Art & Design in The British Film – The Last Chapter

Wrapping a series about Art Directors in the British film industry up to 1948, when the book containing these articles was published.

This final chapter describes briefly the work of British art directors and production designers who for one reason or another could not be interviewed directly by the author.

Shorter Notices.
THIS book would not be complete if I were not to include the names of some of those art directors well known for their contribution to film decor, but who, for some reason or other I have been unable to represent by examples of their work or records of their effort.

I had expected contributions from Carmen Dillon, Holmes Paul, Andrew Mazzei, and Charles Gilbert, but I have had to go to press without them.

Carmen Dillon is the only professional art director of the ‘fair sex’ in the country.
She studied as an architect and then went into films.

For many years she has been associated with most of the films produced at Denham by Two Cities. She recently worked as art director on ‘Hamlet’ in collaboration with Roger Furse, who was the designer.

Andrew L. Mazzei, one of the most genial of characters, was Lancashire born of an Italian father and a French mother and therefore inherited a lot of natural genius. He studied architecture and sculpture and was an expert on fibrous plaster work.

At one time he helped to design the White City exhibition, a great technical achievement in plaster of paris, which has stood up wonderfully to the ravages of time.

His first film job was in America for Famous Players after which he worked in Germany and Italy. When he came back to England in 1928 he was already well known for his work on ‘Roses of Picardy’ and ‘The Flight Commander’.

Mazzei’s name is associated with many films at Shepherd’s Bush where he is now art director. I first met him when he was designing a film for Anna Sten at B.I.P. in 1937, when I was greatly impressed by his knowledge of film technique.

R. Holmes-Paul is now chief Art Director at British National Films, Elstree. He is a man of great experience having worked as an art director on numerous productions in America as well as England.

He worked at Ealing and at Rock Studios for many years where his sets have been notable for their appreciation of style and careful treatment of detail.

Charles H. Gilbert came into films in 1930. He had previous experience as a scenic artist; after a considerable period as assistant on various productions he did his first job as art director in 1939, when he made the decor for ‘The Middle Watch’, an A.B. production.

This was followed by many more films for Associated British including ‘Spring Meeting’, ‘The Farmer’s Wife’, ‘This Man is Dangerous’, ‘Banana Ridge’, ‘ Women aren’t Angels’ and two Hitchcock films, ‘ Madagascar Landing’ and ‘Bon Voyage’.

His best known work was for ‘Night Boat to Dublin’ and ‘ Wanted for Murder’ in which the authentic backgrounds were a contribution to the success of the films.

There are other designers too, who have temporarily retired from films, gone abroad, or who are no longer with us, but whose contribution to British films should not be overlooked.

Walter Murton was born in 1892 and was Art Director for the Stoll Studio in silent picture days, during which period he proved to be one of the most competent designers in the country.

Those who can remember ‘Huntingtower’ will remember how good it was. He went on to Shepherd’s Bush Studios where he continued to work as art director and floor manager. This was followed by an offer to go to India in the capacity of adviser on film production, on which subject he was by then an expert.

John Mead was one of the many art directors who worked at the B.I.P. Studios. Mead, however, was remarkable in that he had a real flair for film decor.

His sets for ‘The Marriage of Corbal’ in 1936 were exceptionally good, though the picture was bad.

He used all the tricks of perspective, and painted shadows with great ability and imagination. He was particularly at home on Eastern subjects, and his work for ‘Abdul the Damned’ at Elstree had all the atmosphere of a corrupt Turkey behind it.

The late Sidney Gausden is remembered chiefly for his work as
designer for ‘The Great Mr Handel’, an enterprising film made in colour by Norman Walker in 1942.

The colour scheme for the whole film was most carefully planned and although the system for reproduction was not what it is now, the results were studied with great interest by all who were keen on the use of colour in films as opposed to those who used colour to make films colourful.

Gausden first came into films in 1940 and designed the sets for ‘Man at the Gate’. Then in 1941 ‘Hard Street’ followed by ‘The Great Mr Handel’ and ‘They Knew Mr King’ in 1945, all of which were directed by Norman Walker.

Gausden was a very interesting character—at one time he studied for the church, then became well known as a painter and wood engraver depicting life in Bosnia, where he had spent a long time, after being badly wounded in the First World War, teaching the art of furniture making. He wrote plays, and at the time of his death was keenly interested in religious films.

Then there are those who worked on silent pictures. For instance, young Ian Campbell-Gray who designed the settings for ‘Shooting Stars’ and ‘Underground’, Anthony Asquith’s first film in 1927-28.

Allan McNab, a brilliant young etcher and engraver who came into films round about the same period and made designs for ‘The Wrecker’ and ‘The Lady in the Lake’.

Harry Jonas, an outstanding figure, a painter who worked with George Pearson on ‘Love, Life and Laughter’, in which a stairway scene was so dramatically conceived that the impression of it has remained with me for twenty-two years.

Willie Davies, formerly a pageant master, worked with D. W.
Griffith before he supervised the decor to numerous British films.

Bert Evans and Oswald Jones, both had been scenic artists before
working on films.

Clifford Pember was one of the first designers to graduate to film decor through an architect’s office. He worked in America for Griffiths on ‘ Way Down East’ and on most of Herbert Wilcox’s silent pictures. He then worked with Basil Dean on his first film ventures.

Herbert Norris also worked in films, and J. Elder Wills, James Carter and Frank Wells were all well known in silent picture days. They were also designing before the war but have since taken positions on the production side of the business.

Edward Delany, the well-known scenic artist, designed sets for a number of Oswald Mitchell’s productions at Stoll Studios. He put a great deal of work into these small films and had he not been wedded to the theatre would have made a brilliant art director.

All those mentioned in this book have contributed in some way towards the design of motion pictures—some felt disillusioned early on by what seemed a dumb commercialism that would not even recognize that good art would obviously sell better than bad art.

Others stayed on and sought to improve the medium by endeavouring to understand it.

In 1924, that veteran artist in the film medium, George Pearson, said:

`I believe in the Cinema; in its claim to be an art, in its power to speak to the people with equal vigour to that claimed by the stage, and in its ability to stand first in the days to come as inspirer of the people.
`But I equally deplore all those hideous bonds that now strangle its growth—the many passengers and parasites who feed upon it, the charlatans who exploit it, and above all the thinkers who will not think about it; the convention-ridden workers who would leave to others all the discovery, content to get a living of sorts by toiling in narrow grooves till the end.
`If you are to help me you must be with me in my belief. It is a
fervent, consuming belief.’

I know these words inspired me and many others to persevere. We would not be passengers and we still hope to see the film rise above mere entertainment and become, as G.P.’ puts it, ‘The inspirer of the people’.

(Excerpted from: “Art & Design In The British Film” A Pictorial Directory of British Art Directors and their work. Compiled by Edward Carrick, 1947 )

The End.

(Fade to black).

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The table of contents for this series of 30 posts can be found on the “Series” page.