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John Edward Truscott (1936–1993)

by John Rickard

This article was published:

John Truscott, by Jacqueline Mitelman, 1988

John Truscott, by Jacqueline Mitelman, 1988

National Library of Australia, 13145702

John Edward Truscott (1936–1993), designer, festival director, and cultural activist, was born on 23 February 1936 at Ormond, Melbourne, only son of Victorian-born parents, Roy Andrew Truscott, surgical instrument travelling salesman, and his wife Margaret, née Cotter. John recalled being a dreamer. He acquired skills in fitting and turning, and carpentry while studying at Caulfield Technical School.

At the age of sixteen, having moved out of home and already determined to work in theatre, Truscott submitted a folio of drawings to Gertrude Johnson, director of the Melbourne-based Australian National Theatre Movement. She referred him to the director William Carr, who put him to work backstage and saw to it that he gained acting experience. In 1954 Truscott was credited with designing costumes and sets for the National’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Among the plays he both designed for and appeared in was Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea (1956). In 1957 he was appointed resident stage designer at the Melbourne Little (later St Martin’s) Theatre Company. According to the company director Irene Mitchell, he showed ‘an exceptional talent’ (1969), creating settings and costumes for approximately one hundred productions.

Eager to promote Truscott’s career, Mitchell recommended him to the theatre entrepreneur Garnet H. Carroll, a part-owner of Melbourne’s Princess Theatre. Truscott was engaged to work on West Side Story (1960), The Most Happy Fella (1961), and The King and I (1962). The latter production was to be a turning point in his career. A substantial budget allowed him the opportunity to display his confident sense of theatrical style and meticulous command of detail, particularly in exotic costumes. Influenced by the success of the King and I, John McCallum of J. C. Williamson Theatres Ltd broke with the practice of reproducing Broadway’s staging by asking Truscott to design Camelot. After the musical opened in late 1963, reviewers commended the sets and costumes as being ‘so extravagant’ that they were ‘an entertainment in themselves’ (O’Neill 1964, 101).

It seemed the appropriate moment for Truscott to try his luck in London’s West End, encouraged by Mitchell who organised a testimonial fund to pay his fare; J. C. Williamson also contributed £1,000. Fortuitously (Sir) Robert Helpmann had been engaged to direct the London production of Camelot at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and he invited Truscott to repeat his success. This led to the Hollywood film executive Jack L. Warner commissioning him to design for the film version starring Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Harris, and Franco Nero. Truscott moved to Los Angeles in 1965 and spent more than a year at the studios of Warner Bros working with the director Joshua Logan. Camelot was a massive production, with 120 seamstresses making the costumes, the cost of which alone was estimated at US$2,250,000. In 1968 he was rewarded for his labours with Oscars for costume design and art direction. Logan then invited Truscott to devise the sets and wardrobe for Paint Your Wagon, which he was making for Paramount Pictures. Although commercially more successful, the film was not as happy or satisfying an experience for Truscott as Camelot.

Remaining in Los Angeles until 1980, Truscott enjoyed the city’s ambience, with its ‘attitude of largesse, support, positive unbridled enthusiasm, [and] charm, be it false or real’ (Aiton ca. 1990). But large-scale work seemed to dry up, a development he attributed partly to changing technology, which reduced the need for his kind of hands-on design. He briefly came back to Melbourne to create the sets and costumes for the Victoria State Opera’s production of Mozart’s Idomeneo in 1978 and Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers in 1979. The next year he returned to design the interiors of the Victorian Arts Centre, the project’s building committee having been dissatisfied with the architect Sir Roy Grounds’s proposals. George Fairfax, general manager of the centre and a former director for the Little Theatre, knew Truscott well and was confident that his designs would convey an appropriate sense of theatrical occasion. Throwing himself wholeheartedly into the work for some four years, Truscott considered the result to be subtle, yet glamorous. He was appointed AO in 1985.

In 1987 Truscott was selected as the artistic director of Brisbane’s Expo ’88. Again he did not spare himself, so much so that by the time the exposition closed in October he was exhausted, taking three months to recover. In late 1988 he became director of Spoleto Melbourne—Festival of the Three Worlds. He transformed it into the Melbourne International Festival of the Arts, increasing Australian content and taking it onto the streets with a significant free outdoor component. Already an identity in the city, he assumed the role of a cultural spokesman over the three festivals he directed (1989–91). In 1992 he became artist-in-residence at the Arts Centre, a position created for him.

Throughout his career Truscott was passionate and demanding in his pursuit of high-quality design. While he once confessed that he was ‘not the happiest of people to work with’ (Croggon 1990, 111), he was loved and respected by those close to him. Vanessa Redgrave would recall him as ‘a fine, fine artist’ and ‘a kind thoughtful human being’ (1993). For most of his professional life he was supported and assisted by his partner Graham Bennett, who, lacking a permanent resident’s ‘green card,’ had worked unpaid on the film Camelot. He had a background as an art schoolteacher and had also designed the curtain of the Arts Centre’s State Theatre. Five weeks after a heart valve replacement Truscott collapsed and died of an aortic aneurysm on 5 September 1993 in the Alfred Hospital, Melbourne. Buried in Emerald cemetery, he was survived by Graham, his mother, and his younger sister. Soon after, the John Truscott Design Foundation Inc. was established to continue his work promoting and encouraging excellence in design.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Aiton, Doug. ‘Conversations: The Ringmaster.’ Sunday Age newspaper cutting, Scrapbook, ca. 1990. John Truscott Collection, 1997.088.406. Australian Performing Arts Collection, Melbourne
  • Croggon, Alison. ‘Melbourne International Festival: Cultural Heart Starter for Victoria.’ Bulletin, 18 September 1990, 110–11
  • Fairfax, Viki. A Place across the River: They Aspired to Create the Victorian Arts Centre. South Yarra, Vic.: Macmillan, 2002
  • Mitchell, Irene. Letter of reference, 1969. John Truscott Collection, 1997.088.496. Australian Performing Arts Collection, Melbourne
  • Natrass, Sue. ‘Eulogy, St John’s Anglican Church Toorak, Wednesday 8 September 1993.’ In A Tribute to John Truscott. Melbourne: Victorian Arts Centre Trust, ca. 1993
  • O’Neill, Josephine. ‘Giving Historic Camelot a Site.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 18 October 1964, 101
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • Redgrave, Vanessa. Fax addressed to John Truscott, 7 October 1993. John Truscott Collection, 1997.088.454. Australian Performing Arts Collection, Melbourne
  • Van Straten, Frank. ‘John Truscott AO, 1936–1993.’ Live Performance Australia, Hall of Fame, 2007. Accessed 31 March 2018. Copy held on ADB file
  • Van Straten, Frank. National Treasure: The Story of Gertrude Johnson and the National Theatre. South Melbourne: Victoria Press, 1994

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Rickard, 'Truscott, John Edward (1936–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2019, accessed online 24 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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