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New home for a national treasure

Press release issued: 28 September 2004

The archive of one of the great designers of ballet, opera, theatre, television and film of the late 20th century has been donated by her husband, Sir Roy Strong, to the University of Bristol Theatre Collection. Julia Trevelyan Oman's archive, once described as a "national treasure", covers her entire career.

The archive of one of the great designers of ballet, opera, theatre, television and film of the late 20th century has been donated by her husband, Sir Roy Strong, to the University of Bristol Theatre Collection. Julia Trevelyan Oman's archive, once described as a "national treasure", covers her entire career.  It spans a period of almost 40 years; from the award winning 'Alice' directed by Jonathan Miller (1966) to Sir John Gielgud's last appearance on the stage in 'Best of Friends' (1988).

Throughout her long and illustrious career, Julia Trevelyan Oman kept every document relating to her work, creating an immaculate and entirely comprehensive record.  Her archive reveals the minute level of detail that she worked to and the depth of research she carried out.  The archive reveals that she travelled far and wide to carry out research.  She visited Russia in order to study costumes contemporary with Pushkin for preliminary research on 'Eugene Onegin' (1971) and to Vienna for the period detail required for 'Die Fledermaus' (1977) and 'Arabella' (1984).  She would ensure she set every detail of the production in exactly the right place and at the right time.

Her work was firmly rooted in the scholarly tradition and was remarkable for its attention to detail and historic accuracy.

Julia Trevelyan Oman (1930-2003) came from two great scholarly and literary dynasties, the Trevelyans and the Omans.  For Julia, this background fused with her own creative talents to produce a remarkable body of work, which she expressed in a visual form.  Her sumptuous set and costume designs were rooted in academic research and sharply observed historical details.  This, combined with a perfect eye for detail, led to her producing some of the most memorable designs of the 20th century.  For the set of 'Brief Lives' (1967), Roy Dotrice's one-man account of the life of John Aubrey, she famously recreated his study complete with a cluttered, musty, jumbled set. The effect was completed with stale food and rotting apples. In the case of opera and ballet, being fully aware of their enormous cost, she always aimed to deliver a classic production with the intention that they should remain in the repertoire for a long time.  'La Boheme' (1974) is still in the repertoire 30 years on.

Sir Roy Strong said: "The University of Bristol uniquely honoured my wife with a Doctorate of Letters.  She would be very glad to know that her archive, illustrating her exacting working methodology, will be available to instruct and inspire future generations working in the arts and performance. The University's Theatre Collection is the ideal location with its foundations in teaching and research and also being open and accessible to everyone."

Jo Elsworth, Keeper of the University's Theatre Collection, said: "The hallmark of her work is a period authenticity, based on meticulous research and a most incredible visual memory and eye for detail.  She was a perfectionist, using historical scholarship to produce the most intricate and yet evocative sets.

"The archive will be of use to researchers of many disciplines, from scholars and practitioners studying theatre, opera and ballet and to art historians and social historians.  It is uniquely important not only because it represents the work of such a distinguished designer, but also because it is a complete and thorough archive reflecting all stages of the design process from preliminary research, right through to a photographic record of the final production."

The archive includes her original designs with research files, technical drawings and plans, research photographs, production photographs, correspondence and fabric swatches.

Background: Julia Trevelyan Oman

Julia Trevelyan Oman came from two of England's most academic dynasties: the Trevelyans and Omans.  Her grandfather, Sir Charles Oman, was Chichele Professor of Modern History at Oxford University. Her father, Charles Oman, was the Keeper of the Department of Metalwork at the Victoria & Albert (V&A) Museum, and her aunt, was the well-known biographer Carola Oman.

Julia Trevelyan Oman studied under Hugh Casson at the Royal College of Art where she was a Royal Scholar.  In 1955 she joined the BBC, working on sets for 'Marriage Lines', the 'Billy Cotton Band Show', 'Dixon of Dock Green', 'Famous Gossips' (which led to 'Brief Lives') and Jonathan Miller's 'Alice in Wonderland' (1966).  Alice won her designer of the year, and caught the eye of Tony Richardson, who asked her to work on his film, 'Charge of the Light Brigade'.

While working on this, she had a call from Sir Frederick Ashton.  He had seen a portfolio of her work 12 years earlier and asked her to work on 'Enigma Variations', which he was to choreograph.  It was a triumph and from then on one success followed another.

She had a prolific portfolio of work, which included theatre, ballet and opera. Her theatre productions included work for the National Theatre, RSC and many others.  It included 'Brief Lives' (1967), Jonathan Miller's 'Merchant of Venice' (with Laurence Olivier, NT 1970) Alan Bennett's 'Forty Years On' (1968), and then 'Getting On' (1971), 'Othello' (RSC 1971), 'The Shoemaker's Holiday' (1981), 'Mr and Mrs Nobody' (with Judi Dench, 1986), 'The Best of Friends' (1988) and her last production, 'Beatrix' (with Patricia Routledge 1996).

For opera her style, influenced by the verismo style of Zeffirelli and Lila de Nobili, was in demand worldwide.  However, some of her best known and loved designs were for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden: 'Eugene Onegin' (1971), 'La Boheme' (1974), and 'Die Fledermaus' (1977).  She also designed 'n Ballo In Maschera' (Hamburg 1973), 'Otello' (Stockholm 1983) and 'Arabella' (Glyndebourne 1984).

For ballet, she often worked in partnership with Sir Frederick Ashton. 'Enigma Variations' (1968) was their first partnership and they collaborated again for the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden in 1976 for 'A Month in the Country'.  She also designed the Royal Ballet's 'Nutcracker' and, for the Boston Ballet, 'Swan Lake'.  Her credits for film included 'Charge of the Light Brigade', 'Laughter in the Dark', 'Straw Dogs' (Dir. Sam Peckinpah) and for TV, 'Alice in Wonderland', 'Vote, Vote, Vote' for Nigel Barton (by Dennis Potter) and 'Separate Tables'.

She married Sir Roy Strong in 1971; was honoured as a Royal Designer for Industry in 1977; was made Commander of the British Empire (CBE) in 1986 and was given an honorary degree of Doctor of Letters in 1987 by the University of Bristol.

Background: Sir Roy Strong

Sir Roy joined the National Portrait Gallery in 1959 and became its Director from 1967-1973.  He was Director of the V&A from 1974 to 1987 when he resigned to become a full-time writer, broadcaster and consultant.  He and Julia Trevelyan Oman married in 1971 and spent more than 30 years creating The Laskett, where their combined vision led them to create a beautiful, formal garden, the largest made in this country since 1945.

Background: University of Bristol Theatre Collection

The University of Bristol Theatre Collection is a Fully Registered Museum and research centre dedicated to the study of British theatre history.  It is the second largest theatre history archive in the UK and the largest in a higher education establishment.  It was founded in 1951, by the University of Bristol, which was also the first in the UK to establish a Drama Department.

It holds a vast collection of original documents, photographs, artwork and artefacts from theatres, actors, designers and much more. Significant archive collections include London Old Vic, Bristol Old Vic, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, and a large design collection of more than 5,000 original set and costume designs.  The Theatre Collection welcome visitors locally and from all over the world.

The Theatre Collection is based at 21 Park Row, Bristol BS1 5LT.  Further details can be found at or by phoning 0117 331 5086.


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