Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Downing, Desmonde Florence (1920–1975)

by Christopher Chapman

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Desmonde Florence Downing (1920-1975), stage designer, was born on 26 November 1920 at Neutral Bay, Sydney, eldest of five children of Frank Hammersley Downing, a Victorian-born engineer, and his wife Violet Hester, née Sadler, from Tasmania. Des won a scholarship to Meriden Church of England Grammar School, Strathfield, studied art at East Sydney Technical College from 1937 and was taught singing with her three talented sisters. Employed as a solicitor's clerk with Allen, Allen & Hemsley, on 3 December 1942 she enlisted in the Citizen Military Forces and trained as a voluntary aid. On 3 March 1943 she transferred to the Australian Imperial Force and served in hospitals in Australia before embarking for Bougainville in February 1945. From October that year until February 1946 she was based at Lae, New Guinea. Discharged in Sydney on 11 November, she was mentioned in dispatches.

Under the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme, Downing studied painting at the Julian Ashton School and dramatic art with (Dame) Doris Fitton. She appeared in plays at the Independent Theatre, and from 1947 designed decor and costumes, including 'provocative and amusing' surrealist sets for The Melody That Got Lost (1949). In 1950 Downing designed the scenery for Fitton's production of Dark of the Moon at the Independent and at the Comedy Theatre, Melbourne. Her work for Gertrud Bodenwieser included the ballet, Test of Strength, which toured India in 1952. When she encountered difficulties with mechanical aspects, she studied electronics and architectural drawing.

Distinguished for the originality of her work, Downing designed sets for Gertrude Johnson's National Theatre Arts Festival (Lohengrin and Cavalleria Rusticana, 1952) and for the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust's The Magic Flute (1956-57, revived 1968), employing imagery projected from painted 7 x 5 ins (18 x 13 cm) glass slides onto a broad gauze screen. As soon as the costumes for Douglas Stewart's Ned Kelly at the Elizabethan Theatre were made to her specifications, she pulled off buttons, split seams and smeared them with paint to ensure authenticity. Her sets complemented the backcloths produced by (Sir) Sidney Nolan.

Working in her studio at a rapid pace, Downing made miniature sets before transferring the scenes to canvas and painting the huge flats herself. She adored the theatre and spent time on research to ensure period authenticity; she also appreciated that decor for ballet was more than a backdrop for the dancers and that designing for television required even greater accuracy. From the early 1950s her drawings for stage productions were included in exhibitions at the Macquarie and Woolloomooloo galleries, Sydney, and at the National Gallery of Victoria.

Having helped with Long John Silver (1954), a feature film and twenty-six part television series, in 1957 Downing joined the Australian Broadcasting Commission as a full-time designer at Channel 2 in Sydney, working on such productions as 'G'day Digger' (1958)—a ballet created expressly for television—and designing lavish costumes for the live telecast of Richard II (1960). While travelling abroad in 1962-63, she produced fibreglass and steel sets for 'The Beatles' ballet, Mods and Rockers (1963), in London; she was particularly interested in lighting and in the experimental theatre in Prague. Back in Sydney, her projects included the decor for Tennessee Williams's Night of the Iguana (Independent Theatre, 1964), the costumes for Kukaitcha, the Australian segment of the Ballet of Five Continents danced by the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico in conjunction with the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, and Norman Lindsay's Cousin from Fiji (A.B.C., 1972).

With blue eyes and dark curly hair, Downing was 5 ft 5 ins (165 cm) tall, 'charming, slow-spoken', gentle and considerate. She continued to live at the family home at Balgowlah and was a great friend of her cousin Richard Downing. Her only brother had been killed while serving with the Royal Australian Air Force. In 1975 Downing completed work for the epic A.B.C.-British Broadcasting Corporation television series, Ben Hall. She died of cancer on 11 July 1975 at Manly and was cremated. Her decor and costumes, influential in establishing the arts on Australian television, are represented in the Performing Arts Museum, Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • Listener In, 12-18 Aug 1950
  • TV News, July 1958
  • Radio Active, June 1968
  • TV Times, July 1975
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 26 June 1949, 20 Apr 1952, 23 Sept 1956, 11 Oct 1959, 5 Jan 1964, 9 Apr 1978
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 17 Oct 1951, 5 Jan 1957, 30 Apr 1964
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 12 Jan 1952
  • Christian Science Monitor (Boston), 24 Mar 1953
  • Canberra Times, 28 Feb 1968
  • D. Downing, designs and papers (Sydney Opera House archives)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Christopher Chapman, 'Downing, Desmonde Florence (1920–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/downing-desmonde-florence-10044/text17713, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 26 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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