Australian Scenic Design- The 19th Century - With Thanks to Len Hend for the information.


The 19th century was a time of change for the art of scenic design. In the last years of the century the introduction of electricity and development of three dimensional stage design turned the artist designer into a multi tasking tradesman.

One of the greatest influences on scenic design in the mid 19th century was the imported designers from Britain. The best work of English scenic designers was brought here by managers such as George Musgrove, and Oscar Asche. Many of the designers who came with British managers stayed and influenced the next generation of Australian designers. Brough brought WB Spong and the London Comedy Company brought George Gordon, both of whom worked for JC Williamson for several years.

Scenic design was the domain of talented artists, and the act drops in Sydney’s theatres were spectacular scenes which were major works of art. The Victoria Theatre in Pitt Street had a back drop of Sydney Harbour which was painted by WJ Wilson, and for The Gaiety the same designer painted a Venetian landscape.  The Criterion had a back drop which represented the founding of Australia painted by Alfred Clint. This was later replaced by managers Brough and Boccicault, who commissioned WB Spong to paint a classical scene which featured figures painted by famous Australian artist Tom Roberts.

In the mid 19th Century, scene designers were artisans and Roberts was one of many who contributed to the beautiful designs which were repeatedly viewed by an audience during the performance.  Landscape painter Alf Tischbauer was another artist who contributed greatly to early Australian scenic design.

For the Australian who wished to become a scenic designer the road was long. It involved a lengthy apprenticeship on low wages and little support once the apprenticeship was over. In 1881, 16 year old Jack Ricketts was apprenticed to Maximillan Meyer for four years. In return for 30 guineas Meyer promised to teach young Jack, calligraphy, illumination, writing and drawing.  The official apprenticeship agreement was an old fashioned master craftsman-apprentice document that formalised the relationship as one where Jack was essentially an indentured labourer for four years.

By the time Jack left his apprenticeship, the trade was changing drastically. No longer were scenic designers expected merely to paint. The increased availability of electricity and the change in theatre styles to a more realistic three dimensional look complicated the art of scenic design. The designer had to incorporate lighting effects, create three dimensional props and realistic effects to entertain a more demanding and sophisticated audience.

After the four years of his apprenticeship was over, Jack was left on his own to find work. Most scenic designers were independent contractors who had to negotiate their own agreements with various managers and producers. Fortunately, the designers developed an informal network that communicated the latest theatrical gossip including the latest employment opportunities.

Jack was fortunate to have friends in the industry and often got work through these contacts. Edward Vaughan, a senior scenic designer, was a close ally and in the early 20th century Jack obtained work with Charles Holloway through this connection.

But it was a life of missed opportunities, scrounging for cash, negotiating with managers, and having contracts dishonoured. At times things were so dire that Jack had to borrow money from friends like Tischbauer, who had taken to teaching due to the uncertain nature of the scenic design trade. Jack in turn lent money to other designers who had fallen on hard times. The tight camaraderie between the designers was maintained by regular correspondence about unreliable managers and upcoming opportunities.

Alf Tischbauer, an old school designer and landscape painter, had worked consistently in the 1880s, but by the 1890s he was working as a teacher in Sale. He was desperate to escape his situation there and return to his profession, but his style and technique were outdated. I

Tischbauer had money owing to him from a well known manager and had argued ferociously with another. However he was willing to swallow his pride to gain more work. However, the combination of theatrical grudge and outdated technique lead to him leaving Australia to find work overseas.

As the century drew to a close, the scenic designer became a jack of all trades, in 1896 Jack was offered a job with Alfred Dampier taking down and touching up cloths, supervising the loading of luggage onto trains, and acting a bit part as a bushranger in Robbery Under Arms. For this multi tasking he was offered the grand total of 3 pounds, 10 shillings a week.

Despite the formation of the stage hands union in 1890, the combination of economic depression and consequent desperation lead to scenic artists suffering poverty, low wages and poor employment conditions.  In an 1892 letter, Jack writes of using his own money to finish a job.

The problems of the contractor and artisan were many, and the change from artist to tradesman affected the prestige and wages of scenic designers. Jack Ricketts eeked out a living in the art due to his friends and lucky opportunities with prominent managers such as Charles Holloway and later William Anderson. However, he eventually turned to management. It was a more rewarding and less risky occupation. He spent most of his later years managing Wonderland city for William Anderson.

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