A Community of Practice
The oral histories below are from interviewees across the scenic art profession. As illustrated, these interviewees form part of an interlinked community of practice. Artists may paint or design for the same theatres or companies. Materials and supplies may be sourced from the same theatrical chandler. Particularly important in terms of transmitting the legacy are the mentoring links between artists and the teaching links original through art schools now more commonly through theatre schools.
John was born in North Shields in 1934. At the age of 13, John won a scholarship to Kings College, Newcastle where he went each Saturday to study technical drawing and design. On leaving school John joined the Royal Marine Reserves and then the Merchant Navy.
His realisation that being a scenic artist was maybe for him came when he saw a play at the Tynemouth Repertory. At his mother’s suggestion John went to see the producer Douglas Emery at Tynemouth and asked whether he could help. He was taken on as assistant to Jack Williams, and the first play he worked on was Friends and Neighbours by Austin Steel. After a few years John moved to London, working as a scenic artist for the Leatherhead Theatre and then the Royal Court.
In the 1960’s John set up his own studio in a 19th century church in Hammersmith. It was from here that John worked on commissions for both theatre, ballet and opera including The Royal Opera House, Sadler’s Wells, Scottish Opera, London Coliseum and BBC Television. During this period, he has worked with set designers such as Piero Faggioni, Jocelyn Herbert, Peter Farmer and Ralph Koltai, as well as Bridget Riley’s commission for Sadler’s Wells of Colour Moves 1983 for which he painted the stage cloths. Although, John Campbell’s studio closed in 2014, he continues to draw and paint.
Alasdair was born in 1955 in Sutton; as a child he remembers being dragged to the pantomime in Leatherhead and hating it. But the need for an income when he moved to London found him working backstage at the Royal Court. Finding he quite enjoyed the work, he went on to hold an apprenticeship under Alaister MacPherson (master carpenter) at RADA. Alasdair learnt how to paint using size, whiting and pigments as well as make up canvas flats.
After being freelance for a while, Alasdair decided to set himself up as a painting workshop and rented out a 6000 sq. feet warehouse in Tower Bridge, Bermondsey. Slowly building up the business grew to 30/40 people with apprentices and freelance carpenters . “Blobbies” were the scenic painters; the scenic artists would work on the more “painterly“ elements and design. Blobbies painted flat block colour and texture (often local artists would work part time). Alasdair set up Flint Hire and Supply working for the major London theatres as well as the Cambridge Theatre, Glynebourne and productions in Ghent and Antwerp. As well as supplying commercial brands, Flints is known in the production profession for working with practitioners, developing and testing materials when needed. However, even though successful, the London warehouse prices pushed Flints out of Tower Bridge. Instead, Alasdair took over Harkers orignal paint shop reinstating the paint frames and renting them out to painters. When work became short they joined up with Victor Mara Ltd. But eventually the painters were all moved to Newport Street (the original site of Victor Mara’s- now the Newport Street Gallery).
Alasdair’s next reincarnation was in 2014 when he took over the stock and shop at Arthur Beales on Shaftsbury Avenue, a marine chandlery for over 400 years, this shop is also the trade counter for Flints; a natural choice for a keen salior. Alasdair has worked alongside the scenic art profession observing and adapting to the changes in practice and the gentrification of the tradtional homes of both the paint shops, theatrical chandlers and artists suppliers/colourmen of London.
Kelvin Guy was born in Leeds in 1946 and studied Fine Art at Glasgow School of Art. After graduation Kelvin set himself up in picture framing and then picture restoration.
His inspiration to move into scene painting came in 1967 after seeing The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow. Kelvin walked into the Citizens and asked for a job; to his surprise they took him on as an apprentice.
Kelvin started to work for Scottish Opera in the 1970’s, which had just moved to its new home in the Theatre Royal, Glasgow. In the early days the cloths were being painted in London at John Campbell’s or Harker’s, and Kelvin would go down to work on them there.
Eventually, cloths were painted in-house and this is where Kelvin as Senior Scenic Painter, has enjoyed working for more than 30 years with designers including Peter Rice (most notably on the 1980 production of TOSCA), and in recent years with John Macfarlane on The Rake’s Progress.
John Macfarlane was born in Glasgow in 1948, and studied Fine Art at the Glasgow School of Art receiving the Leverhulme Prize on graduation.
One of his early inspirations was seeing Leslie Hurry’s Swan Lake at the Kings Theatre at the age of 11.
John worked as a scenic painter at the Leatherhead Theatre early in his career, and later became the Resident Designer at the Young Vic in London.
Working initially mainly in dance, John has latterly focused on both stage and costume design for opera. He has extensive experience as a designer and artist with a range of international commissions and collaborations. These include designs for Scottish Opera, Canadian Royal Ballet, Nederlands Dans Theatre, Royal Opera House, Royal Ballet, Vienna State Opera, and Metropolitan Opera (New York) amongst others.
In addition to his work for opera and dance, John is a painter and print-maker with works hanging in multiple public collections.
More details can found on John’s website.
Colin Maxwell was born in 1951 in Westcliff-on-Sea; where as a child he would go to see the pantomimes and circus at the local Palace Theatre. As a teenager Colin became involved in amateur dramatics and eventually joined the theatre workshop in West Side Story. It was when the theatre workshop started up The Theatrical Costume House Westcliff that Colin give up his draughtsman job in a civil engineering office for scene painting. He recounts how they bought 100 backcloths from Sadlers Wells at a £1 each to reuse. The cloths were designed and painted with Gerry Bins (who was also a dancer), to whom Colin credits learning everything he knows about scene painting.
He then spent ten years doing a combination of interior design, window dressing and prop making, until he finally began as a junior draughtsman and model maker in the model room at the ROH. After 5 years he became head of the model room where he stayed for 17 years before becoming production manager. However, Colin considers running the model room was the best job ever as you are part of the process with the designer.
Colin has enjoyed working with many of the designers and artists on ROH productions both on the models and as production manager. It’s a satisfying role as at the ROH is everything is unique; even when it’s a revival/reproduction Colin rethinks it – constantly inventing things to make it the very best for that particular moment. Colin feels his heart is where the workshops are, with the painters and the prop makers – “if I wasn’t doing this, I would be doing that”.
Ian McDougall was born in 1952 in Stratford, London. At that time his father was running the business that was set up by his grandfather who had been a representative for some of the textile mills in Scotland. McDougall’s own business started in 1921 supplying cloth to the theatre industry. It then developed into making up curtains and cloths for the theatre, cinema and later the TV industry.
Ian joined the business after he left school. By that time the supply chain had diversified away from just the UK, as many of the manufacturers needed no longer existed in the UK, for instance dyeing and finishing works. Ian remembers going around the paint frames and paint studios with his father on the south side of the Thames, none of which now operate. In the early 1980’s Ian took over the day to day management of the company. The decline of regional pantomime meant less of a demand for painted cloths. McDougall’s responded to this by diversifying into supplying the hospitality business, clubs, schools and selling internationally. But he has also kept a close working relationship with his traditional customers, including supplying the linen to scenic artists who wanted the longevity and luminosity of bleached, good quality linen.
Ian, like Alasdair Flint, is a keen sailor, and with this comes an interest and passion in cloth. This means that, although semi-retired in 2018, Ian can still be found at the Stratford factory and head office.
Ian Siddall was born in Liverpool 1954. He went on to gain a BA in Fine Art at Cardiff, before joining the Welsh National Opera (WNO) in 1978 with Madame Butterfly where he started by painting the cut cloths: a production that is still in the repertoire and which he is still looking after.
Ian worked with Howard Hodgkin for the 1987 Ballet Rambert production of Pulchinella: his own approach to painting helped in the less than easy task of scaling up for a full-size backcloth from an abstract 1:24 design of a collage of ripped paper, brush marks and stippling. For David Hockney’s designs for the 1992 Royal Opera House (ROH) production of Die Frau ohne Schatten the key concern was that the colour was right, “that is what Hockney cared about more than anything else”.
Ian has worked with designers including: Hildegarde Beckler, Tom Pye, Paul Brown, Charlie Edwards, John Macfarlane, and Anthony MacDonald. As Ian says “you inherit the freedom with the more you work with a designer and gain more experience. They allow you to interpret their ideas.”
In the past, Ian would have worked on 30 shows with room for development over a period of time but now there is no time with quick turnaround and high production levels similar to that in TV. As a scenic artist and Scenic Art Manager at WNO, he is doing 50 projects a year and working on 12-14 at any one time.
Emma Troubridge was born in Chelsea, London in 1963. She and her mother travelled across the world with her father who was in the Royal Marines. Her parents had a common love of amateur dramatics. Emma’s first strong memory of the stage was at the age of nine when her aunt took her to the Edinburgh Festival to see Henry James’ classic ghost story Turn of the Screw. However, what really attracted Emma to the stage was meeting the scene painter Margot Bowie, a next-door neighbour who told stories of the Regents Park Opera and her time at the ROH before the war. After school, Emma completed a Fine Art Foundation degree then went as an apprentice to John Campbell, working with him for three years. She hugely admires him for teaching her to focus on quality and to have a holistic outlook, a respect for every tool and the way everything was done. Emma thinks her naval upbringing probably reflects why this appeals to her.
After John Campbell’s studio, Emma went freelance before joining the Royal Opera House (ROH), returning there again after a period of working in different places running around between productions. Emma started painting in the ROH spaces on the Commercial Road at The London Opera Centre (in the former Troxy Cinema). She loves the variety and the imagination of the designers and the pleasure of working with people like Vicky Mortimer, Alison Chitty and John Macfarlane. As Head of Scenic Art, she is responsible for twelve full-time staff. She enjoys bringing in less experienced painters, and helps them to develop their portfolios and have a really good experience at ROH.
Hilary Vernon-Smith was born in Swindon, London in 1951. Her first memory of the stage was at the pantomime and from early on, when not painting and drawing, she loved to ballet dance. At the age of eleven she saw Things Are What They Used To Be and wondered how they changed the scenery – it sparked her imagination. After a Foundation course in Fine Art, Hilary went on to complete a three-year Theatre Design course at Croydon College of Art. The weekly or twice-weekly repertory gave her a practical grounding in all aspects of theatre design. After college Hilary worked with freelance theatre prop maker (Jenny Levy) and then in repertory with two years at the Watford Palace Theatre.
Hilary worked freelance for number of years before joining the National Theatre, London followed by a short stint at the Royal Opera House. She returned to the National Theatre as Head of Scenic Design in 1988.
Now retired from the National, Hilary Vernon-Smith is still a visiting tutor at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School; teaching young scenic artists renaissance painting, how to square up, how to paint a cloth, how to enhance a printed cloth. As Hilary describes – there have been vogues for printing, video and projection but even in projection the cloth can be partially or wholly painted by hand.