Loudon Sainthill 1919 – 1969
- Loudon Sainthill 1919 – 1969
Loudon Sainthill 1919 – 1969
Loudon St Hill was born in Hobart, Tasmania, on 9 January 1919, but moved to Melbourne with his family when he was two.
He studied drawing and design under Napier Waller at the Applied Art School at what was then the Working Men’s College – today’s RMIT University.
In 1941 Sainthill designed one of Gregan McMahon’s last productions, Giradoux’s Amphytrion ’38, at the Comedy Theatre, and several ballets for Hélène Kirsova: A Dream – and a Fairy Tale, Faust, Les Matelots, and Vieux Paris.
‘That he achieved true greatness in his elected field is not at all surprising,’ wrote influential British gallery curator Bryan Robertson, ‘given the imaginative force of his initial gifts as an artist. What is curious is the strong impact and total individuality of his theatrical décor and costume design, for Sainthill came at the end of a tradition and did not begin a new one. It worked, what he did, simply because of his intense imagination and a particular dark, glittering personal magic that he could invoke with everything he touched and which was completely personal.’
One of the most imaginative theatre designers of his time was the son of a bookie. Loudon St Hill was born in Hobart, Tasmania, on 9 January 1919, but moved to Melbourne with his family when he was two. He studied drawing and design under Napier Waller at the Applied Art School at what was then the Working Men’s College – today’s RMIT University. This led to a much-hated job with a firm specialising in sandblasting glass. The fleur-de-lis emblems on the first-floor windows of the Prince of Wales Hotel in St Kilda are the only surviving evidence of his work in this field.
The 1936 visit of Colonel de Basil’s Ballet Russe, with its exotic sets and costumes, had a great impact on young Loudon. He opted for the surname ‘Sainthill’ and moved from home to live with Harry Tatlock Miller, a journalist and editor and publisher of an art magazine called Manuscripts. Miller organised Sainthill’s first exhibition, at the Hotel Australia in Collins Street.
Along with most of Melbourne’s bohemians, Sainthill and Miller were regulars at Minka Wolman Veal’s cosy Café Petrushka at 144 Little Collins Street, where they mixed with members of the visiting Russian ballet companies. Sainthill was approached to design Serge Lifar’s Icare, but the commission went to Sidney Nolan. Nevertheless, Sainthill and Miller were ‘adopted’ by the Russians and sailed with them when they returned to London in May 1939. The studies Sainthill painted of the dancers during the voyage were exhibited at Rex Nan Kivell’s Redfern Gallery in London and virtually sold out.
After the outbreak of war, Sainthill and Miller returned to Melbourne in charge of a major British Council exhibition of theatre and ballet design. In 1941 Sainthill designed one of Gregan McMahon’s last productions, Giradoux’s Amphytrion ’38, at the Comedy Theatre, and several ballets for Hélène Kirsova: A Dream – and a Fairy Tale, Faust, Les Matelots, and Vieux Paris.
In 1943 Sainthill and Miller joined the Royal Australian Army Medical Corps, serving as orderlies on the hospital ship Wanganella. On their discharge they were adopted by the artistic community at ‘Merioola’ in Edgecliff, Sydney. Sainthill exhibited at Macquarie Galleries and created 39 designs for the exhibition A History of Costume from 4000 BC to 1945 AD at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. These were later purchased for the Gallery by public subscription. Sainthill designed the printed material for the Australian tours of the Ballet Rambert (1947-1949) and the Old Vic (1948). Laurence Olivier was particularly impressed with Sainthill’s work, and promised to help him in London.
Sainthill and Miller returned to Britain in 1949. There Robert Helpmann commissioned Sainthill todesign the ballet Ile des Sirènes, which he and Margot Fonteyn took on tour. This led to Sainthill’s first major commission, Michael Benthall’s production of The Tempest at Stratford-upon-Avon. From then on Sainthill designed an average of four productions a year – opera, dance, drama, revue, pantomime, musicals, films – for directors such as John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Noel Coward, Tony Richardson, Joseph Losey, Wolf Mankowitz and Robert Helpmann – nearly 50 major projects. He even recreated the rich flamboyance of British music hall for a series of nostalgic shows at the Prince Edward Theatre. Three of the musicals he designed were reproduced by J.C. Williamson’s in Australia: Sail Away (sets and costumes, 1963), Half a Sixpence (costumes, 1967) and Canterbury Tales (costumes, 1969). His Canterbury Tales designs won him a Tony Award when the show played on Broadway.
Sainthill contributed decorations and illustrations for a number of books, including The Devil’s Marchioness (1957), the Folio Society’s King Richard II (1958) and Tiger at the Gates (1959); there were also several publishing collaborations with Harry Tatlock Miller: Royal Album (1951), Elizabeth I – Undoubted Queen (1958) and Churchill – The Walk With Destiny (1959). In the mid 1960s Sainthill taught design at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London.
Sainthill had just completed his designs for the dream sequence in Anthony Newley’s film Can Hieronymous Mirkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? when he suffered a heart attack. He died on 9 June 1969, aged 50. He is buried in the churchyard at Ropley in Hampshire. The elegant headstone reads simply ‘Artist’.
A 1973 exhibition of Sainthill’s designs helped raise money for the Loudon Sainthill Memorial Scholarship Trust, which Harry Tatlock Miller established to commemorate his partner. The Trust endows an annual travelling scholarship of up to $12,000 for young Australian theatre designers. Miller died in 1989 and the Trust is now administered by NIDA. Winners include Stephen Curtis, Catherine Martin, Angus Strathie, Kim Carpenter and Dale Ferguson.
More than 800 examples of Sainthill’s work are held in the National Gallery in Canberra. He is also represented in several state galleries, and in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. On the initiative of designer and festival director John Truscott, a major retrospective of his work was included in the 1991 Melbourne International Festival of the Arts.
Frank Van Straten, 2007
Harry Tatlock Miller and Bryan Robertson: Loudon Sainthill, Hutchinson, 1973
Sally O’Neill: ‘Loudon Sainthill’, in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, Melbourne University Press
Loudon Sainthill Retrospective, catalogue for the Westpac Gallery exhibition curated by David Williams, Melbourne International Festival of the Arts, 1991