• SCENE STEALERS – Scenography in Australia 1788-2018

by John Senczuk
Scene Stealers: Scenography in Australia 1788-2018, to be published by Currency House in 2018, is a monograph based on my long-term research into the history of scenic design and stage lighting. In the book, my interest has been to document the social developments, working conditions, available technologies and other influences that impacted on performance design in Australia from the colony’s appropriation of the prevalent theatrical trends in late eighteen century London, and then, to mark the peculiar antipodean dynastic shifts over the next 230 years. My survey highlights significant influences and innovations; defines and analyses industrial and aesthetic variations; and compares and contrasts the personalities, companies and other stakeholders that constitute the evolution of the sector. This history, however, necessarily pretermits two major associated specialist areas from the narrative.
While the illustrations of the so called ‘Port Jackson Painter’- a First Fleet draughtsman employed by Governor Phillip – and the watercolours of Lieutenant William Bradley provide portraits of Aboriginal people and narrative scenes of early contact respectively, there is no recognition at this time that the culture and social structures encountered were as ancient, rich and diverse as we understand today. Nothing of the rituals and practice of story-telling (visual and oral) in the existent 60,000 year indigenous culture or how this tradition engaged with the history of what otherwise is inherently the development of the English Georgian playhouse system. Fortunately, we have dynamic contemporary indigenous companies, including Bangarra, Yirra Yaakin and Ilbijerri, as platforms from which we can look back and assess further that narrative.
Similarly, the delights of discovering the work of a host of influential and prolific twentieth century artists (including mid-century designers such as Elaine Haxton, Thelma Afford and Jocelyn Rickards) along with other Australians who pursued international stage and screen careers (Barry Kay, Orry Kelly, Loudon Sainthill, John Truscott and Graham Bennett et al) confirmed that the role of costume designer (and pattern-making, millinery, make-up, jewelry and accessories, and art finishing, the associated crafts of what makes up the theatre wardrobe) – especially when linked to the emerging film and fashion industries – is a huge specialisation and begs for a dedicated survey of its own.


So, I began my investigation in the London of the 1770s in the belief that the observed theatre practice at the time was notionally transported along with the 1400 convicts and the crew of the eleven ships that left Portsmouth in 1787. We know that Governor Phillip was accompanied by artists, naval draftsmen (George Raper, John Hunter, William Bradley and Arthur Bowes), and that there was sufficient knowledge and interest in the theatre to accept that ‘Convicts Made a play & sang many songs’ on-board the Scarborough. Within two years Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer was performed in a convict hut (effectively described by an attendee, British Marine Officer – Watkin Tench). Whether it was Captain (later Governor) Hunter, who had a connection to Drury Lane’s Charles Burney, or Lieutenant Ralph Clark or someone else who supplied the one copy of the script is unknown; however the popular play in script form made the journey on board the Sirius. We’re also aware that the settlement’s only clergyman, the Rev. Richard Johnson thought that his parishioners preferred their ‘Lust before their souls, yea … & most wd rather see a Tavern, a Play House, a Brothel – anything sooner than a place for public worship!’
This cohort of mostly urban Londoners must have at least been aware, before their deportation, of the two patented and high-profile theatres then operating. Theatre Royal, Covent Garden was built by John Rich in 1732 and was dominated by opera and oratorio, and pantomime (defining the new genre, the Harlequinade, so reliant on scenic transformation and effects), while The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane (built in 1674), controlled by David Garrick until his retirement in 1776, championed a much more diverse dramatic repertoire including revivals of Shakespeare, pantomime and ballet. Garrick was a theatrical game-changer: as an actor-manager he was interested in exploring new ideas of verisimilitude in performance. His enthusiasm in this area greatly influenced the French choreographer Jean-Georges Noverre who is credited with creating ballet d’action and is remembered for his book Les Lettres sur la danse et sur les ballets (1760) that set a standard for the ballet still current. The letters detail the responsibilities of a ballet master (or choreographer), address theories of dance, and offer practical advice on staging, acoustics, and stage architecture. Garrick was also responsible for engaging and promoting, from 1773, Philip James de Loutherbourg, a landscape painter in the Romantic tradition but also, and crucially, employed as scenographer at Drury Lane where he distinguished himself as much for his ‘mechanical inventions’ as for his scene painting. Working in the formalistic environment of the Georgian stage – grooved flats and borders, behind a proscenium arch – he exploited ‘the picturesque’ taste for ‘foreground framing’ as a device to enhance perspective on painted wings. He is considered the first to introduce scrims and three-dimensional scenery; he obtained great notoriety as the inventor of the (moving) panorama and the Eidophusikon [this was an art installation in which spectacular scenic effects were created on a small-scale stage set, accompanied by live music]; and, amongst many other innovations, carried out ground-breaking experiments with stage lighting.
Not that Robert Sidaway (‘habitual criminal’, Colonial baker and theatre owner) could yet adequately replicate this technology at his Sydney Theatre; nor could the makeshift entertainment at Emu Plains (described so eloquently by convict James Tucker in Ralph Rashleigh: or, The Life of an Exile); nor, from the limited knowledge we have, could the theatre at Brickfield-hill or the saltworks playhouses; neither, notwithstanding that it was the colony’s first permanent theatre, could Barnett Levey’s Theatre Royal (1832) provide appropriate facilities for the sought-after scenic ideal.
In Australia, the antipodean audience’s full appreciation of theatrical ’material realism’ – the term appropriated into the new scenographic vocabulary – had to wait until the 1850s. Gold was discovered at Bathurst and later Ballarat and the population exploded. Communities in Sydney, Melbourne, Hobart and Adelaide were able to be supplied with substantial, architecturally designed, purpose built, technically well equipped, gas-lit theatres. And there was young immigrant talent available to provide spectacular entertainments in them. The other pivotal force in this move on from the colonial period was undoubtedly the arrival in 1843 of a brash twenty-four-year-old ‘star’ comedian and outrageously audacious fledgling entrepreneur, George Coppin.
The extraordinary thing about the redefining of this history from the perspective of scenography is that it has established parameters, and more so, it is recent enough still to provide redolence to twenty-first century practice, and its provocation continues to inform work seen on our stages today.


Some years ago when I was working regularly at Sydney Theatre Company (STC) I had a small apartment in the Park Regis in the CBD. Every day going down to the Wharf I’d cross the intersection of Park and Pitt Streets and be reminded of the vibrancy of the city’s theatrical past. The north-eastern corner (where McDonalds stands today) was referred to as Poverty Point. The major legitimate theatres operating during the 1880s were The Theatre Royal (1875) situated on the corner of Castlereagh and Rowe Street; the Opera House (1879) on the corner of King and York Streets; the Gaiety Theatre (1880), further down Castlereagh Street; and the new Royal Standard (1886), virtually on the corner of Castlereagh and Bathurst Streets. Originally situated outside the Royal, Poverty Point later moved to the more central Pitt and Park intersection where theatre people could gather, gossip and ferret out work opportunities. Wishing each other a Merry Christmas in 1886 they could have looked across the road to see John Solomons, the proprietor of the newly built Criterion Hotel and Theatre holding a press launch. The journalists inside the building marveled at the light blue and gold auditorium decoration of the new 990 seat playhouse, and watched the gold-fringed ruby plush stage curtain (the colour itself was a novelty) rise to reveal a spectacular act drop depicting Captain Cook landing at Botany Bay and raising the Union Jack. It was among the first act drops to depict an Australian subject, and intended as an early celebration of the centennial of Phillip’s landing. It was painted by Alfred Clint.


Clint was English born and had arrived in Australia in the mid-1860s. His father was marine artist Alfred Clint; his grandfather the portrait painter George Clint. In Melbourne, aged twenty-four, he became an assistant to the leading scene painter at the Theatre Royal, John Hennings, before moving to Sydney to accept the appointment of scenic artist at Sydney’s Prince of Wales in 1869. For his first production, The Tempest, he painted nine scenes, including two spectacular sea scenes (one of which involved waves moving on a rocky shore). It was an impressive debut. He later formed a particularly strong collaboration with George Rignold, part owner and lessee of Her Majesty’s, Sydney. Clint’s three sons, Alfred, George and Sydney were also scenic artists and together they founded Australia’s first scene painting studio (in Camperdown) that continued until the Great Depression in 1929.
John Hennings, Alexander Habbe and William Wilson, stood out as the first generation professional A-list scene painters, all arriving in the mid-1850s. Hennings had been a house decorator in Dusseldorf and Vienna before immigrating to Australia aged twenty in 1855, and began his career in Geelong before making his name in Melbourne. Such was his success he was regularly called before the curtain to take applause for his ambitious panoramas and pantomimes, recognised today as a clear throwback to de Loutherbourg. He was ubiquitous – at one time he was even in partnership with George Coppin as co-manager of the Royal. Marcus Clarke lampooned the contemporary trends in pantomime and used Hennings as his model for the character of ‘Vandyke Brown’, the scene-painter, in his much quoted article from the Weekly Times on 31 January 1874:

              … Now Mr Vandyke Brown has his grievance. This gentleman, who has to paint some nineteen scenes and contrive the Transformation in addition to a Panorama consisting of the Celebrated Cities of the World ending with Fawkner’s Town and the Local Pump, is apt to get cynical from tobacco and white lead. “I don’t see how to set the Thames on Fire in this last effect,” he says, “without more rosin. And, moreover, seven scenes in the Panorama’s plenty.” “Oh, let’s have a portrait of Bismark”, says Burbo [a theatre manager]. “Ay! And a couple of views of Metz during the siege, to melt into a pastoral picture of Geelong,” suggests Buzzclack [another theatre manager], who is a great man for ‘ideas.’

By the time the Sydney Morning Herald was lavishing praise on Clint, his one-time assistant, for his work on the Criterion, Hennings – despite being at the top of his game – was forced into retirement due to increasingly poor eyesight. It was a long and illustrious career with a potent legacy.
The Criterion, or the ‘Cri’ as it was known from Poverty Point, was designed by George R Johnson with a facade variously described as Renaissance Revival (or Victorian Baroque). It followed the Colonial tradition, set by Levey, of a link between theatre and hotel, with the Criterion Family Hotel occupying the street front. The interior was in the late Georgian style with an intimate auditorium. Seating was provided in stalls, a dress circle, side boxes and a gallery, all lit by a central chandelier. There was an orchestra pit under the stage, and the actors’ dressing rooms in the basement next door to the gas meters. Gaslight technology had revolutionised the theatre since 1804 when Frederick Albert Winsor first demonstrated the new ‘artificial light’ at London’s Lyceum Theatre. The technology developed quickly and by 1860 the more manageable and aesthetically pleasing limelight was employed. It was the opening eight months later (1887) of George Rignold’s Her Majesty’s, however, on the corner of Pitt and Market Streets, that gave local scenepainters some grief when they were forced to adapt their techniques to cater to the more revealing effects of the new electric light. Clint was amongst the first to take up the challenge. The Cri also had a good sized stage (10.9 deep x 17.7 wide [the Rose Packer is 12.4 x 21.8 metres]), behind which was a large scenery dock, with painting room. Johnson’s other commissions included the Prince of Wales Opera House in Bourke Street, Melbourne, and the Theatre Royal, Hindley Street, Adelaide.
The Cri, the most intimate playhouse in the city at the time, was applauded as ‘a great advance in Sydney theatres’ following its opening on 27 December 1886 with a production of the Francis Chassaigne operetta Falka. Sadly, the following year, the colonial architect judged differently. In November 1887, the venue was criticised for its lack of fireproof doors and curtain; inadequate egress from the theatre; and its poor ventilation, both in the auditorium and backstage. According to the Inspector ‘a disagreeable smell’ from the lavatories pervaded the dressing rooms, the odour so bad that it nearly made him throw up! One hoped Johnson kept the criticism in mind while overseeing the construction of the Melbourne Bijou, his next project. Criterion’s proprietor, John Solomons didn’t appear too concerned, his response was to extend his Hotel with the addition of ‘a splendid billiard room.’ The contentious issue is why the Criterion audiences had to wait another five years before the interior had the first serious renovation to comply with the Report.
Difficult beginnings notwithstanding, the Cri lasted for nearly fifty years before a widening of Park Street necessitated its demolition. It was replaced by the present art-deco Criterion Hotel built in 1936. The Cri variously played host to ‘good quality performances’ from Dion Boucicault and Robert Brough (The Brough Boucicault Comedy Company; nicknamed B&B); from Henry Bracy’s Comic Opera Company and Pollards Lilliputian Opera Company; George Rignold was a memorable Othello in 1889; and crowds were turned away from a production of A. Denham’s The Kelly Gang; or, The Career of Ned Kelly, the ironclad Bushranger of Australia that had transferred after a sold-out season at the Opera House. The Criterion was purchased by Frank Musgrove in 1913 and leased two years later to JC Williamson’s.
Coincidentally, Williamson (with Arthur Garner and George Musgrove, collectively the Triumvirate) had opened the splendid new Princess’s Theatre in Melbourne in the same week as the Criterion. It was George Coppin who had introduced this extraordinarily influential actor/manager, and his wife, Maggie Moore, to Australian back in 1874 in the international hit Struck Oil. Once established Williamson, in turn, brought to Australia that dapper actor and playwright Dion Boucicault. This generational baton passing is an impressive narrative in itself. Williamson launched the Princess’s with a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado; he held the exclusive rights to the G&S canon locally and it had provided the financial basis for his empire. He struck the deal directly with impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte for £300 per annum.
The scenographer Philip Goatcher came to Australia in 1867, when he was fifteen. He too was a student of John Hennings while in Ballarat. But Goatcher had the wanderlust and soon made his way to New York. After a short stint at Niblo’s Garden (seating 3200, it had the best-equipped stage in the city at the time), he became principal scene painter at Wallack’s Theatre (844 Broadway at 13th Street) and into the orbit of director David Belasco, a Modernist whose ideas on staging and stage lighting were revolutionary. He is still regarded as one of the first significant directorial figures in the history of the American theatre. By 1890, Goatcher had returned to England where he worked for D’Oyly Carte on the Savoy operas. It was here, two years later that JC Williamson offered him a thousand guineas a year to work for him in Australia; Goatcher accepted, thus becoming the highest paid theatrical designer in the world. Goatcher was a man of the theatre, an ‘internationalist’, very popular and apparently a practical joker. His forte was trompe-l’œil fabrics, for which he earned the nickname ‘Satin and Velvet’ Goatcher. Aged 39 and suffering poor health he moved to Western Australia in 1906 where his last act drop (6000 x 8000 metres) was commissioned for the opening of Boulder Town Hall (1908), where, following a recent restoration, it can be seen on display in situ.


The capillary interaction of this small sample of our history came full circle during my time at STC when, for David Williamson’s Heretic, I incorporated a moving panorama into the design. To gather advice and expertise, then Workshop Manager John Preston and I spent some time with Tom Lingwood at his terrace off Flinders Street in Darlinghurst. Tom had enjoyed an international career in all genres but specialised in music theatre (ballet and opera) as designer, light designer, scene painter and director; he was technically brilliant. His fach was forced perspective, and he delighted in the use of historic scenic mechanisms. Tom had used a moving panorama in his touring production of The Sound of Music; his working reference had been John Hennings and Philip James de Loutherbourg. It was a massive cloth, the design inspired by Escher’s ‘Metamorphose’ but complicated further by moving from black and white into colour. It was painted in sections on the floor, cramping the Wharf’s scenic art workshop. The stage tracking mechanism was efficient if not cumbersome. The biggest difficulty was stretching the cloth for the few times when it needed to be stationary, but this was quickly solved, again by old technology: a lock system on the track, and the use of large peg-like clamps sashed to either side at the base.
The narrative knowledge of scenography in Australia’s theatrical history since the setting up of the penal colony at Botany Bay in 1788 is an intriguing blend of playing catch up, cause and effect, and revolutionary zeal; it also symbiotically embraces other narratives in the international and domestic development of the visual arts and architecture; dramaturgy and theatre history; technology, industrialisation, labour and manufacturing; and, pertinently, engages in the cultural discourses around identity and gender.
The aesthetic and industrial issues signalled by the extracted material in this paper are still current. Sadly the majority of our contemporary theatre venues eschew the centre of our state capitals (unlike most other great cities of the world) preferring to locate on the outskirts and fringes of the CBD. There is no singular meeting point for the industry to interact, but if something similar to ‘Poverty Point’ existed today, from a designer’s perspective, we would no doubt debate amongst other things: why theatre architects and managements don’t consult practitioners when planning new venues; why mid-career and senior artists are neglected by the industry; what’s happening to career development for our associated artisans, when even some of our largest subsidised organisations are putting their scenic and props workshops onto short term contracts; are training institutions oversupplying the industry; why is there a continuing disparity regarding designer roles and conditions (scenery, costume, lighting) in terms of gender, age and experience? More philosophically, we might ponder the Australian scenographic aesthetic in the age of multi-platform ‘story-telling’; the expansion of career opportunity, and the impact of our ‘peculiar’ vision, now so popular internationally?
Fortunately, the growing strength of APDG provides a major focus discourse, and I welcome thoughts or ideas from Members to contribute to my book’s summation and conclusion.
John Senczuk graduated from NIDA (Design) in 1983. He created courses and taught Scenography and Dramaturgy at the University of Wollongong, Toi Whakaari (New Zealand Drama School) and WAAPA, and continued a parallel career in the theatre as designer, director, dramaturg and playwright, nationally and internationally. He wrote the Australian Theatre Design History entry for the The World Encyclopaedia of Contemporary Theatre, Volume 5 Asia/Pacific (Routledge, 1998), and designer entries for the Concise Company to Theatre in Australia (Currency Press, 1997). His Currency House Platform Paper “The Time Is Ripe for the Great Australian Musical” was published in 2015.

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