Peter Farmer obituary
Born in Luton, where his father owned a hat factory, Farmer started his working life as a buyer in Welwyn Stores, a huge shop in Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire; there he began experimenting with that miniature stage, the window display.
By the time he came to design an elegantly Edwardian Nutcracker for English National Ballet in 2010, Peter Farmer had refined his guiding principle for the cherished holiday classic. “It’s about recreating a memory of Christmas you never had but wish you did,” he said. “The presents, the tree, the family party. A longed-for past.”
An imaginary past, a delicate enchantment, a wistful exoticism: these were the hallmarks of Farmer’s atmospheric designs, especially for classic ballets. Working for every prestigious British company, as well as the Mariinsky, American Ballet Theatre and others, he gave the revered central works of the repertoire an enticingly dreamy imaginative cast.
In the process, Farmer, who has died aged 80, became a guardian of unfashionable stage crafts, disdaining model boxes or computer graphics. “In my generation, stage design was easel-painting-led,” he told the dance critic Ismene Brown in 2006. “Now I get so angry because it’s all about making models. I mean, it can be impressive to see a giant helicopter on stage. But if you can do a vision or a bit of magic in a few seconds, it’s terribly impressive, and that’s why I’ve always liked gauzes.” His backcloths and scene paintings were ravishing.
Farmer’s costume design process was also singular. Big ballets often demand well in excess of 100 costumes (more than 400 for The Nutcracker), but he didn’t make colour sketches in advance. Rather, he would select fabrics in the theatre wardrobe. “The colour of paint can’t replicate fabric,” he insisted, matching the chosen textiles to his black-and-white drawings. Production staff seem to have loved working with him, perhaps because they felt so closely involved. “If you get the makers on your side they’ll move heaven and earth,” he said.
Australian Ballet staff remember Farmer especially fondly. Each afternoon at 3pm, while working on Madame Butterfly, he would announce: “I’m off for a bubble bath and some chocolates.” He had previously met more resistance during a stint with London Contemporary Dance Theatre. “The girls had big bottoms and wouldn’t wear make-up,” he recalled. “They said it was all about rehearsal lights and expression of their souls and all that.” Even so he created bracingly modern designs – steel, silver paint, film and neon – for works by Robert North and Robert Cohan, for whom Stages (1971) ended with its tormented hero striding offstage towards a glowing exit sign. “The whammy costumes are by Peter Farmer,” enthused the critic Richard Buckle. “Wow!”
Giselle, Farmer’s signature ballet, was quite different, moving from the heroine’s sheltered village to the graveyard she haunts in death. He made his name with Peter Wright’s 1966 production in Stuttgart (later reworked for the Royal Ballet touring company), which explored original sources, and Farmer returned to the ballet throughout his career – notably with the producer Maina Gielgud at Australian Ballet in 1986. Michael Williams described its “warm autumnal colours, evoking harvest time … starkly contrasting with the darkness of the swamp, with its chilling colours of dark water and moss.” The veiled, ghostly Wilis later emerge from its waters: “their costumes streaked with green,” wrote Sarah Woodcock, “like lichen.” Giselle’s phantom white costume was subtly trimmed with sequins, suggesting the rising dew.
Born in Luton, where his father owned a hat factory, Farmer started his working life as a buyer in Welwyn Stores, a huge shop in Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire; there he began experimenting with that miniature stage, the window display. After training at the local arts college in Luton and on the theatre design course at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, now Central Saint Martins (1955-58), a new career as a painter and, increasingly, stage designer, followed. His debut design was for Jack Carter’s Agrionia in 1964, and others for Stuttgart Ballet and London Festival Ballet soon followed.
Classic ballets bloomed under Farmer’s gift for the picturesque. He summoned rural charm and glowing natural scenes through shimmering paint and gauze. The village square for Coppélia (1995, one of several shows for Wright at Birmingham Royal Ballet) offered what one critic called “wood-mushroom and moss-coloured sets and bright embroidered costumes”. More forebodingly, the water in English National Ballet’s Swan Lake (1999) gazed up at rocky crags from which the lovers would meet their deaths. ENB’s Nutcracker came almost four decades after his first, in Houston, by which time he disliked the expected red and gold Nutcracker doll (“rather beastly”) and villainous rats (“I don’t like dressing people up as animals”).
He also worked prolifically in Germany, Hong Kong and the US, including on fruitful collaborations with the choreographers Ben Stevenson and Stanton Welch. In Welch’s Madame Butterfly (Australian Ballet, 1995), Farmer contrasted vulnerable femininity with intransigent, black-clad masculinity. Butterfly was first seen surrounded by gusting fabric banners; women had cherry blossoms in their hair, floating in fragile silks and watercolour-painted chiffons. Vicki Attard, creating the title role, felt that “as the fabrics and designs didn’t weigh me down, it helped me create the ethereal and weightless illusion”.
Welch last worked with Farmer on a sumptuous La Bayadère (2010), describing the Orientalist classic as a “visually stunning, Bollywood-like production … like looking through an old picture book from western culture with a view of romanticised India”. With its distant turrets, the “very painterly look, almost reminiscent of Monet … gives it dreaminess and romance”.
A rare misstep was Kenneth MacMillan’s 1973 Sleeping Beauty at Covent Garden; hired as a last-minute replacement, Farmer had his designs slated by Buckle: “He puts every foot wrong.” A more successful partnership with MacMillan was Winter Dreams (1991), a melancholy distillation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, its characters poised behind a gauze. In later years, Farmer’s sensitive historical imagination won invitations to refresh the original designs for two postwar Royal Ballet treasures – Robin Ironside’s for Frederick Ashton’s Sylvia and Oliver Messel’s Sleeping Beauty.
Rarely working in straight theatre, he did design several productions starring Siân Phillips: The Night of the Iguana (1965), Man and Superman (1966) and A Woman of No Importance (1978), all for the West End or Chichester. He also exhibited his paintings in London and beyond. But it will be ballet for which he is remembered, and for the transporting, satisfying illusion he created. As he considered: “I think my view is about delight, over all.”
His brother, John, predeceased him.
• Peter Farmer, designer, born 3 November 1936; died 1 January 2017
- This article was amended on 10 April 2017. The date of Peter Farmer’s birth and his age at the time of his death were corrected, and mention of his time at the Central School of Arts and Crafts added.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010