Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Painting the Scene

I've been reading James Laver's book Drama - Its Costume and Décor. Though the book was originally published back in 1951, it still contains a lot of wonderful insights.

One of the more interesting figures Laver profiles is Phillipe Jacques de Loutherbourg, a painter from Alsace who came to London and designed sets for Drury Lane. It was de Loutherbourg who moved the candle lights behind the proscenium, finally forcing British actors, who preferred acting on the apron of the stage, behind the proscenium as well. He also used transparent and semi-transparent scenery pieces that could be lit from behind, so in a de Loutherbourg set you might have a night sky with a moon that actually glowed.

His scenic designs tended to use bright colors, so much so that the painter Thomas Gainsborough objected to his work, and asked David Garrick, who ran Drury Lane, to return to more "mild" backdrops. After Richard Brinsley Sheridan took over the theatre, he kept de Loutherbourg, having the skilled painter design a number of the sets for his own plays. Sheridan, however, was not an easy man to work for, and the painter found an alternative outlet for his skills.

That outlet was the Eidophusikon, a small stage with perfect lighting and brilliant sound effects, and best of all, no actors! Audiences could enjoy all the brilliance of theatrical design without having to sit through a boring old play. The fad lasted a couple of years, before de Loutherbourg moved into landscape painting, which had probably been his true calling anyway.

His masterful depictions of the outdoors ushered in a new era, in which scenic designers would no longer be architects but landscape painters. The backcloth came to dominate the entire stage, with side-wings all but disappearing.

The early nineteenth century ushered in a whole new generation of scenic designers who followed the lead set by de Loutherbourg. These included William Clarkson Stanfield, Inigo Richards, William Grieve, and William Telbin.

Stanfield is best known as a marine painter, and he created a number of nautical sets for London theatres. Even after he officially abandoned painting for the theatre in 1834, he continued to design scenery for William Macready as a personal favor. He also designed scenery for some of the amateur theatricals Charles Dickens staged at Tavistock House. The sets for acts two and three of The Frozen Deep were Stanfield's handiwork.

Richards mainly worked at Covent Gardens, where he was known for his sets depicting medieval ruins. Incidentally, his brother-in-law was the actor Thomas Wignell, who left Britain for the U.S. and became one of our important early actors. Richards might even have supplied the design for the Chestnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia.

Grieve is probably best known for his set for Robert le Diable. After the opera was performed in London, the audience reportedly demanded that Grieve himself take a curtain call for the set design.

Telbin frequently worked on the (mostly) historically accurate productions of Charles Kean, but like de Loutherbourg he also dreamed of a "pure" scenic design, and experimented with dioramas.

I wish I could get some images of their work to share on my blog. Maybe I'll find some soon!