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Portrait of Kenneth Rowell
, 1967

by David Strachan

oil on canvas (support: 161.9 cm x 97.4 cm, frame: 177.0 cm x 111.5 cm)

Kenneth Rowell AM (1920–1999), artist and theatre designer, grew up in Melbourne and became intent on a career in the theatre at a young age. Around the age of thirteen, he left school and found work as a window dresser, spending his spare cash on theatre and his spare time at the National Gallery of Victoria. He began designing backdrops and costumes during the early 1940s, earning his first professional commission in 1947. Awarded a British Council Scholarship in 1950, he moved to London, subsequently working there and in Australia over the next four decades on more than 140 ballet, opera and theatre productions. In the 1960s, he developed a close association with the Australian Ballet, creating designs for productions including Coppelia (1960), Giselle (1965) and Sleeping Beauty (1973), the latter being the first production performed by the company at the Sydney Opera House. In the 1970s, he created the sets and costumes for the ballets of Peter Sculthorpe’s Sun Music and Rites of Passage, choreographed by Robert Helpmann. At the same time, Rowell developed a considerable reputation as an artist, producing expressionist paintings, mixed media works and sculpture inspired by the Australian landscape. The National Gallery of Australia holds more than 400 examples of his costume design drawings; and in 1999, Opera Australia mounted the retrospective exhibition Double Act.

David Strachan (1919–1970), painter and printmaker, was educated at Geelong Grammar School and then studied art at the Slade School in London. After a period of travel in France and further study at the Académie de la Grand Chaumière, he returned to Australia, enrolling at George Bell’s school in Melbourne before moving to Sydney in 1941. He exhibited landscapes, figurative works and still lifes and became one of the group of artists who travelled regularly to the abandoned New

South Wales mining town of Hill End. After World War II, during which he’d worked as a camouflage painter at Bankstown aerodrome and performed minor roles with Hélène Kirsova’s ballet company, Strachan returned to Europe, living in Paris and then London and studying at the CJ Jung-Institut in Zurich in the late 1950s. Back in Sydney from 1960, he settled in Paddington, taught at East Sydney Technical College and exhibited regularly, winning the Wynne Prize in 1961 and 1964.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery
Transferred from the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Gift of Margaret Olley 2002
Accession number: 2002.42