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.