William Constable 1906-1989

William Constable

The sorcerer was William Henry Archibald Constable. He was born on 8 March 1906 in Bendigo, Victoria.

His first theatrical commission came 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.

His first theatrical commission came 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.

 

The Sorcerer

‘Bill Constable designed most of Borovansky’s sets,’ recalled dancer Barry Kitcher. ‘He and Borovansky had found each other at the right time in both their careers and they became very close friends. Over the years Constable made an enormous contribution to the Borovansky Company with his magnificent and imaginative set designs. He had a particular talent for creating an impressive sense of depth and distance in his backcloths. Paul Kathner tells how, as a young man, he trained under Constable. He said that Constable kept his paints warm by putting them in old chamber pots. Boro would often enter the scene dock to check on progress and jokingly referred to Paul as “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”.’

The sorcerer was William Henry Archibald Constable. He was born on 8 March 1906 in Bendigo, Victoria. It was there he received training in watercolour painting from Meta Townsend. In 1926 he abandoned an apprenticeship as an electrical engineer at the Jolimont railway workshops, to study at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School. From there he went to London, sharing his time between study at St Martin’s School of Art and work ‘in some of London’s most advanced experimental theatres.’ He also provided illustrations for the magazine The Bystander.

Constable returned to Australia in 1930. His first theatrical commission came 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. He designed several productions for New Theatre, including Catherine Duncan’s The Sword Sung in 1937, and for the fledgling Borovansky Ballet from 1940.

His first theatrical commission came 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. The plays were directed by Alec Coppel, recently returned from London – as was actress Kathleen Robinson. When Robinson and Coppel’s Whitehall Productions became the resident company at David N. Martin’s Minerva Theatre in Kings Cross, Constable joined the team as resident designer. At the same time he designed for Peter Finch’s Mercury Theatre and Doris Fitton’s Independent Theatre in Sydney and for Borovansky in Melbourne. From 1941 until 1956 he designed some 20 ballets for Boro, including landmark productions like Terra Australis (1946), The Outlaw (1951), The Eternal Lovers (1952) and Corrida (1956). But the most striking and celebrated of his ballet designs was Corroboree, produced by Melbourne’s National Theatre Ballet in 1950; a reworked version retaining Constable’s set was the highlight of a gala performance for Queen Elizabeth II at the Sydney Tivoli in 1954 – the first time a reigning monarch set foot in an Australian theatre.

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Biographical references

William Constable: Flying Artist, Legend Press, 1952
Barry Kitcher: From Gaolbird to Lyrebird, Front Page, 2001
Frank Van Straten: ‘Bill Constable’, in Stages, December 1989
Pamela Zeplin: ‘William Constable’, in Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press, 1995