“The Smell of Greasepaint, The Roar of the Crowd”

By Rosy Runciman

Here one minute gone the next. Such is the transience of performing a scene on stage or an act at the circus. Add to these passing moments the realisation that the only very variable source of light is on stage and you begin to appreciate why painting theatre rehearsals is pursued by just a few artists. Imagine sitting in the darkened stalls, rapidly drawing characters in a sketch book you can hardly see before the whole scene changes. You fervently hope that you have captured enough both on paper and in the mind’s eye to be able to work up a painting back in the studio. For a profession so dependent on light this has to be one of the ultimate challenges. During rehearsals the scene may of course be repeated numerous times, but each time with small changes required by the director, the choreographer or the artists themselves, knowing they can improve the way they react to a situation or move around the stage. Nothing stands still.

Until the late 1980s Francis had essentially been an outdoor artist painting mesmerising, majestic trees and beautiful gardens. As he told me, a visit to Gifford’s small, family run Circus changed all that, “It’s like a circus from a children’s book. Unlike the circuses I had seen in London in my twenties, Cirque du Soleil and Archaos, this was gentle, rural and homespun but at the same time exotic. Smoking Cossack horseman rode around the cars parked in the field examining them from their painted saddles. Kenyan jugglers played with spell bound children, Russian strongmen exercised by their caravans, the sheer oddness of it all was the attraction. A company of jugglers, trapeze artists and spotted appaloosas amongst beautiful painted wagons and tents parked a few miles from where we lived – it was impossible to resist. The first time we went, I was with our two small children and Gifford’s seemed to be just what a circus was meant to be like.”

Francis was not the first artist to be seduced by the excitement and other worldliness of the circus. Chagall said its artists helped him “move towards new horizons” in his painting. Degas, Renoir, Picasso and Toulouse-Lautrec were all drawn in by the spectacle. Seurat was working on a large circus painting at the time of his premature death.

Mention of Seurat brings to mind Francis’ two large paintings commissioned by Cameron Mackintosh for the main foyer of Wyndham’s Theatre – a West End gem dating from 1899. Cameron had suggested that the subject matter of these paintings might be Oliver!, a musical close to his heart, of which Francis had done many sketches and drawings. However, when Francis tried to paint Fagin in his slums for display in this architectural jewel he ran into trouble. I went to his studio and we discussed this dilemma. At the time Stephen Sondheim’s multiaward winning show Sunday in the Park with George, inspired by Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, was playing at Wyndham’s. Sondheim had been a friend of Cameron’s since 1976 and was his first Oxford Professor. Why not change the musical in the painting? Now able to bring his own interpretation to the style of an artist he had long admired, work progressed apace, a suitably painterly union of subject and setting had been reached.

Another source of fascination for the artist of theatre and circus is being able to meld two worlds in the same painting – the upturned faces of the audience, with shafts of light falling on them from the stage, watching entranced from their world of gilt and velvet as a fantasy world unravels before their eyes blending scenery, costumes, lighting, acting, music, dance – a feast for the artistic eye. Francis describes it as being given “access to exotic places where I can watch from the side lines and perform in my own little arena”. His paintings of Oom Pah Pah! (page 160), The Noel Coward Theatre (page 166) and Sunday in the Park (page 161) all vividly demonstrate his attraction to the visual beauty and potency of theatre.

So too can the artistic eye have fun with extraordinary angles and poses in the circus and theatre. In her book Oil Paint and Grease Paint distinguished circus artist, Laura Knight expressed her admiration that “gravitation is defied – the impossible is possible.” Francis has relished the opportunity to paint acrobatics on horseback or stand in the wings of The Phantom of the Opera where leading lady Christine sings on stage while hanging from a bar high above her are the array of mannequins used in the masquerade scene with their spectacular fabrics, feathers and frills (page 148). He describes it as a milieu where “all the light and colour levels are ramped up a few notches” and his Phantom paintings perhaps best demonstrate this.

In 2017 Cameron commissioned Francis to do a large mural of the Crazy Gang (page 13) for the Victoria Palace Theatre. This was to bring colour and life to a false box front at the back of the Royal Circle. We initially trawled quantities of production photographs of this hugely popular group of comedians looking for ideas that might work in this space, however Cameron quite rightly decided that as the Gang were to be at the back of the audience they should be sitting enjoying the show rather than appearing in it. So they lean forward in characteristic poses, laughing and engaged in the stage activities – Bud Flanagan, wearing his battered fur coat, and Chesney Allen with his hand on Bud’s shoulder as if about to sing Underneath the Arches, while Jimmy Gold peeps round the box drape, glass in hand. Seated in front are Teddy Knox and Charlie Naughton, themselves both former circus performers, and towards the back of the box Eddie Grey (who did not consistently appear with the Gang at the Victoria Palace) wanders in. Francis,with his artist’s eye for detail, has continued the surrounding architectural features into the painting making it fit perfectly into context as well as being a warm tribute to the sextet who brought joy to thousands of people. In art they have found a permanence denied them on stage.

Rosy Runciman is the archivist and exhibitions manager for Cameron Mackintosh.