Julia Trevelyan Oman

Leading designer for theatre, ballet and opera

Julia Trevelyan Oman, designer and writer: born London 11 July 1930; designer, BBC Television 1955-67; CBE 1986; married 1971 Roy Strong (Kt 1982); died Much Birch, Herefordshire 10 October 2003.

Theatrical design, even if preserved in photographs, working drawings and models, still - like the essence of theatre itself - remains an ephemeral art, like sculpting in snow. But Julia Trevelyan Oman, whose work in theatre, ballet and opera, and on cinema and television screens, established her as a leading designer for over 30 years, also co-created (with her husband, Sir Roy Strong) an enduring legacy in the remarkable gardens of the Laskett, their house in Herefordshire, near Ross-on-Wye. She also wrote some memorable books in partnership with her husband, one of them most appropriately titled On Happiness (1998).

Their partnership worked so well, perhaps, to a degree because of their preservation of their respective careers and identities (she was always "Dr Julia Trevelyan Oman" rather than "Lady Strong", a reminder that her background and ancestry yoked two of England's most distinguished academic and literary families). The Trevelyans (from whom she was descended on her mother's side) and the Omans had particularly strong Oxford links; some of the Laskett's most prized plants - including Oman's much-loved quince tree - came originally from the garden of Frewin Hall, the Trevelyan house in Oxford where her mother spent her childhood.

Julia Trevelyan Oman, a studious child, showed very early artistic talent and she gravitated naturally to the Royal College of Art, emerging - somewhat to her own surprise - in 1955 with its Silver Medal and a contract to work as a staff designer for the BBC. She remained with the Corporation for more than a decade, working on an extraordinary range of productions, from classy and star-laden classic plays to some of the more gritty work slowly finding its way onto the British small screen in the 1960s.

By far her most original contribution to the BBC was her work with Jonathan Miller on their mould-breaking version of Alice in Wonderland (1966). Stripping away the Tenniel trappings to reveal adult faces and figures beneath in what developed into a fantasy of repression and identity, Oman's designs evoked all the overstuffed Victoriana of Lewis Carroll's world within Miller's focus on Alice as having the context of a dream, an askew, oneiric world with characters only a footstep away from lunacy in some cases. She was inspired in her choices of location, including the use of Sir John Soane's Museum for the scenes with the Caterpillar (a magnificently bemused Michael Redgrave) in an odd, eerily sinister but elegiac sequence. With Peter Sellers as the King of Hearts and John Gielgud, Leo McKern, Peter Cook and John Bird also in the cast, this was a lustrous venture, although at the time it was accused (mostly in advance, sight unseen) of perverting a beloved classic and, extraordinarily, was described as the BBC as "unsuitable" for children under 12.

With the success of Alice, followed by the impact of her lovingly detailed recreation of John Aubrey's world (best described as stylised naturalism, a dusty, cobwebbed womb of books, artefacts, food and fruit, complete with smells - chamberpots and maps) in Patrick Garland's stage adaptation of Brief Lives (Hampstead, Criterion and New York, 1967) with Roy Dotrice's crumbling Aubrey, Oman was able to leave the BBC and take up a freelance career.

Much of her early theatrical work was in the commercial sector. Again for Garland she designed Alan Bennett's Forty Years On (Apollo, 1968) - the perfect designer for the play's public-school-set mixture of revue and elegy - taking greatly to Gielgud (as he did to her) and patiently coping with his mercurial changes of mind ("Wouldn't it be less distracting to use cardboard cut-outs for the schoolboys? Oh, dear me, no, what a silly idea"). She also did a superb job on Bennett's Getting On (Queen's, 1971), designing a 1970s NW1 basement kitchen - piercingly authentic down to the last Asiatic pheasant plate on the stripped pine dresser - to frame an acerbic play fatally compromised by the refusal of its star (Kenneth More) to portray the less charming aspects of his character, a somewhat blinkered Labour politician.

A reunion with Jonathan Miller saw one of Oman's very finest designs when they collaborated on The Merchant of Venice (Old Vic, 1970) for the National Theatre. Updated to late 19th-century Venice with Shylock (Laurence Olivier) as a frock-coated Rothschild-figure, she created a seductive Henry Jamesian world of aqueous light and elegant settings evoking all the splendour of a great mercantile community (money and opulent display were cunningly suggested all through the evening).

Later theatre work included a 1980 Lyric Hammersmith season; a Hay Fever, distinctly undercast, did Noël Coward's frivol no favours but she had a happier time on Ibsen's The Wild Duck, featuring an undervalued performance from Richard Briers, producing economical, suitably claustrophobic designs on a tight budget. For John Dexter she created a bustlingly crowded, brilliantly detailed working atmosphere for Thomas Dekker's The Shoemaker's Holiday (National Theatre, 1981) and on Keith Waterhouse's delightful recreation of the Pooters' world in Mr and Mrs Nobody (Garrick, 1986), her crammed parlour of Brickfield Terrace, Holloway (cunningly opening out for classic episodes such as the unfortunate Mansion House reception) was an entrancing home for the performances of Judi Dench and Michael Williams.

The wide hexagonal stage of the Chichester Festival Theatre did not see Oman's best work; her designs for a lumpy production of Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons (1981), featuring a resolutely stolid (and peculiarly wigged) Charlton Heston, were uncharacteristically cumbersome, although her final collaboration with Garland on the solo play Beatrix (1996) - with Patricia Routledge as Beatrix Potter - produced a beguiling domestic interior, greatly aiding a more than slightly arch play.

Perhaps her finest later theatrical excursion was the challenge of Hugh Whitemore's conversation-piece, The Best of Friends (Apollo, 1988) which had to suggest the separate but interlinked worlds of Bernard Shaw, the Abbess of Stanbrook and Sir Sidney Cockerell (Gielgud's valedictory stage appearance). She solved all the technical problems with the most adroit use of angles and perspective, also giving an extremely verbal piece striking physical support and a crucial intimacy.

Oman was for her most active period also much in demand in the world's opera houses and for ballet productions. Understandably, she was seen as an inheritor of the great painterly tradition of design which, much inspired by the verismo style of Franco Zeffirelli and the reclusive genius Lila de Nobili, brought to the values of that tradition the changes in perception inevitably generated by film and television. The style was especially suited to the major opera and ballet classics and Oman came up with some breathtakingly beautiful designs for several of the old warhorses, providing ravishing, crowd-packed stage pictures, including those for Eugene Onegin (1971), La Bohème (1974) and her whipped-cream Die Fledermaus (1977), all for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and a majestic, chiaroscuro Otello for Stockholm (1983). She designed surprisingly little for Glyndebourne, although her Arabella (1984 and much revived subsequently) was a genuine stunner.

For many, the pinnacle of Oman's art was in the world of the ballet, specifically in her partnership with another great English romantic, Sir Frederick Ashton. Their collaboration on A Month in the Country (first seen for the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden in 1976) was the ne plus ultra of her refinement of the verismo painterly tradition; her backcloth, with miracles of perspective and dissolving, exquisite pastels, framed Turgenev's tremulous world of awakened love and sharp-edged jealousies on that mid 19th-century provincial Russian estate quite magically. It is a major disappointment that she never designed the play.

In recent years Oman largely concentrated on writing and on the always in-progress work on the Laskett's gardens. There had been no little surprise in 1971 when she and Strong eloped to marry - suitably romantically, in the church of Wilmcote, near Stratford-upon-Avon, the village of Mary Arden, Shakespeare's mother - but it was and remained a genuine love-match, a marriage of true minds and transparently happy.

Soon afterwards they found the Laskett which, 30 years ago, had only a prosaically lawned garden with an adjacent two-acre field, unpromising to most eyes but in fact, as a kind of blank canvas, the perfect space in which to create a great garden from scratch. There were many setbacks - not least a devastating frost in the early 1980s which wiped out large sections of their planting, including most of their laurels - but, although constantly changing (it would have appalled Oman to have had the garden described as "finished"), their joint achievement is that in only 30 years they created the beguiling paradise of a seemingly long- established garden out of, in effect, a ploughed field.

Oman's temperament meshed ideally with Strong's in their work at the Laskett. The garden both looks back to the classic English tradition and forward into a new century. It has its formal symmetry, with box-edged parterres, the Elizabethan Tudor walk, and classical plinths, sculpture and statuary, but co-existing in perfect harmony are paving stones in bright colours, with amber and blue glass chippings on pathways echoing the yellow and blue house-front. Both understood - as Diana Vreeland did in fashion - that a touch of vulgarity, even of "bad taste", would not be out of place.

Above all, for both Oman and Strong, memory was always a treasured attribute in a garden, whatever the scale. Their affection for the garden and for each other became inextricable. As Strong once said: "This is a portrait of a marriage, the family we never had or wanted, a unique landscape peopled with the ghosts of nearly everyone we have loved, both living and dead."

Alan Strachan

Voices
Numbers of complaints about unwanted calls have trebled in just six months
voices
News
people
Arts & Entertainment
Picture of innocence: Ricky Gervais and Karl Pilkington in ‘Derek’
tvReview: The insights of Ricky Gervais's sweet and kind character call to mind Karl Pilkington's faux-naïf podcast observations
Arts & Entertainment
Tangled up in blue: Singer-songwriter Judith Owen
musicAnd how husband Harry Shearer - of Spinal Tap and The Simpsons fame - helped her music flourish
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Paul Weller: 'I am a big supporter of independent record stores but the greedy touts making a fast buck off genuine fans is disgusting'
music
Arts & Entertainment
William Shakespeare's influence on English culture is still strongly felt today, from his plays on stage to words we use everyday
arts
Sport
Karim Benzema celebrates scoring the opening goal
sportReal Madrid 1 Bayern Munich 0: Germans will need their legendary self-belief to rescue Champions League tie in second leg
Life & Style
Looking familiar: The global biometrics industry is expected to grow to $20bn by 2020
tech
Sport
Manchester United manager David Moyes has claimed supporters understand the need to look at
sportScot thanks club staff and fans, but gives no specific mention of players
News
Strange 'quack' noises could be undersea chatter of Minke whales
science
News
weird news... and film it, obviously
Life & Style
Balancing act: City workers at the launch of Cityfathers
lifeThe organisation is the brainchild of Louisa Symington-Mills who set up Citymothers in 2012 - a group boasting more than 3,000 members
Arts & Entertainment
tv
News
Fresh hope: Ruth Womak and her dog Jess. A free training course in basic computing skills changed Ruth’s life
educationHow a housing association's remarkable educational initiative gave hope to tenant battling long-term illness and depression
News
Rohff is one of France’s most popular rappers
people
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Construction Solicitor – Surrey

Excellent Salary Package: Austen Lloyd: This is a rare high level opportunity ...

Construction Solicitor NQ+ Manchester

Very Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: This is an excellent opportunity within...

Corporate Finance

£80000 - £120000 per annum + Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: US QUALI...

Banking / Finance Associate - City

Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: Banking / Finance Associate - We have an exce...

Day In a Page

Migrants in Britain a decade on: The Poles who brought prosperity

Migrants in Britain a decade on

The Poles who brought prosperity
Philippe Legrain: 'The eurozone crisis has tipped many into disillusionment, despair and extremism - we need a European Spring'

Philippe Legrain: 'We need a European Spring'

The eurozone crisis has tipped many into disillusionment, despair and extremism - this radically altered landscape calls for a new kind of politics, argues the economist
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A moment of glory on the Western Front for the soldiers of the Raj

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A moment of glory on the Western Front for the soldiers of the Raj
Judith Owen reveals how husband Harry Shearer - star of This Is Spinal Tap and The Simpsons - helped her music flourish

Judith Owen: 'How my husband helped my music flourish'

Her mother's suicide and father's cancer also informed the singer-songwriter's new album, says Pierre Perrone
The online lifeline: How a housing association's remarkable educational initiative gave hope to tenant battling long-term illness and depression

Online lifeline: Housing association's educational initiative

South Yorkshire Housing Association's free training courses gave hope to tenant battling long-term illness and depression
Face-recognition software: Is this the end of anonymity for all of us?

Face-recognition software: The end of anonymity?

The software is already used for military surveillance, by police to identify suspects - and on Facebook
Train Kick Selfie Guy is set to scoop up to $250,000 thanks to his viral video - so how can you cash in on your candid moments?

Viral videos: Cashing in on candid moments

Train Kick Selfie Guy Jared Frank could receive anything between $30,000 to $250,000 for his misfortune - and that's just his cut of advertising revenue from being viewed on YouTube
The world's fastest elevators - 20 metres per second - are coming soon to China

World's fastest elevators coming soon to China

Whatever next? Simon Usborne finds out from Britain's highest authority on the subject
Cityfathers tackles long-hours culture that causes men to miss out on seeing their children

Cityfathers tackles long-hours culture

The organisation is the brainchild of Louisa Symington-Mills, a chief operating officer who set up Citymothers in 2012 - a group that now boasts more than 3,000 members
Brits who migrate to Costa del Sol more unhappy than those who stay at home

It's not always fun in the sun: Moving abroad does not guarantee happiness

Brits who migrate to Costa del Sol more unhappy than those who stay at home
Migrants in Britain a decade on: They came, they worked, they stayed in Lincolnshire

Migrants in Britain a decade on

They came, they worked, they stayed in Lincolnshire
Chris Addison on swapping politics for pillow talk

Chris Addison on swapping politics for pillow talk

The 'Thick of It' favourite thinks the romcom is an 'awful genre'. So why is he happy with a starring role in Sky Living's new Lake District-set series 'Trying Again'?
Why musicians play into their old age

Why musicians play into their old age

Nick Hasted looks at how they are driven by a burning desire to keep on entertaining fans despite risking ridicule
How can you tell a gentleman?

How can you tell a gentleman?

A list of public figures with gallant attributes by Country Life magazine throws a fascinating light on what it means to be a gentleman in the modern world
Pet a porter: posh pet pampering

Pet a porter: posh pet pampering

The duo behind Asos and Achica have launched a new venture offering haute couture to help make furry companions fashionable