Joan Jefferson Farjeon

Inventive scenic designer


Joan Frances Farjeon (Joan Jefferson Farjeon), scenic designer: born London 26 May 1913; died Northwood, Middlesex 8 August 2006.

Joan Jefferson Farjeon was born into a family well versed in literature, theatre, art and music, and became a skilled and inventive scenic designer. She was recognised throughout her working life as an exceptional craftswoman, with a sharp, true eye for fine detail and accuracy and an enviable gift for draughtsmanship.

The many West End productions she designed in the Fifties included Agatha Christie's The Hollow (Fortune, 1951) and Verdict (Strand, 1958), Vernon Sylvaine's comedy starring Robertson Hare, Will Any Gentleman? (Strand, 1950), and Lock Up Your Daughters! (Mermaid, 1959).

As well as designing the settings and costumes for all her great friend Nicholas Stuart Gray's plays in various theatres that included the Theatre Royal, Stratford East and the Arts Theatre, Leicester Square, she illustrated the later published versions. Her fairy-tale illustrations had a style, sophistication and humour suited to his writing in Beauty and the Beast (1951), The Imperial Nightingale (1957), New Lamps for Old (1968) and other plays popular with audiences and readers of all ages.

Joan's great-grandfather was the American actor Joseph Jefferson, third of that name in a theatrical dynasty dating back to 1745. Her father, Joseph Jefferson Farjeon (Joe), was the third child of Jefferson's daughter, Margaret, and B.L. Farjeon, the Victorian novelist; and the only one of their four children to be given the famous actor's name.

Joe's siblings, the composer Harry Farjeon and the writers Eleanor and Herbert, envied their brother this privilege and his daughter Joan later chose to make it her professional name. Her American mother, Frances Wood, was a friend of the Jeffersons.

Joan Frances Farjeon was born in 1913, her arrival recorded in print in the dedicatory poem of her aunt Eleanor Farjeon's Nursery Rhymes of London Town (1916): it began, "Joan was born in West End Lane / And when she was born she was young", and ended, "And if little Joan had never been born/These songs would have never been sung". Joan was to appear in other poems, and to grow close to an aunt, who, having no children of her own, could write "I shall love no other child, Joan, as I love you."

An entire collection, Joan's Door (1926), was named after her, inspired by the years spent in Sussex during the First World War when the family left London for a cottage in Billingshurst. After the war they returned to London and in the early Twenties lived in the Finchley Road, next door to a dancing school presided over by Mme Vandyck. It was found that Joan had dancing ability; a stylish, graceful child, she worked hard and in 1925 won a solo dancing competition at the Lyric Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue.

Her father, once an actor, but after marriage a journalist, novelist and dramatist, was often overworked and beset with financial worries, while her mother enjoyed a more social life. The small Joan was often sent next door to be looked after by Fanny Benjamin, known as "Benny", Nanny in the Vandyck household. This was not always a happy arrangement for a child who loved drawing, dancing and books, for Benny was something of a Tartar and a lover of petty rules and regulations; even so, it was not until Joan was 14 that she was sent to board at Lindores School in Bexhill-on-Sea.

Her formal education lasted only two years, and she left school at 16, already showing promise as an artist and ready for training. Westminster School of Art was an imaginative choice. Students of all ages, full- or part-time were admitted and the range of courses was innovative and flexible, allowing for choice and experiment - modelling, stone and wood carving, formal design with particular reference to poster work, illustration, textile, dress, costume and theatre design.

Mark Geitler, Bernard Meninsky, Clifford Webb and Blair Hughes-Stanton were on the teaching staff and students had free admission to libraries and galleries as well as the Zoological Gardens. It was a place in which to breathe, grow and develop ideas. Joan seized her opportunities but on leaving took time to make the plunge into the outside world, remaining in her early twenties attached to her home, over-protected by her anxious parents, seemingly content to breed golden retrievers and design attractive greeting cards. In 1939 she illustrated a collection of plays, Granny Gray, for Eleanor Farjeon.

After she had gained experience painting scenery for Herbert Farjeon's Little Revues, her great friend the writer Nicholas Stuart Gray, along with Eleanor Farjeon, persuaded Joan to break her ties with home and to gain independence. In 1941 she rented an old house in Windsor, with members of the Theatre Royal as lodgers, and at last began work as a fully fledged scenic designer.

It was said that she had inherited the integrity of her Jefferson ancestors in all she undertook. Promises must be kept, nothing stinted or less than perfect. Her ground plans were so precise that they could be sent to a theatre abroad, and recreated for another production. In 1943 Tyrone Guthrie invited her to design for him at Liverpool Playhouse; instead call up papers meant work on the land, in Ditchling, Sussex.

After her success with designs for the musical show Song of Norway at the Palace Theatre (1946), Joan Jefferson Farjeon was in constant demand. She always liked working in Cambridge, in 1953 designing the sets and costumes for Peter Hall's production of Henry IV at the Arts Theatre, and in 1955 and 1956 for the legendary Cambridge Footlights. Another favourite season was in 1960, as resident designer, under the director James Roose-Evans, at the Pitlochry Festival.

After her parents' deaths Joan Jefferson Farjeon bought a house in Primrose Hill, London, and for a while acted as amanuensis, officially titled "manager", for the TV cooks Johnnie and Fanny Cradock. Her incredible patience and gentleness of character was more than this notoriously difficult pair deserved. Challenging tasks were demanded; once Fanny hankered after "a kitchen under water" and the ceiling had to be painted to suggest this.

Joan Jefferson Farjeon suffered severe shock and burns when there was an explosion on the Cradocks' boat in Monte Carlo, but received a very small amount of the large sum of insurance paid. Undaunted, she was thrilled; "Well, it bought me Boulbon!" she would say. This cottage in Provence was a dream realised. She and Nicholas Stuart Gray had spent many holidays bicycling all over Provence, and after his death in 1981, she continued to visit France where her friend Alison Vandyck lived.

In 1968 she became resident designer at the Webber Douglas School of Dramatic Art, creating memorable sets for productions in the tiny Chanticleer Theatre into the 1990s. Students were aware of her, but few were allowed to grow close. She was a very private person, keeping facets of her life separate and, despite a sense of humour, showing an increasing streak of stubbornness.

Once retired, she perfected a routine, and friends were expected to fit in with this. Strangely the arrangements in her home were less orderly than in her workplaces. Friends worried, as she grew older, that she appeared oblivious to the dangers lurking in old electrical installations. In both Hampstead and France trailing wires and old-style two-pin plugs were evident and the memorabilia of an artistic lifetime cluttered staircases and landings, and toppled hazardously.

After she moved to Denville Hall, the theatre retirement home in Northwood, Middlesex, three years ago, some sorting out became necessary. A veritable treasure trove lay under a fair amount of dust, more than a few spiders in their webs keeping guard over props and costumes, as a statue of Joseph Jefferson the third kept watch. There were numerous boxes of models, made to scale, of almost every stage setting she had created, complete with costume designs, lists and programmes, now dispatched to Bristol University's Theatre Department, to be discovered by future generations of students with her passion for theatre.

Anne Harvey

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