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.
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!
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
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:
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);
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.
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.
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).