Peter Snow: Painter and theatre designer

Peter Snow was one of the most imaginative, unconventional, erudite and versatile British artists and designers of the past half-century. As well as solo exhibitions and numerous group show appearances, he designed widely for plays, operas and the ballet and formed and ran an enterprising theatre company. In 1955, he designed the first English production of Beckett's Waiting for Godot for Peter Hall.

Snow was one of a gifted group who studied stage design under Robert Medley at the Slade School of Fine Art, a department he eventually took over and ran with distinction for 25 years. At art school and the theatre, he made a huge circle of friends who admired his talent, irreverent humour and definite opinions.

He was born in 1927 in Catford, south London, one of two sons of Frederick and Rosetta Snow. Frederick Snow would eventually be knighted for his work as a civil engineer, notable for using reinforced concrete. His contracts included the Kingsway Underpass at the Aldwych and Heathrow Airport, as well as many others in Britain and abroad. Peter's younger brother Michael joined his father's firm.

In 1946 Peter Snow began work as a journalist for the South London Press, valuable experience when he joined the Royal Engineers for National Service later that year and worked as an announcer and broadcaster for the Forces Broadcasting Service in the Middle East. When he was young, Snow saw the singer and actress Jessie Matthews on stage and was attracted to the performing arts. He had spent a period at Goldsmiths College School of Art in 1946, and so instead of returning to newspapers in 1948 he went to the Slade School of Fine Art. He studied there until 1953, gaining a University of London Scholarship in Fine Art and the Malcolm Scholarship in Decorative Painting and Theatre Design.

In 1949, William Coldstream became Professor of Fine Art at the Slade. He was a man Snow grew to like and admire, although in both character and appearance they were contrasts. This is evident in Lord Snowdon's photograph of the Slade staff in the 1965 volume Private View – Coldstream suited and shiny-shoed, Snow bohemian-looking and bearded.

Snowdon and Snow shared a passion for motorcycles. This is exemplified elsewhere in the book, where a consideration of Snow's 1964 picture Inca Wall by the critic John Russell is accompanied by Snowdon's photograph of Snow, clad in leathers, servicing one of his "intimidating machines ... which he rides in hill-trials most weekends."

Snow's fellow student Philippa Cooper recalls his flair for decoration when she and others helped create his Venetian theme for a Slade Christmas Ball. He joined the Slade staff to teach theatre design in 1957 and continued there after his teacher, Robert Medley, left. He was an unconventional head of theatre design from 1967 to 1992 (he was made emeritus professor in 1996). His students included Yolanda Sonnabend and Derek Jarman.

In 1963, the year after he completed a commission for an altarpiece of the Twelve Disciples for St Mathias Church in London, Snow married Maria Wirth, an Australian colour consultant and interior designer. Their daughter Selina was born the following year.

By this time Snow had begun showing solo as well as in mixed exhibitions. After a first solo show at the Prospect Gallery, London, in 1951, he had a one-man exhibition in 1957 at the important Beaux Arts Gallery, which Helen Lessore had taken over in 1951. She promoted the so-called "Kitchen Sink School" of painters such as John Bratby, with whom Snow shared a show at Black Hall, St Giles, Oxford, in 1959, with another solo exhibition at the Beaux Arts in 1961.

After showing with the "Young Contemporaries" at the RBA Galleries in 1951 and the "Artists in Industry" exhibition at Shell Petroleum in 1953, Snow took part in numerous mixed exhibitions with artists such as Frank Auerbach, Jeffery Camp, Prunella Clough, Lucian Freud, Terry Frost, Patrick Heron and Peter Lanyon. His circle of friends and correspondents was huge, among them Craigie Aitchison, whom he painted; Patrick George, a future Slade Professor; Myles Murphy, whose studio in St Mary's Gardens, Kennington, was upstairs from Snow's; Paula Rego and Victor Willing.

As impressive was his list of stage commissions. Through Medley he came to know Rupert Doone, director of the Group Theatre. With Doone directing, Snow designed Love's Labours Lost for the Southwark Shakespeare Festival in 1951.

After this, he was kept busy into the 1990s with designs for dozens ofproductions, including in 1978 Rex Whistler, a film for the BBC. As examples of his versatility, in the mid-1950s alone he designed John Marston's The Dutch Courtesan and Bernard Shaw's The Devil's Disciple for Joan Littlewood at the Theatre Workshop, Stratford; the Benjamin Britten-scored ballet Variations on a Theme by Purcell for Frederick Ashton, at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; and Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot for Peter Hall at the Arts Theatre in 1955, the first production of the play in English translation. Snow also designed jackets for books by Beckett, including All That Fall (1957).

Peter Hall described Snow as "a painter in love with the theatre",an opinion confirmed by the artist's daughter Selina, who eventually followed him to study at the Slade. "He believed in the magic of the theatre, music and ballet. I don't know where he got that from, because it was so different from the rest of the family. If I sat next to him at the ballet, he would be crying, it so moved him."

An Arts Council grant and a Churchill Fellowship took Snow to Mexico in the 1960s, where he studied ancient rituals. On the way, in the United States, he saw performance artists, and later, in 1970, he formed the Electric Theatre Company. What he had seen in America and Mexico found expression in such productions as the 1971 Reflections I, at the Oval House Theatre, in south London, and the 1975 Reflections II, at the Institute of Contemporary Arts and in the provinces. Snow designed and wrote these exotic multimedia events that could blend motorcycling and Aztec images.

Snow's friend Susan Ward, who was "converted to Beckett" after seeing Waiting for Godot with Peter, remembers attending one of his more bizarre theatrical occasions. "We entered a blackened room and were each handed what we thought were pills – which turned out to be Smarties!"

Snow loved painting at night by artificial light, with music blaring out. In a series of pictures shown in his Morley Gallery retrospective in 1995, not far from his Georgian home in Kennington, south London, he caught the menace of the city at night, and said, "All my pictures are about threat, really."

His skilful use of light was also evident in pictures shown in two late exhibitions organised by his daughter, in 2005 in the Kennington house and in 2008 at the Art Stable, Child Okeford, Dorset. By then Snow was in a nursing home in Salisbury, Wiltshire. He had had several minor strokes in 2003 and was suffering from vascular dementia.

Notable collections holding Snow's work include the Museum of London, the Theatre Museum and the Britten-Pears Foundation. The National Portrait Gallery has his portraits of Sir Richard Eyre and Joan Littlewood.

David Buckman

Peter Frederick Briscoe Snow, painter, theatre designer and teacher: born London 6 June 1927; Head of Theatre Design, Slade School of Fine Art, London University 1967-92, Fellow 1995, Emeritus Professor 1996; married 1963 Maria Wirth (died 2007; one daughter); died Ringwood, Hampshire 29 August 2008.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links