Loudon Sainthill 1919-1969

Loudon Sainthill

Loudon Sainthill

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.

 

Vision splendid

‘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.

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Biographical references

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