Motley’s History of Survival

Design by Motley
Michael Mullin, Associated University Presses, 1996
Chapter 14: The Motley Legacy (1966-)

The more Motley’s reputation thrived on both sides of the Atlantic, the more their influence among other designers grew. Although much of that influence was indirect, spread by example that was imitated unconsciously by others, much was direct, for Motley were also teachers. As described in Chapter 4, they began teaching as part of the the London Theatre Studio (1936-1939). After World War II, Saint-Denis, Devine and Byam Shaw, with Motley, set out to implement “the Plan” for the Old Vic Centre, which included the Old Vic School, as described in Chapter 8. Margaret Harris took charge of the courses in set and costume design, occasionally helped by her sister and by other established designers, until the Old Vic Centre and the School came to an end in 1951.

Having been drawn into the orbit [as Head of Design] of the Sadler’s Wells (later the English National) Opera, in 1966 Margaret Harris began teaching young designers through that venue. She called the undertaking simply “The Sadler’s Wells Design Course”. One of the young designers, Hayden Griffin, later became her assistant and co-director of the course. His contribution to the school’s administration and his teaching have been central to the course for nearly three decades.

In 1968, when the opera company moved from Sadler’s Wells to the London Coliseum, the Design Course moved into rooms at the top of Sadler’s Wells Theatre. In 1971 they moved into the company’s rehearsal and wardrobe space at Camperdown House in Aldgate. These arrangements were ideal, in that the students worked on their own projects in association with Margaret Harris, Glen Byam Shaw, and John Blatchley, who were close at hand. Each year a new group of students assembled in September. For ten months they worked with various theatre artists, attended dress rehearsals, and created their own individual design projects. At the end of the third “term” in July, their projects – set models and costume designs – went on display in the annual exhibition. To this showcase of new talent year after year came theatre artists – directors, designers, actors – for an opportunity to employ new designers , as well as to visit with friends and catch up on each other’s doings. Thus a tradition formed that continues to this day, albeit with younger people taking on more responsibility, because of Margaret Harris’ advanced age.

Every few years, changes in the theatre company’s management or funding made it necessary to find new quarters. When the ENO moved their workshop to West Hampstead in the late 1970s, space and funds for the Design Course could not be provided; the course moved to the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith. Then an outpost of experimental theatre housed in the former BBC studios, the Riverside Studios made a name for itself as a venue for new work – or avant-garde treatment of the classics. It also served as a showcase for new work from abroad under the directorships of [current Trustees] Peter Gill and David Gothard. In 1987, a change of management forced the Motley designers to find [under the directorship of Pierre Audi, now Artistic Director of Netherlands Opera] an alternative studio at the Almeida in Upper Street, Islington – ironically only a few doors from the building where they had worked decades before with the London Theatre Studio. The Design Course maintained an informal partnership with the avant-garde, low-budget Almeida company for several years, but was forced to move again in 1991. As a temporary rescue measure, the Royal National Theatre on the South Bank generously agreed to house the course for one year. They adapted their paint frame, the large space where scenery flats were painted, for use by the Design Course. In 1992, the School moved into quarters in Shelton Street, near Covent Garden. In 1994 it moved into the Drury Lane Theatre workshops. The loyalty and devotion of the Course inspired in its graduates account for its ability, like John Barleycorn, to rise again and again without any formal institutional status or affiliation.

Read the next part: The Motley Legacy


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