Loudon Sainthill

Born: 1918

Died: 1969

Loudon Sainthill, artist and stage designer, was born on 9 January 1918 in Hobart, second of four children of Tasmanian-born parents Willoughby Aveland St Hill, a clerk who became a commission agent, and his wife Honora Matilda, née Horder. By 1920 the family was living in Melbourne, first at Toorak and then at East St Kilda. A delicate, nervous child, with a stammer that persisted into adulthood (except when talking to children), Loudon contrived to avoid much formal schooling, though he did attend Ripponlea State School for a while. He read widely, painted and drew, and found his way into theatres and concert halls, where he saw Pavlova, heard (Dame) Nellie Melba, and absorbed performances of Ibsen and Chekhov.

In 1932-33 he studied drawing and general design at the Applied Art School, Working Men’s College. At his father’s insistence he worked as a designer for a sandblasting firm in South Melbourne. By 1935 Sainthill, as he thenceforward spelt his name, was living in a flat at 24 Collins Street and eking out a living by painting murals in a surrealist style reminiscent of Alcimboldo. About this time he met his lifelong partner Harry Karl Tatlock Miller (1913-1989)—a journalist and later an art critic and expert on paintings and antiques—whose connexions and organizing ability were to complement Sainthill’s creative talents.

Sainthill’s interest in theatre design was fired by the Australian tours (1936-37 and 1938-39) of Colonel de Basil’s Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo. An exhibition of his paintings of the dancers and sets led to an invitation to return to London with the company. He and Miller left Sydney in May 1939. During the voyage he painted the dancers and choreographers. In London (Sir) Rex Nan Kivell organized an exhibition of these studies at the Redfern Gallery, Bond Street, where Sainthill sold fifty of the fifty-two pictures on show. Late that year he and Miller returned to Australia in charge of a major exhibition of theatre and ballet designs, brought together under the auspices of the British Council. It opened in Sydney in February 1940.

In the next few months Sainthill designed the costumes for a performance of Giraudoux’s Amphitryon at the Comedy Theatre, Melbourne (1941), and the sets for three of Kirsova’s ballets, staged in mid-1941. On 4 March 1943 he enlisted in the Australian Army Medical Corps (Militia) and on 20 May joined the Australian Imperial Force. Posted (with Miller) to the hospital ship Wanganella in September, he served as a theatre orderly. He transferred to the Australian Army Education Service in November 1945.

After he was discharged from the army on 23 April 1946 in Sydney, Sainthill joined Miller. They lived at Merioola, Edgecliff, with a group of painters who included Alec Murray, Jocelyn Rickards, Justin O’Brien and Donald Friend. In October 1945 Sainthill contributed ‘A History of Costume from 4000 B.C. to 1945 A.D.’ to the third showing of Theatre Art in Sydney; his thirty-nine watercolours were bought by public subscription and presented to the National Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1946. He held one-man exhibitions at the Macquarie Galleries in April 1947 and July 1948, and—with Miller—produced books on the Australasian tours by the Ballet Rambert (1947-48) and the Old Vic Theatre Company (1948). In 1949 he and Miller sailed for England. Again in London, they rented a house at Belgravia with Rickards and Murray. They later lived nearby at 8 Chester Street, with Miller’s mother and sister Kath, and eventually acquired a country cottage at Ropley, Hampshire.

In 1950 (Sir) Robert Helpmann asked Sainthill to design the décor for the ballet Ile des Sirènes, which he and (Dame) Margot Fonteyn took on tour. Sainthill’s work attracted the notice of the director Michael Benthall who commissioned him to design The Tempest at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon. As preparation he spent three months studying stagecraft with Michael Northen. The Tempest opened in May 1951 and was a huge success for Sainthill. His reputation with both critics and the public was firmly established by 1953 with his designs for Shaw’s The Apple Cart at the Haymarket, London, and Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance at the Savoy. Among his most brilliant works were the sets and costumes for Helpmann’s production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera Le Coq d’Or at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (1954), completed at short notice when Chagall withdrew from the commission. For the Old Vic Theatre he designed in 1955 the sets and costumes for Othello. In the next fourteen years he designed sets, costumes, or both for a further thirty-two productions, including five more at the Old Vic, pantomimes (Cinderella, 1958, Aladdin, 1959), films (for example, the interior sets for Look Back in Anger, 1959), musicals (among them Expresso Bongo, 1958, Half a Sixpence, 1963, and Canterbury Tales, 1967), and revues. His early designs were described as ‘opulent’, ‘sumptuous’ and ‘exuberantly splendid’, but he declined to be typecast, emphasizing instead that ‘no matter how fantastic a figure or scene is, you must make it as believable as possible’. Miller acknowledged Sainthill’s special ‘quality of enchantment, mixed so often with a haunting sadness that was, in part, characteristic of both the artist and his work’.

Friends spoke of Sainthill’s modesty and ‘self-contained serenity’. Photographs of him project a sombre and contemplative languor that belied his ability to work prodigious hours against production deadlines. Well built and notably handsome, he dressed suavely, with a penchant for waistcoats of rich silks, brocades and velvets.

Sainthill collaborated with Miller in producing three more books: Royal Album (1951), Undoubted Queen (1958) and Churchill (1959). In the mid-1960s he was a visiting teacher of stage design at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, London. He died of myocardial infarction on 10 June 1969 at Westminster Hospital and was buried at Ropley. An exhibition of his paintings in London in 1973 helped to raise money for a scholarship (named after him) for young Australian designers to study abroad. His work is held in the National Gallery of Australia, in a number of State and regional collections, and in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Biography taken from Australian Dictionary of Biography 2002 written by Sally O’Neill