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Remembering Peter Farmer (1936–2017)

The designer worked extensively with The Royal Ballet throughout his career.

By Alasdair Steven (Music writer)

3 January 2017 at 6.13pm | 7 Comments

Peter Farmer, a painter and leading figure in British theatre design, has died.

Farmer worked extensively in ballet, both with The Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet, as well as other major international ballet companies.

He collaborated closely with Peter Wright, and made a considerable contribution to the repertory of BRB under Wright’s directorship, his design credits with the company including Giselle, The Dream, Paquita, Theme and Variations, Dorian Gray, Les Sylphides, Coppélia and Birthday Offering. Wright has written how he brought ‘a wonderful sense of atmosphere to his sets – a real world on stage’.

It was with Wright that Farmer began his career with The Royal Ballet, designing his 1971 production of Giselle. The opening night starred Antoinette Sibley in the title role with Anthony Dowell as Albrecht and Deanne Bergsma as Myrtha.

He returned to the Royal Opera House two years later in 1973, to design sets and costumes for the first Royal Ballet production of Kenneth MacMillan’s The Sleeping Beauty, originally created for Berlin Opera Ballet. Farmer was brought into the project late in the proceedings but produced lavish sets and magnificent costumes, again for Sibley, Dowell and Bergsma in the lead roles.

Farmer returned to The Royal Ballet in 1980 to design Robert North’s Troy Game – a comic, bravura work for ten men. His next credit with the Company was in 1991, when he produced suitably elegiac sets and costumes for MacMillan’s Winter Dreams. He designed a dimly lit frontispiece gauze of twigs through which the family is seen in the background, concentrating attention on the action and the two stars, Darcey Bussell and Irek Mukhamedov.

For the Frederick Ashton centenary in 2004 Farmer was invited to redesign the Act II sets for Sylvia, where he brought a dramatic clarity to Robin Ironside’s famous original designs. The work set him in good stead for arguably his most important contribution to The Royal Ballet – realizing Oliver Messel’s iconic designs for the Company’s 1946 production of The Sleeping Beauty, brought back to the stage in 2006 by Monica Mason and Christopher Newton.

Farmer captured the original fantasy element of the Messel designs and, with some subtle additions of his own, brought to life a treasured production. He spoke of how ‘The original designs were on a grand scale, which reflected the glory of the Tchaikovsky score. I did not want to do a museum creation but kept much of the original, and added costume designs in my own style.’

On its premiere in 2006 the new production was greeted with acclaim, including for what The Guardian praised as ‘the more fluidly modern style of Peter Farmer’s reworked designs’. The production has been regularly revived, with The Sunday Times admiring the ‘meticulously re-created [palace scenes] from Oliver Messel’s original archive… what a spectacular difference it makes’.

Less than a month after the premiere of The Sleeping Beauty in 2006 there came the premiere of Homage to The Queen, a showpiece ballet to celebrate Her Majesty’s 80th birthday. He designed colourful and eye-catching costumes that suited the occasion admirably. His final credit with The Royal Ballet was in 2007, with the Company’s first production of George Balanchine’s Theme and Variations.

Farmer was a painter and designer of much imagination, with a keen understanding of how to balance grand stage designs for the entire corps and more intimate scenes for the leads. His sets and costumes allowed dancers great freedom of movement, and elegantly showed off the choreography.

Kevin O’Hare, Director of The Royal Ballet, paid tribute with the following words: ‘It is with great sadness that we heard of Peter Farmer's passing. Peter had a close relationship with the Royal Ballet companies over many years and distinguished many productions with his brilliant designs. His artistry, theatricality and wonderful humour will be missed by us all.’

The Royal Ballet’s performance of The Sleeping Beauty on 3 January 2017 is dedicated to the memory of Peter Farmer.

By Alasdair Steven (Music writer)

3 January 2017 at 6.13pm

This article has been categorised Ballet and tagged by Marius Petipa, obituary, Peter Farmer, Production, The Sleeping Beauty

This article has 7 comments

  1. Christine Breslin responded on 4 January 2017 at 5:09am Reply

    Such sad news so early into the New Year. Peter's work has been seen and will continue to be seen by millions. An exceptional talent who l'm sure will be greatly missed.

    A wonderful performance tonight as always

    R.I.P Peter

  2. Hiller Huhn responded on 5 January 2017 at 4:57pm Reply

    Peter Farmer was a wonderful, beautiful soul and may his creations live forever. I first worked with him in the National Ballet of Washington then Festival Ballet and finally with Houston Ballet. Almost thirty years. His taste and sense of humor I will always remember. He also told me "Don't light the sets, light the dancers."

  3. Susanna Capon responded on 6 January 2017 at 1:32pm Reply

    He was also an exceptionally nice human being, beloved by his friends.

  4. Jenny Lazell responded on 8 January 2017 at 6:04pm Reply

    Peter and I were in the same year at the Central School of Arts and Crafts. I was born in 1937 and was 18 when I went there. If Peter was born in 1941 as your obituary states, he would have been 14 ! He had already been to art school in Luton so I can only assume you have been misinformed. He was a wonderfully talented artist and always excellent company.

    • Rachel Beaumont (Product Manager) responded on 12 January 2017 at 3:59pm

      Hi Jenny,

      Very many thanks for getting in touch about this error. The birth date we had of 1941 is wrong – Peter was born on 3 November 1936. Apologies for this mistake and thanks again for raising it with us.

      All best,

  5. Deirdre Sharp responded on 8 April 2017 at 6:26pm Reply

    I was at Luton Art school with Peter. He was such a good friend , we did theatrical decor as one of our subjects , and dress design . He was so lovely , funny kind and one of my best friends at the Art School. I have only just heard of his death, and I feel so sad that I did not have just one more day in his company. He was so talented , and I feel so glad to have known him . Bless you Peter ,love Deirdre xxxx

  6. Joanna Delaforce responded on 4 March 2018 at 5:39pm Reply

    Have only just seen this. Had been trying to get in touch.. I had the London adress and various phone numbers:. he came here twice to see me, after my mother died
    I knew him as a teenager, when he rented the top floor of my mother's house In London.
    Feeling very sad but am so glad to have had him as part of my growing up...and have 2 of his paintings one framed but the other too big for a country cottage so wrapped in a tube!

    Bit late but RIP


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