OBITUARY : Riette Sturge Moore

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The Independent Online
Theatre designer, teacher, interior decorator, mapmaker, Riette Sturge Moore inspired young and old. Her gangly form, hair like a wild white cloud, husky voice and puff of Woodbine smoke were unmistakable.

She was half French, her mother from the Appia family, one cousin the great innovator in theatre design Adolphe Appia. Her father was Thomas Sturge Moore the poet, her uncle the philosopher G.E. Moore. Her childhood was spent in the shadow of the likes of W.B. Yeats, Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon in 40 Well Walk, Hampstead - John Constable's old house - and at Bedales School, in Hampshire.

Surrounded by superior beings of all kinds, the shy girl had a very suppressed infancy and youth. The best of times were those spent in the Italian Alps, holidaying with relatives, and becoming a daring mountain climber - astounding as that may seem to those who only knew her as the epitome of subtle good taste.

Only when Riette got away from the family in the Twenties did she develop her firework display of talents. She trained as a decorator in London and Paris and studied at University College School of Architecture. She became one of London's most successful and revolutionary interior decorators - designing furniture, fabrics, rugs as well as the rooms themselves. She worked with such fashionable design houses at Hartigans Ltd and Heals; and her freelance work varied from Lady Diana Duff Cooper's swan-painted settee to the startling jade and red dragon decor of the cocktail bar of the Ladies' Carlton Club.

All this chic success did not make her immensely happy. A lecture by the influential French theatre director Michel St Denis, whose Compagnie des Quinze rocked London in the 1930s, started her on a career she really loved, as a theatre designer.

The onset of the Second World War in 1939 put a hold on theatre work and to her astonishment she found herself in Bath being considered a prime catch for the mapmaking section of the Admiralty.

After the war she taught and made theatre at Dartington Hall in Devon and the Bath Academy of Art, at Corsham in Wiltshire, where Clifford and Rosemary Ellis had gathered together an amazing collection of advisers and teachers: Michael Tippett, William Scott and Helen Binyon among them. Peter Cox described her then as "so idiosyncratic, so lovable, her work was so inspired and unlike anyone else's - those nights she spent in the back of the Barn Theatre, at Dartington, emerging at dawn with her fingers dripping with glue and a cigarette still drooping out of the side of her mouth, muttering deprecatingly that she hadn't got it quite right".

As a teacher Riette Sturge Moore was most remembered by the ease with which she communicated with generations of young people who thought of and talked to her as a contemporary. She was a wonderful listener and was virtually unshockable. She never imparted knowledge to people, but manoeuvred them into self-discovery.

She was not just a teacher but a doer - in the late Forties she was part of Sir Barry Jackson's revolution at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. Jackson, with directors like the young Peter Brook, swept away the dust and raised the standards with a series of enchanting productions. Sturge Moore designed a dazzling and spectacular version of Marlowe's Dr Faustus in 1946 and an excitingly fresh Twelfth Night in 1947 with a young Paul Scofield having a great success as Sir Andrew Aguecheek.

Meanwhile she also joined the design staff at the short-lived but illustrious Old Vic School. Parallel with her teaching at the three institutions - Dartington, Corsham and the Old Vic - she worked on many productions. Outstanding were her designs for St Denis's version of Kaalevala, the Finnish epic, and the costumes for the Laurence Olivier / Peter Hall Coriolanus in 1959. It was in this Coriolanus that Albert Finney took over from Olivier when understudying and became a star.

Riette Sturge Moore was privately a generous helper, mentor and homegiver to musicians, poets, artists and theatre people like myself who otherwise could never have afforded to have followed their careers. She rejoiced in our successes, and, never having children of her own, made us all a loving family and changed our lives.

Frank Dunlop

Henriette Helene Rebecca Sturge Moore, theatre and interior designer: born London 17 June 1907; died London 26 September 1995.