The Memoirs of J. Alan Kenyon or Behind the Velvet Curtain

Written by J.A. Kenyon; edited by Judy Leech

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In early 2019 I was honoured and delighted to be contacted by one Lisa Kenyon, grand-daughter of J.A. Kenyon, scenic designer, artist, props-maker and special-effects man extraordinaire! She owned a copy of his memoirs and having recently come across THA articles on the designers and painters in Her Majesty’s Theatre paint room, felt this material should be shared.

She put me in touch with her cousin Miles who is the custodian of many examples of his grand-father’s work, models, designs, sketches, etc. Miles’s father John (who had also worked in the Paint Frame alongside his father, J. Alan, or George as he was also known), died in March 2019 at 90, another incredibly gifted, inventive and creative individual.

Thank you Lisa and Miles for your generosity and patience—I hope the following will meet, at the very least, with your joint approval!

Introduction

It was a tall building—sixty feet high, sixty feet long and fifteen feet wide. Three flights of stairs led up to a floor halfway up. On this floor there were two pallets—seven by two feet—with pie dishes filled with colours mixed to the consistency of cream. A brush-box showed dozens of brushes ranging from six inches across to one quarter of an inch. There was a glue urn, urns for boiling water and gas jets to heat up buckets of colour. Stencils lined the walls each side of the stairs. Off the ’big room’ was another room called the ‘model room’ where the Master did his designing and made the set models. This was the paint room of the theatre—also known as the Paint Frame.

Hung on each side wall was a huge frame, suspended on cables and in turn joined up to winches, for taking these frames up and letting them down so that all painting was done at shoulder height. This is where I found myself one day in February 1923.

It all started in London at one of the Chelsea Art Balls. I had met an Australian girl at the Ball who was in London studying at the Royal College of Music. She of course knew of J.C. Williamson Theatres. She even remembered the name of the Scenic Artist—W.R. Coleman [William Rowland Coleman].

With a Royal Navy Commission, I, as hundreds of others, had been retired to the unemployed list, with the Seely-McDonald retrenchment. (See British Capitalism at the Crossroads, 1919-1932.) Having always wanted to do some painting, and at the age of 25, I took the bull by the forelock, writing to W.R. Coleman in Australia. He replied that although he would not promise me anything, if I came out, something may eventuate.

Leaving Scapa Flow—a body of water in the Orkney Islands—I spent a week or so travelling around saying goodbye to my relatives. I sailed from England, landed one day in Melbourne, saw Mr. Coleman the next day and started as his pupil the day after—and I have been flat out ever since.

During my over-forty years in the Entertainment Industry, I have worked eighty-one hundred-hour weeks, and one week even, one hundred and twenty hours.

The motto of my mother’s family was ‘Che sera, sera—What will be, will be’. One of her ancestors had at some time in the past thus acknowledged the immutability of fate. As far back as the life and times of my maternal great, great, great grandfather, who flourished in the early part of the 18th century, this probably worked out very nicely indeed.

This great, great, great grandfather was the father of four boys who were all suitably settled in their station of life by him. They squired their estates at Eynsford, Otford, Hawley and Plumstead, all in the County of Kent. I just remember my great grandfather and recall his brougham with the painted crest. He gave me half-a-crown if I could repeat ‘Che sera, sera’. My father attended a school where the boys wore yellow stockings, knee britches, and the two-tongued bib which is still worn by barristers.

My father was one of the school of hard-livers and hard drinkers, well known for various exploits which involved both. In addition, he had a Welsh temper, and was always involved in some argument or other, generally one with a religious basis. He took pride in being an agnostic and delighted in bringing Catholic or Protestant clerics home to do battle with him. The arguments always ended in the same way. As a child, wakened from sleep by the noise of crashing furniture, I would creep out onto the landing and peep through the bannisters to watch Father in an exuberant mood working havoc with the hall tables and chairs. In those days a man’s home was his castle and if he wished to wreck it that was his undoubted privilege.

My paternal grandmother was Welsh. I used to watch quite fascinated when she literally danced with temper having been teased by the menfolk of her family, who liked nothing better than to incite a display. There was an occasion when I decided it would be fun to provoke her just as my uncles did. It was Christmas and the whole family was coming to dinner. Grandmother was in the kitchen beginning preparations for the feast. I loved the huge kitchen with its tiled floor and gleaming brass and copper pans hanging over the massive fireplace, and went there as often as I was allowed. Grandmother was at the table busy with the biggest turkey I had ever seen. She was disembowelling it, practically up to her elbow in turkey. I was sufficiently ill-advised to start sniping at her with what I considered to be choice witticisms. Her arm left the turkey with the speed of an arrow and with deliberate aim threw the entrails right in my face. My discomfiture was not lessened by the delighted shrieks of everyone present.

My father had seven sisters. They were all very lovely to look at and great fun to be with. One married a Master Potter at Stoke-on-Trent. He supplied the market with—of all things—china jerries. They ranged from plain to highly ornamental. In the paint room at Her Majesty’s there is an unique collection of these useful objects. They are invaluable for using as receptacles in which we keep moist colour for the supply of colours on the pallets. Visitors invariably are moved to ribald comment when they see them for the first time.

My father was able to give my sister and brother a satisfactory education. I was a day-boy at George William College in London. These years were of tremendous help to me later on in Motion Picture production, particularly Maths, Chemistry’s ‘Light, Heat and Sound’, etc. My brother spent some years at a boarding school in Norfolk—my sister studied Art at South Kensington.

My mother’s destiny was considerably less happy than that of her fortunate forebears. Her life was shortened by the hardships she suffered during the hard winters of World War One. A combination of insufficient war rations for which she had to stand interminably in queues in the freezing cold, and the struggle to do her bit as a war-worker caused her to contract the pneumonia which resulted in her death. This happened while I was still at school.

The old aphorism ‘The Show Must Go On’ I found out, years later, and irrespective of circumstances, meant just that! It was one of my blackest days, standing with my wife, hearing the mournful words ‘Ashes to ashes, dust to dust’, pronounced over the tiny casket of our adored two and a half year old daughter. Then—back to the paint room to work all night. By this time I had built a house and turned a bedroom into a studio. I constructed a large frame that carried a canvas on which I practised painting—everything. Anything at all which grew or came somehow into the painting of scenery was grist for my mill. I joined the class at the National Gallery in Melbourne. I went into the bush every chance I got. This, however, is the paradox.

Chapter 1: In the Steps of Giants

Ihave often wondered what would be the personal reaction of some of the old scenic artists, if they could come back today, and see what we moderns had made of it. It would probably not be very complimentary. They all had the reputation of being tyrants, and were of course very conscious of the dignity of their profession. I distinctly recall a story told me by one of the very old members of the fraternity. His name was John Hennings and his father (also John) was a scenic painter and at various times a co-partner in the management of Melbourne's Theatre Royal, during the Coppin era. The story concerned one John Gordon (1872-1911), the son of George (1839-1899), who was the scenic artist at the Princess Theatre. He happened to also be an architect. His own son was in the paint room with his father. Arriving as was customary late in the morning—in those days the theatre and the paint room kept the same hours, everyone being there until the curtain fell at 11 pm—John Gordon enquired the whereabouts of young John. On being told he was up on the fly floor he demanded his instant return to the paint room. He then delivered a stern lecture on the undesirability of looking over the fly rails at the people on the stage below during rehearsal time. He particularly forbade any association at all with the ladies of the chorus, and he ended his diatribe with the solemn injunction to ‘uphold the dignity of the paint room at all times’.

One of the first modern scenic productions to be staged here in Melbourne was Noel Coward’s This Year of Grace produced at the Theatre Royal in 1929 in Melbourne's Bourke Street. We were given somewhat childish outline drawings which had been slightly tinted. W.R. Coleman had said to the mechanist “Any old canvas will do for this stuff.” When the first frame of scenery was ‘put on’ by the boys and the frame was being taken up, there appeared an assortment of really old flats, but one of them was entirely different. It was most beautifully painted—a piece of scenery from a set of an old castle. The painting of the weather-beaten stone was—well, old stonework. The creeper hanging between the castellated walls was so real one could pick off the leaves, and the moss was alive and damp. Mr. Coleman was painting on the other frame opposite—I called his  attention to this flat coming up through the cut. His face mirrored his astonishment. For a while he regarded it in silence and then muttered “Well! Well! Well! I remember that being painted—by a man called Stafford Hall.” He went on to say that Hall had worked for three months on this scene. It was then set up on the stage and lighted. Hall then had it returned to the frame and worked on it for another few weeks. The end of this story came when I found a box of old programmes in an office after Her Majesty’s had been burnt out, in 1929. One particular programme was for A Midsummer's Night Dream. It was beautifully printed in green and gold. It had come out (to Australia) with the complete production of the original painted scenes. I turned over the cover, and there on the front page was a list of the five scenes and the five different painters. They were painted by the greatest scenic artists of the time. They were household names in the profession. There they were—Stafford Hall (1858-1922), Hawes Craven (1837-1910), Conrad Tritschler (1868-1939), Joseph Harker (1855-1927) and William Rowland Coleman himself (1864-1932)—one scene represented the work of each painter. The ‘splodger’ primed out this beautiful painting and we settled down to draw up the rubbish which was requested for the next show.

George Upward (1880-1951), from whom I took over the paint room at Her Majesty's, had been articled to Walter Burley Griffin. Amongst much else, he had designed Melbourne's Capitol Theatre. The Capitol has such a really magnificent ceiling that it was decided to retain it during subsequent alterations. He was also an articled pupil of Phil Goatcher (1851-1931), another very famous English-born scenic artist, where his reputation as a ceiling painter ranked among the foremost of his time. One of the Collins Street shops has a ceiling which was the work of Goatcher. His draughtsmanship and his masterly treatment of detail put him in a class by himself. As a matter of fact, some of his scenery is still in store. Following in the footsteps of my predecessors, I was most grateful to ensure that when any of Goatcher's work was brought out to be used, it should be dusted and sized with great care. This process which had been followed over the years had, inevitably and unfortunately, dulled the colours.

One very beautiful scene which had originally been painted for Maritana (one of the most popular operas ever performed in Australia) was used for one of the scenes in Tosca. It was during an opera season when this particular scene came on the frame. Its beauty was still arresting, in spite of the passage of time since Goatcher had painted it (obviously not that of the first Australian production). Even after the passing of years, it still possessed all the magnificent draughtsmanship of ornament for which Phil Goatcher was so superbly a master. It had to be admitted that this work of art had faded, and I decided to touch it up. With the utmost care, and approaching the task with due reverence, I repainted the depth of the ornament and the highlights. It lived again, its beauty restored. At least so I thought. Unhappily, my pleasure and gratification were not shared.

George Upward, who after a stroke, had been told by Frank Tait to take things easy and keep out of the theatre, persisted in climbing the stairs to the paint room almost every day. The three flights would take him ten minutes of puffing and panting to make it upstairs. He was always exhausted when he arrived and was in no condition to be confronted with the horrible sight of me touching up one of Goatcher's masterpieces. Such sacrilege was enough to give him another stroke. Watching me must have been sheer hell. With measured steps and menacing frown, he approached within one foot, and in a savage tone he snarled “You bloody vandal!” There was another of Goatcher's famous cloths which I liked to think I had restored to something like its pristine beauty. This was the opening back-cloth depicting Venice in The Gondoliers. I not only repainted it, to bring back its lovely colours, but I had the colossal nerve to pull the sun around a little, and thus shed more light on the facade of the Chiesa della Salute in Venice. George was spared the sight of this piece of impertinence, otherwise it might really have meant heart failure for him. George died in 1951.

There was—perhaps it is still there somewhere—another cloth of this scene from The Gondoliers. It was painted either by George Gordon or Phil Goatcher. It was different in as much as it had hundreds of people coming down the steps out of the church. Each of these figures, though some were only an inch in height, was beautifully drawn. This cloth was hidden away in store by the head store-man. He was fanatically determined that it should not get into the hands of some philistine who would be unable to appreciate how unique it was. The thought of someone failing to treat such a masterpiece with the reverence due to it filled him with horror, and he was going to make every effort to prevent such a catastrophe.

George Upward was, as mentioned, the pupil of Goatcher, and what a task-master he was. Of course all the fine and finished work was executed by the master. The assistant was only allowed to help with the laying in. All day long the pupil had to copy ornamental and architectural drawing. Goatcher would never look at the work done by Upward until it was time to go home to dinner. If he did not consider the work to be absolutely perfect, George would have to go without his dinner and do it all over again. He would then finish up at about 11 pm. This procedure certainly aided the struggle for perfection on the part of the pupil.

Sunday was instruction day. There was no let-up for the unlucky pupil. As well as being driven into the ground by hard work enforced by the tactics of a brush-wielding Simon Legree, he had to pay a large premium for the privilege of getting into the paint room. There was a good reason underlying this. The master takes only one pupil out of all who offer themselves. This pupil goes through a rigorous training. The idea is that he will eventually take over from the master. This happens when the master retires, or as occasionally occurs in the theatre, he dies on the job. This accounts for the exclusiveness of this job, because it involves a continuity of handing over.

Any mention of ornament brings back vivid memories to me. I was extremely proud of a French interior which I had designed for a certain film production. The modelling staff had modelled it, only to take out all the plaster modelled ornament of the Louis XVl period reception room. I had a slight disagreement with the cameraman about this production. He demonstrated his cleverness to me by over-lighting every scrap of ornament on the walls. This gave them the appearance of being quite flat. I put a stop to any more funny business of that kind by having all ornamental detail at least an inch high on all future jobs.

Early on in my career I was working on the stage touching up the scenery of the operetta Cousin from Nowhere, in which Maud Fane and Claude Flemming were the stars, when Maud, who was a very whimsical lady, had the idea of perpetrating a joke on her co-star. She should have known that nothing could disconcert that gentleman once he was on stage, but she tried nevertheless. Because of his complete control, the joke fell flat. Because a certain common bedroom utensil is most convenient for mixing colour, and the enamel variety if very easy to clean, we made a lot of use of them. On this particular morning, I had one or two containing colour on the job while a rehearsal was in progress.

At the time, I was painting a panel above the door depicting a nude, when a voice, which I recognised as belonging to Miss Fane, floated up from below the ladder. “Just be careful what you are doing to that girl,” she laughed. She went on to discuss the girl's anatomy with an entire lack of inhibition. Then she requested the loan of one of the enamel pots. One of the sets of Cousin from Nowhere had two house exteriors. One house had a flight of steps leading up to the entrance. Maud Fane, chuckling to herself along with some girls in the cast, watched Claude Flemming coming up the steps. He was singing “I'm a wandering vagabond” in true romantic troubadour fashion. Maud's impish humour had given her the idea of setting the pot on the top landing. So she waited in the delighted expectation of the breakup of the ‘vagabond’ when he climbed high enough to catch sight of this object, so singularly lacking in romantic appeal. But true to his profession, he completely ignored its existence and continued to sing his number.

Recalling another amusing incident: on the opening night of The Cingalee, in 1930, the leading man had a song to sing but did not know his lines. He held a piece of paper with the words but was unable to read them. So he took out his spectacles and got on with the song. Then these started to fog up. You can imagine the state of the audience by this time—but when he got out his handkerchief and wiped the lenses, everyone was near collapse.

I recall the very first job I was given at the theatre, in the 1920s. It was to touch up a stage-cloth which was laid out across half the rehearsal floor. Minnie Everett (1874-1956), dancer, choreographer and producer, was rehearsing the chorus. The colour I was using had been made up out of old stock, and it was very smelly—just like rotten glue. “Take that stuff away from here!” snapped old Min. “It has a horrible smell.”

“I'm very sorry,” I told her, “but this is what I have been given to use.”

“We'll see about that!” she said angrily, “I'm not having that stinking stuff here!”

But I finished the job, smell or no smell. This was somewhat of a triumph, as Minnie Everett was a lady who seldom failed to get her own way with things.

And rolling forward to the current day, I recently took part in an interview with one of the radio stations. The session was conducted by Lois Lathleen. We found that we had quite a lot in common, as she had been involved in the theatre for a period. She told me that when she left the Conservatorium she did an audition for the Gilbert and Sullivan seasons in the 1930s. She made the grade, and sang in the chorus. In those days, the indomitable Minnie Everett was the producer. Minnie, who had also been for a very long time a ballet mistress (and a soloist with Madame Phillipini's Royal Ballerinas at the age of 19), always carried a stick with which she was wont to tap the ankles of offenders. All the girls regarded her as a holy terror. At one of the first rehearsals of The Mikado she came up to Lois and barked “Just what the hell do you think you are doing with that fan?” “I am left-handed,” explained Lois. Minnie glared at her and snapped “You'll be bloody ambidextrous by the time I've finished with you.” By the time Minnie and the stage reluctantly parted company, she was well on her way to becoming a legend.

The ultimate of painting is simplicity, but this can only be attained by having a thorough training in detail, knowing what to leave out and what to put in. Arriving at one's degree of this, it is very hard to force oneself to neglect the production of a finished detailed work. Eventually, one reaches a level of perfection, demanded in those days, which is only checked by one's own limitations.

 

To be continued ...

Read 121 times Last modified on Thursday, 11 June 2020 08:07