Obituary: Elizabeth Montgomery

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The Independent Online
Elizabeth Montgomery, theatre designer and painter: born 15 February 1902; married 1946 Patrick Wilmot (died 1967; one son); died Barnes 15 May 1993.

ELIZABETH MONTGOMERY worked as a highly successful and innovative designer for the theatre, both in Britain and in the US, for over 40 years, and was also a fine painter, especially of theatrical portraits.

Born in Oxfordshire in 1902, Elizabeth spent most of her childhood in Cambridge, where her father William Montgomery was a theology lecturer. A shy, lonely child, she showed an early talent for drawing which her parents encouraged, sending her to art classes from the age of six. By the time the family settled in London when she was 16, she had a large portfolio. By a great effort she overcame the painful shyness which never really left her, and succeeded in selling her work to Good Housekeeping, the Tatler, and the Illustrated London News.

At 18 she started at a small art school, the Chelsea Illustrators, where she met and formed an immediate friendship with Sophie Harris and her sister Margaret (always known as Percy). Together they made fancy-dress costumes for sale, and sketched the actors at the Old Vic and Sadler's Wells, but they were determined to design for the theatre. Montgomery persuaded the director Terence Gray to let her design a production of Romeo and Juliet in Cambridge, and when the newly famous John Gielgud awarded them all the prizes for their costumes at the Old Vic Ball, they told him they wanted to design for him. He took them to Oxford, where he had agreed to direct an OUDS production of Romeo and Juliet, and talked the OUDS president George Devine into letting them design the costumes. It was then that, thinking three names rather cumbersome, they decided on the collective pseudonym Motley, which they continued to use throughout their working lives.

The partnership went from strength to strength, designing the sets and costumes for between four and six productions a year throughout the 1930s, many of them for Gielgud. It is not too much to say that their work revolutionised British theatre design. Reacting against the prevailing fashion for brocade, fur, and fustian 'realism', their designs were spare and selective, and their use of inexpensive natural materials (a costume for Shylock made from dishcloths, costumes for Hamlet made entirely from painted scene-canvas) caused a sensation.

Of the three, Montgomery was perhaps the most creative: her colour sense was daring and brilliant, and remained so all her life, and her sketches (mostly for costumes, occasionally for sets) have a vigour, delicacy and feeling for character which makes them works of art in their own right. Not only did the Motleys become the leading designers working in the theatre throughout the Thirties, but their studio, in St Martin's Lane, became the social centre of their theatrical generation, constantly visited by, among others, Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Peggy Ashcroft, Michael Redgrave and Alec Guinness.

In 1939, Montgomery and Percy Harris accepted an invitation from Olivier to design Romeo and Juliet in the US (Sophie Harris, married to George Devine, stayed in London), and decided to stay on while the war continued in Europe. They spent the war years designing in Canada, Hollywood and New York, and it was in New York that Montgomery met the author Patrick Wilmot, whom she married in 1946.

When Percy Harris returned to London after the war, Elizabeth stayed on in America, working on her own for the first time. Her career in New York, still working under the name of Motley, was spectacularly successful. In addition to Tony- award-winning Broadway plays and musicals (she was responsible for the costumes for South Pacific, Oklahoma], Paint Your Wagon and Can Can, among others), she designed a number of operas at the Metropolitan Opera House and several ballets for Agnes de Mille, one of which, Three Virgins and a Devil, is about to be revived in New York with the original Motley designs. She also brought up not only her son, John (born in 1950), but also several stepchildren and, later, stepgrandchildren.

In 1966, Elizabeth Montgomery returned to England with her husband and son. Sadly, her beloved Pat, already in poor health, died a few months after they settled in London, a loss from which she perhaps never entirely recovered. She and Percy Harris designed a handful of productions together, and she independently designed Peter Ustinov's production of The Unknown Soldier and His Wife, but in the mid-1970s she stopped designing for the theatre to concentrate on painting.

Over the course of her life she produced remarkable portraits of most of her friends and associates, including Gielgud, Ashcroft and Edith Evans in Britain and Agnes de Mille and Martha Graham in the US. As she moved into her eighties her failing eyesight made painting more difficult, but she continued as long as she could with embroidery, knitting, and patchwork.

Although never bedridden, she went out less and less in the last years of her life, and depended more and more on the constant care of Percy Harris, helped by a small circle of devoted friends.

(Photographs omitted)