Obituary: William Chappell

William Chappell, dancer, theatre designer and producer: born Wolverhampton 27 September 1907; dancer, Ballet Rambert and Vic-Wells (later Sadler's Wells) Ballet 1930-39; military service 1939-45; books include Studies in Ballet 1948, Fonteyn: impressions of a ballerina 1951, Edward Burra: a painter remembered by his friend 1982, Well Dearie: The Letters of Edward Burra 1985; died Rye, East Sussex 1 January 1994.

IN A FABULOUS exhibition of 20th-century set and costume designs for dance at Central St Martin's College of Art and Design, in London, last May, two costume designs by William Chappell were placed alongside work by Benois, Oliver Messel, Picasso, John Piper, Bakst, David Hockney and Sophie Fedorovitch. One was for Frederick Ashton's Capriol Suite in 1930, revived in 1983, the other was for High Yellow by Buddy Bradley and Ashton in 1932.

In this way the exhibition placed Chappell justly among those who have stamped their designer's taste upon British ballet since 1930. The two designs illustrated also the wide range of a personal contribution which, in the 1930s, also included important roles as a dancer.

Chappell was educated first at Chelsea Arts School and had an early interest in dance; but he began serious dance study with Marie Rambert only at 17, too late ever to become a virtuoso dancer. In any case a dreamy, diffident temperament inclined him towards roles of a lyrical, less flamboyant nature. Through Rambert he became one of the founding dancers of British ballet alongside others in the Rambert and Vic-Wells companies. They formed a group of artists whose maturity looked wider than dance. In their company Chappell's ability as a designer was encouraged by Rambert, and it exceeded even his worth as a dancer.

After a brief professional engagement with the Ida Rubenstein Company in Paris in 1929 Chappell returned to London to dance with Rambert's newly formed Ballet Club (later Ballet Rambert), then with the Camargo Society and Ninette de Valois's Vic-Wells Ballet. Only by taking jobs with as many companies as possible could ballet dancers in those days earn the beginnings of a living.

Between 1930 and the outbreak of war in 1939, when he was the first male dancer to join up, Chappell created more than 40 widely different roles for Rambert and Vic- Wells. Among them were the Rake's friend in de Valois's The Rake's Progress, the popular song in Ashton's Facade, the title-role in Ashton's The Lord of Burleigh and the re-creation of two Nijinsky roles, Le Spectre de la rose and the faun in L'Apres-midi d'un faune.

I never saw Chappell dance except on a snippet of film in the Rambert collection from Ballet Club days. As the faun he moved with an astonishing grace and indolent sensuality which has stayed in my mind. When she showed me the film Marie Rambert said it was Chappell's self-confessed indolence and sense of style which led her to choose him for so difficult a re-creation.

Still, it is as a designer that he will be most remembered. During the 1930s Chappell designed more than 40 ballets or revues, including many of the early works of Ashton and de Valois. Among them were Tudor's Lysistrata, de Valois's The Wise and Foolish Virgins and Bar aux Folies-Bergere and Ashton's Les Rendezvous and Les Patineurs, as well as productions of Giselle and Coppelia for the Sadler's Wells Company. Designs for Les Patineurs remain in the repertory today as he created them. Les Rendezvous, although many times revised, continues essentially his conception. His designs captured visually particular lyrical and celebratory qualities in Ashton's choreography.

I met Chappell first only in 1959, climbing many stairs to his flat, in Thurloe Square, opposite the Victoria and Albert Museum. By then he had extended his work to include opera, musical theatre, revues and drama, often as director as well as designer. To these productions he brought a vast experience from his share in the creation of British ballet.

I asked him to join others, similarly eminent, in a series of extramural lectures on 'The Ballet in Britain' at Oxford, the first time ballet was considered seriously at the university. He talked about problems of ballet design with a knowledge, modesty and throwaway humour which won over within 10 minutes a sticky audience of academics and students, few of whom knew much about dance. Later, he illustrated the book which followed the lectures.

In our meetings he talked often about the curious balance in his career between self-confidence and self-doubt. I learnt that he wrote as he spoke with enviable fluency and imagery. His book Studies in Ballet (1948) has a wonderful description of Tamara Karsavina in the role of Gautier's heroine Mlle de Maupin. Later he edited two valuable books about his close friend the artist Edward Burra.

We lost touch as emphysema claimed him and he retreated to his home in Rye. The British theatre world, though, should not lose touch. His was a creative spirit which helped to found the national ballet we have today.

(Photograph omitted)

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 People

Compensation and Benefits Manager - Brentwood - Circa £60,000

£60000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Compensation and Benefits Manager - Compensat...

Finance Manager - Recruitment Business (Media & Entertainment)

£28000 - £35000 per annum + negotiable: Sauce Recruitment: We have an exciting...

HR Advisor - North London / North West London

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Advisor - North London...

Finance Manager - Recruitment Business (Media & Entertainment)

£28000 - £32000 per annum + negotiable: Sauce Recruitment: We have an exciting...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker