William Archibald Constable (1906-1989) was raised with two younger brothers in the family of the Reverend Archibald Henry Constable, rector of St. John’s Church of England. Bill Constable took watercolor lessons from Meta Townsend, followed by studying at the National Gallery of Victoria School of Art, and later at London’s St. Martin’s School of Art.(1) His involvement with the most advanced experimental theaters in England set his passion for life. On his return to Australia, Constable took up several commercial design projects and was noticed after his very first theatrical commission in 1933: the cubist stage decorations for the Gregan McMahon Players’ production of Bridie’s Jonah and the Whale at the Garrick in South Melbourne featuring Coral Browne, a famous English actress. The play was directed by Alec Coppel, who later returned from London, and also included actress Kathleen Robinson. The press claimed that the “production will be notable for the unusual settings by William Constable, a young artist who recently reached Melbourne from abroad… Constable’s stage settings are great fun. They are simple and attractive.” Constable met Edouard Borovansky in the late 1940s and a lifelong creative partnership and personal friendship began. As artistic director of the Borovansky Ballet Company for 15 years, William Constable was behind most productions as artistic director, designer and painter. Frank Salter described Borovansky and Constable working together “in total harmony over his [Constable] entire Australian career.” Constable “was always fascinated by Boro’s method of working with him” and often was entertained by Boro’s comments, such as “You clever bastard, Bill; you’ve realised exactly what I had in mind”.(2) Constable created a portfolio of over 100 stage productions before departing Australia again in 1955. In England Constable designed the first ballet by Sir Noel Coward “London Morning”, and then worked mainly on cult movies such as “The Trials of Oscar Whilde”, “Taste of Fear”, “The Hellions”, “The Skull”, “Doctor Who”, “ Casino Royal” and many others. In 1963-1964 he worked in Cambodia on Lord Jim” movie and stayed there for sometime to paint. His Cambodian paintings were exhibited across Australia. He returned to Sydney in the 1970s and only then was able to dedicate himself to painting. The designer was known for his illustrations, drawings and paintings. He designed and closely supervised the production of the backdrop for the Empire Theater in Sydney that unfortunately burnt down. Just as unfortunate was the demolition of his mural for the lower foyer of the Theater Royal. However, the curtain he designed and supervised in 1972 for Her Majesty’s Theater in Melbourne was recently located in Adelaide packed inside a box. Sydney Ure Smith claimed that Constable “... has unbounded enthusiasm, and does everything with distinction.” And later: “He has imagination and individuality, which, allied to an unerring color sense, place him in the front rank as a stage designer.”(3) With such artistic abilities and taste Constable created almost 160 dramas, operas (16 of these for Sir Eugene Goossens), ballets (mostly for the Borovansky ballet) and films. The culmination of Constable’s professional and artistic career was his backdrop design for the ballet, Corroboree. Creating a rock motif, he used bold organic shapes, strong details, variation in textures, and a very successful combination of light and contrasting colors. He created a minimalistic composition that accurately translated the desert of Central Australia to contrast with the night sky. The inclusion of a full solar eclipse added drama and mystery, and possibly represented the everlasting life cycle. The highlighted top of the stone is the visual focus of the composition, where a pastel pink sandy foreground grounds the center of action during the dance. The fine lines of dried trees, a ritual pole and still sand waves make a statement of human presence and support the greatness of the rock. The rock motif became a classic symbol of the newly established Australian stage design industry. In 1948 Constable and Eugene Goossens realised that the Sydney public needed “a theater for the quadruple purpose of opera, legitimate theater, ballet, and orchestra.”(4) Goossens saw his “dream child” Opera House in the style of a Greek amphitheater built at Bennelong Point as the Australian National Theater. In April 1949 Constable completed a visual interpretation of Goossens’ idea for the Sydney Opera House, a long time before the official competition for the architectural project was announced by the New South Wales Government. The two published an illustrated article with the proposal and a promise to realise the project within 5 years at Bennelong Point.(5) With Constable’s departure for Europe and the scandalous conclusion of Goossen’s career in Australia, the project was left unfinished and the proposed design is now held in the Opera House archives. In his article for the souvenir program that accompanied the Jubilee Borovanksy ballet in 1954, Constable claimed that ballet “is a blending of three arts” and that “on the ballet stage we see a meeting of the poetry of movement, music and painting – a poem distilled of these three arts and beyond the need of the spoken word.”(6) The career of Constable is a great illustration to his motto. William Constable was significant in his contributions to Australia stage design for retaining great traditions of style and perfection that were established by the Ballets Russes and its artists. His legacy in stage decor, his input into Australian theatrical design and the establishment of the stage designer as a profession is significant in Australian theatrical history.
1 Meta Townsend, wife of Reginald Sturgess, Victorian Art Society members, Australian artists, Meta Townsend’s family lived in Malmsbury 2 Salter, Frank, Borovansky, the man who made Australian ballet, Wild Cat Press, 1980 3 Sydney Ure Smith, O.B.E., President, Society of artists. Introduction to Catalogue of Exhibition 4 SMH, 24 July 1947 5 Eugene Goossens, How Long Before Our Opera House Dream Comes True?The Sunday Herald, 17 April, 1949 6 Souvenir program of Jubilee Borovansky Ballet, 1954 from the collection of SL of NSW