Peter Farmer: The ‘wonderful artist’ who gave so much to so many

When Peter Farmer was at the Australian Ballet Centre, designing the sets and costumes for Stanton Welch’s Madame Butterfly, he would leave his desk at 3pm sharp and announce to his staff:

“I’m off for a bubble bath and some chocolates”.

Michael Williams, the company’s wardrobe production manager, recalled how this daily routine was so regular “you could just about set your watch by it”. *

Peter Farmer was not only an extraordinarily prolific dance and ballet designer, but also one of the funniest men in the business.

Everyone who knew him agrees.

He was lighthearted, gossipy, witty.

In his recent memoir, Wrights & Wrongs, the choreographer, Sir Peter Wright, recalled Farmer’s sense of humour “but also a sense of sad beauty in his work that is very compelling…he is very sensitive and still manages to see the humour in people. He is a wonderful, wonderful artist”.

The wonderful artist has died at the age of 75 and many dance companies around the world will be saddened by the loss, among them the English National Ballet, Royal Ballet, Australian Ballet and Houston Ballet.

As Sir Peter wrote “he has probably designed more ballets than anybody” and they include all but two of Sir Peter’s many productions of Giselle.

Beginning his theatre and dance design career aged 23, Farmer never stopped creating beautiful designs and was still working in his 70s.

In recent years he lived in the English seaside resort town of Littlehampton in West Sussex.

Born in Luton on 3 November, 1941, he first worked as a buyer for stores at Welwyn Garden City, close to Luton, but soon became a painter and book illustrator after studying at Luton Art College.

His first dance commission was for Jack Carter’s ballet, Agronia, staged in 1964 for London Dance Theatre.

Two years later, for Sadler’s Wells Ballet (the Royal Ballet’s touring company), he designed the sets and costumes for Frederick Ashton’s The Dream.

His Royal Ballet designs spanned four decades, from Giselle and The Sleeping Beauty in the 1970s, to Winter Dreams in 1991, a revival of Homage to the Queen in 2006 and new designs for The Sleeping Beauty in 2006.

Farmer had a long association with the Australian Ballet, beginning with Anna Karenina in 1979 and The Three Musketeers the following year.

During Maina Gielgud’s artistic directorship of the Australian Ballet the company also brought into the repertoire Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon, with designs by Farmer, as well as Stanton Welch’s Madame Butterfly and Gielgud’s Giselle both designed by Farmer.

One of Farmer’s last commissions was for Stanton Welch’s production of La Bayadere at the Houston Ballet.

Farmer had previously designed ballets for Ben Stevenson, the predecessor of Welch as the company’s artistic director.

The Royal Ballet’s performance of The Sleeping Beauty on 3 January 2017 was dedicated to the memory of Farmer.

* As told to Annie Carroll for the Australian Ballet blog, Behind Ballet, in 2010.

Farmer designed for many companies around the world including the English National Ballet, Sadlers Wells Royal Ballet, the Royal Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet, London Festival Ballet, London Contemporary Dance Theatre, Washington Ballet, Houston Ballet, New London Ballet, the Australian Ballet, Inouie Ballet Tokyo, Northern Ballet Theatre and the Hong Kong Ballet.

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Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson, Giselle, Australian Ballet, 2015, photo © Jeff Busby

Manon, Australian Ballet, photo © Jim McFarlane

Lynette Wills and Joshua Consandine, The Three Musketeers, Australian Ballet, photo © Jim McFarlane

Alberta Ballet, Madame Butterfly, photo © Paul Mcgrath

Amy Fote, Madame Butterfly, Houston Ballet, photo © Amitava Sarkar

Leanne Stojmenov and Rachel Rawlins, Madame Butterfly, Australian Ballet, photo © Jeff Busby

Peter Farmer’s design for English National Ballet’s Nutcracker

Peter Farmer’s costume design for Princess Bathilde, Giselle, Australian Ballet, 1986

Peter Farmer’s designs for The Dream