Julia Trevelyan Oman
Leading designer for theatre, ballet and opera
Monday 13 October 2003
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."
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