Brunswick Street Gallery and the National Gallery of Victoria.