Martin Morley

A Life in Theatre & Television Design

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Memories of the Wimbledon School of Art and Richard Negri

I was at Wimbledon between 1963-66 on the first year of the Dip AD course. I had done my Pre-dip at the Somerset College of Art. Though over 50 years ago, those three years are still sharp in my memory and I still draw on the attitude of mind and way of seeing that Richard Negri cultivated. Coming from a background with little serious interest in theatre, I developed an intense interest, kindled both by the college environment and by constant theatre visits, which in the 60s were affordable even on a student grant. It was a period of changing tastes, and painted pictorial scenery was giving way to a much more suggestive 3D approach with lighting really becoming a major factor in the design process.

The approach to design was very text based. We were encouraged to relate to the plays which we designed in a personal way and as far as possible to work without reference to the written stage directions. Rather than concentrating on the broad sweep I found myself starting from the smallest detail, whatever stuck the strongest chord, maybe the style of a particular piece of furniture and work out from there only putting on the stage that which was truly seen. It is an approach that I still adhere to and it is in marked contrast to some of the other design schools that stressed a broader, abstract, architectural method.

On the first day of year one, as I remember, about 18 first year hopefuls were gathered to hear Peter Bucknell, the Head of Department tell us that by the end of the year no more than 12 would survive. In the event 10 went through to the 2nd year - none were failed, they simply found the discipline uncongenial. I thought I would be one of those as the first project was to design a primitive ritual. Having been bought up as a Quaker my knowledge of ritual was slight and I could not respond to it, but when the texts arrived I felt more at ease and gradually confidence grew. There was no sign of Negri except in conversation, and no model making either. As far as I can remember my first contact with him was him commenting on a design 1 had done for "Ghosts": I think favourably. Looking back the 1st year was an excellent grounding though I could have done without the ritual humiliations that Bucknell used to handout at the group assessments, reducing many to tears but he could encourage and when he did it was good. What I most valued was the camaraderie amongst the group which was very homogeneous and the discussions we had. And the weekly visits to the gods at the Old Vic and the Aldwych I lapped it all up. I think we all entered the second year with some trepidation as Negri was held in awe as well as affection.

Richard Negri was the course for years two and three, with Robert Stanbury introducing the magic of lighting with his miraculous model theatre and Ron Brown providing a steadying influence.

But how did Negri teach? 1 really cannot recall him ever giving a lecture in any formal sense or imparting technical knowledge in a conventional way: nor did he discuss his own work and all the time at Wimbledon I only saw one set of his - "Miss Julie" at the National which seemed just right: nothing flashy, nothing "theatrical" but absolutely true. I can only suggest that he taught by osmosis.

The choice of plays was important: I imagine they were his, not handed down by an advisory panel. After the initial group play reading (which I enjoyed) there would be a group discussion (which made me nervous) and then we would be more or less left to design the play: part of the play, I can't recollect designing a complete play and solving all the practical problems in all the time I was at college. What we were doing was creating a personal world for the play gently prodded along by Negri. He didn't teach model making: we did model making. You quickly got the impression that white card models were infra dig. His eyes would glaze over if you said you working out how to change the scenes in advance, but his eyes would light up at some lightly drawn doodle that had been discarded as impractical. Technical problems definitely followed the idea and not vice versa. The all purposes set was anathema to him and that idea has stayed with me, in principle anyway. He taught that a good design will only work for a particular production of a particular play and where the distinction between directorial idea and design idea is indivisible. It seems a truism but there are plenty of forces against it and his purpose was help us believe in our own ideas; if that was possible then technical knowledge could be quickly learnt by experience. He taught us to design from the inside out and also to think of the detail simultaneously with the whole. We definitely didn't have to start at the beginning and go through to the end "start with what you see and let it grow from there". The sets when they worked were organic.

He could spot a false influence at a hundred paces. The work of Nicholas Gieorgiadis was particularly fashionable at the time and as the project was "Blue Beard's Castle", I thought something bold and operatic was called for, so I laboured over some tissue paper and gouache collages: quite pleased with myself I was until he pointed out that there was more of the real me in a costume design I had done of a man in a suit than in all the ill digested abstracted expressionism of my "Blue Beard" designs.

He always wanted to draw out the personal truth from us and it could be painful and it was certainly slow: whether we were all individuals I do not know as many times people have told me that they can tell a Wimbledon product from a Central one at a glance.

I never really knew him: never had a casual conversation with him. I was shy and indecisive, sensitive was the word often used about my work, but he was patient and little by little prized designs out of me. But what he said and the why he said it has always stuck, remained in the mind to ponder. I remember his impish humour and his delight in quirky ideas. Serious not solemn.

It was an exciting time to be at college, with much expansion in the arts and though the facilities were rudimentary by today's standards, there was everything we needed. The theatre had just been built and little did we know that Negri was using it to try out his staging ideas that he developed doesfurther at the 69 Theatre Company and finally at the marvelous Royal Exchange, which even after all this time not appear dated unlike so much that was built contemporaneously.

He was an inspiring teacher.

Wimbledon School of Art 1963-66


Me and Michael Lumb as the ugly sisters

First year costume design

Olivia from ‘Twelth Night’

First year

Costume study in the V&A

‘The Comedy of Errors’

Second year

First yearcostume design

‘Orsino. Twelth Night’

First year mask projects