A Long History
Theatre and the stage has a long history in Britain, ranging from Medieval mystery plays and Royal Court pageants and masques to modern-day performances. Changeable scenery has continued to play a role, with painted cloths used to decorate the stage or form background context.
The Restoration played a key role in the emergence of the scenic artist by bringing about greater artistic freedom to all aspects of mid-17th century theatre. Once the theatre had been established outside the Court, scenic art flourished with a change in form of the theatre stage and artistic freedom.
The Scenic Artist
In Sir James Thornhill (1675-1734), scenic art had what could be considered its first celebrity painter. Recognised as the leading native decorative history painter, he had influence and status as a Painter-Stainer, Serjeant Painter and as a director of Kneller’s Painting Academy.
Recognition of the scenic-painter as artist has, however, not always been universal. Establishment of the painting academies brought division between what was considered a “craft” and “fine art”.
Some scenic artists have been able to move between these two worlds. For example, George Lambert (1700-1765) became one of the first scenic painters to be employed directly for the Covent Garden theatre, and Clarkson Stanfield (1793-1867) who worked for the Drury Lane Theatre as a scenic artist for the majority of his career. Some Royal Academicians, including Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) designed for the theatre, taking up these commissions once they were established artists. Designs for backcloths by Walter Sickert (1860-1942), John Piper (1903-1992), Howard Hodgkin (b. 1932), David Hockney (b. 1937) and most recently Chris Offili (b. 1968) have kept the connection between “fine art” and “craft”.
By the end of the nineteenth century, however, the majority of scenic artists worked directly for the theatre. Since then, scenic artists have continued to flourish as a separate profession keeping traditions which would have been recognisable to the King’s painters 700 years earlier while at the same time developing new skills to work with diverse materials and elaborate designs.