Stage Hand at Royal Ballet

Oil on card

Deborah MacMillan

Deborah MacMillan - from a Foreword by Bamber Gascoigne

How does a painter choose a favourite subject? What drew Constable to landscape, or Blake to myth? Presumably sometimes a biographical accident and sometimes a cast of mind – a childhood in the Suffolk countryside, or a predisposition to visionary moments. Considering the number of theatrical studies in the work of Deborah MacMillan, one might feel the answer is clearly an accident of life. Born in Australia, she studied at the National Art School in East Sydney. But in 1970 she settled in London, where she met the outstanding genius of recent decades in British ballet, the choreographer Kenneth MacMillan. In 1974 they married, and the backstage world of Covent Garden became part of her everyday experience. Like Degas in the same context, it was what you didn’t see in public performance that particularly caught her attention – in her case the drama of stage hands and rapid scene changes more than the dancers themselves. After Kenneth’s death in 1992, the theatrical link continued when Deborah was invited to paint rehearsals and backstage scenes at Glyndebourne. So the question would seem to be easily settled in favour of biographical accident. But I think that answer would be wrong. The theatrical paintings, albeit a large part of Deborah’s work, are still only a part. So what do they share with the rest? I believe that what they have in common is a focus on concentration. Whatever people may be doing in a MacMillan painting, they are always doing it intensely. I have in my study an oil painting that we bought nearly twenty years ago. It is a large dark canvas, painted in broad brush strokes somewhat akin to late Titian. It features a human figure, apparently naked and with a hint of the primeval, whose two hands fulfil some small but demanding task in the foreground. The emphasis is on the lowered head and the pair of hands, linked in concentration as he tries to … do what? It doesn’t matter what. The task is all, and getting it done (which makes it a very moral image in a place of work). I find this same focused stillness in all MacMillan’s work. The figures may be bright and quickly sketched in a watercolour, or have greater gravitas and a satisfying richness of texture in an oil, but they invariably concentrate on what they are doing. Even having a shower involves concentration in a way that lazing in a bath doesn’t, and that contrast runs deep. Nobody goes to sleep in a shower (as far as I know) and MacMillan’s figures, though frequently still, are always profoundly alert. As the owner of several of her paintings, I can say from long experience that they are good to have around.