It’s interesting to discover that Gilbert & Sullivan has been as popular in Australia as it has been in Britain. This we owe to the Williamson Opera Company who provided all professional productions of Gilbert & Sullivan as the D’Oyly Carte Company did in England until copyright expired in the 1960s. Both companies grew rich on box office takings, both were excellently organised, maintaining archives which are invaluable for students of theatre research.

Peter Goffin and Philip Howden’s Gondoliers as seen over 40 years. All photos © Theatre Heritage Australia, Melbourne; Trove, National Library of Australia; State Library of Victoria

JC Williamson (or JCW) catalogued all back cloths, borders and stage sets in a series of Scene Books, and boasted that any back cloth in their Richmond, Melbourne warehouse could be retrieved in a matter of minutes. More extraordinarily, London would change their designs every decade or two, whereas JCW presented his productions as the Victorians would have seen them. Consequently, by the time photography had become developed enough to take stage pictures in England, all of the original sets had been replaced and with only engravings left to represent them. When Richard D’Oyly Carte was short of money in 1891 he decided to auction any original scenery that was no longer playing at give-away prices. The event took place in railway arches, giving away the secret of where all the Savoy Theatre scenery had been stored.

Now a new book, Backdrop to a Legend, tells the story of how the scenery for the Gilbert & Sullivan Operas was prepared between 1877 and 1982. It also details the lives of the scenic artists, many of them highly skilled landscape painters who accrued amazing wealth that allowed them to afford servants and belong to a prestigious London club; how the style of scenery changed after conversion from gas to electric lighting; the expensive failure of an experiment with minimalism to replace realistic sets, and how the chartering of trains allowed the Company to visit places which were hardly accessible by road. D’Oyly Carte visited South Africa until 1906 when an agreement with Williamson was signed, under which the Operas could be performed in Australia under licence from Savoy Hill, London where the D’Oyly Carte Company was based. “The Firm” expanded into South Africa, buying up theatres there; the Tait brothers continued this scheme.

George Gordon’s paintroom

Correspondence in the D’Oyly Carte archives reveals that an opera was broadcast in New Zealand without permission being sought and Williamson was severely reprimanded, only to reply that the broadcast was made in order to promote the show which was in danger of closing due to an unusual heat wave. The resulting publicity worked for Williamson. Artists like William J Wilson, George Gordon, John Brunton, Philip Goatcher, William B Spong and Philip Howden either visited or emigrated to Australia from the 1870s onwards in search of a better life and clean air away from the grime of London.

In 1926 Williamson set about presenting a series of revivals over three years and included operas which had not been seen in Australia before, including Ruddigore. An extraordinary find has been the discovery of the Act I set for this production, painted by William R Coleman Senior, which has an uncanny resemblance to sketches of the 1887 Savoy set. He must have used the models sent from London for mounting the opera in 1887, a production which never took place. This has been a most extraordinary find and suggests that the models were kept for three decades. The Theatre Heritage archives in Melbourne has a series of good photographs of this and other sets.

JC Williamson’s Ruddigore, 1927

There is a line of highly skilled artists from Gordon, painter of the first set of HMS Pinafore in London onwards, who could handle wide expanses of canvas, apply drop shadow to perfection or fade with increasing distance, to enhance perspective and give a true sense of realism. Paul Kathner, co-founder of Scenic Studios Pty with Ross Turner, was taught the art of scene painting by Bill Turner and began his work for Williamson, carefully reviving the old G & S sets in the 1950s. This continued until the end of the copyright when he presented his designs for Opera Australia in the 1970s. Turning full circle, the Australian designer John Stoddart was invited by D’Oyly Carte to design sets for a new production of The Gondoliers in 1968.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the Shakespearian producer William Bridges Adams steered the D’Oyly Carte company into using minimalist settings with only the briefest of details. He didn’t understand that romantic music needs to be accompanied by romantic scenery and the general public complained to Savoy Hill. William Coleman, in contrast, preferred sumptuous romantic settings and provided them for the Australian productions of Patience and The Yeomen of the Guard. D’Oyly Carte needed scenery suitable for six-shows-a-week touring and used cut cloths where possible – heavy rostra or sets built for television were unsuitable. The best London set D’Oyly Carte ever had was that for The Mikado, designed by Disley Jones, which was used both on stage and as a film set.

Princess Theatre, Melbourne in 1872

While the ideal bulky sets were used in long seasons at London and Manchester, Peter Goffin designed a ‘Unit Set’ which comprised fixed wing legs, borders and cyclorama cloth. Flats of two-thirds height would be cleated to the legs to provide the transformation of a set. Ground rows and change of lighting would change the cyclorama as a replacement of the painted backcloth. The scheme allowed up to eight operas to be toured and changed every night, a system that was practical and economical, but monotonous. The Daily Express cartoonist Osbert Lancaster would not use it for his production of The Sorcerer in 1971 and made a return to the original staging, as had always been the case in Australia.

Backdrop to a Legend will be printed in a 256pp full colour hardback Limited Edition for advance purchase only. Visit or email [email protected] before December 15 when the book goes to print. There will be no stock for later sales after that date