Scenic artist Hilary Vernon-Smith has just won a Young Vic Award for her work at the National Theatre. Nick Smurthwaite asks her about painting stage-wide canvases and encouraging a younger generation of practitioners

The theatre is famous for handing out awards, but they normally go to the people on the bright side of the footlights. The ones lurking in the shadows, though just as important to the finished product, are normally ignored or under-valued by the public.

So it was a particular pleasure to see Hilary Vernon-Smith, head scenic artist of the National Theatre, recognised recently with a Young Vic Award for her work in encouraging and inspiring a younger generation of theatre practitioners.

Vernon-Smith has been described as ‘the queen of the paintframe’ by director Phyllida Lloyd, one of the Young Vic Award panel. ‘She is an unsung heroine of British theatre,’ said Lloyd, ‘an inspired artist and mentor to generations of younger scenic painters and designers.’

Vernon-Smith started in regional rep, where the discipline of putting on a show every two weeks prepared her well for the challenge to come. With an average of 18 shows per year to sort out at the National, and a succession of A-list designers to keep happy, she has to be on top of her game. She estimates she has worked on 350 shows since taking up her job in 1989.

In her office overlooking the National’s cavernous paint room, dressed in what looks like battle fatigues with paint-splattered sandals, she recalls growing up in working-class Tottenham, in north London, in a very untheatrical atmosphere. What little theatre she did see as a youngster struck her as magical and unattainable, but she was always mad about drawing and painting.

On leaving school, she got into Croydon College of Art, where there was a theatre design course. ‘I was always a very practical sort of person, and I loved making things,’ she says. ‘Theatre design embraced scene-painting, prop-making and carpentry, plus costume cutting and lighting. Unlike fine art, it had the appeal of a job at the end of the course.’

Vernon-Smith worked first as an assistant designer, ‘which meant you had to paint the show’, rising briefly to resident designer at a regional theatre in Humberside. In the 1980s, she assisted prolific pantomime designer Terry Parsons for six months of the year, and worked on her own design projects in fringe theatre for the rest of the year.

‘The problem was I only ever worked on small-scale shows that never made me any money. I always had to subsidise whatever I did by painting or modelling on the side. I’m not sure I would have liked large-scale designing, where you have to tell other people how to do it rather than doing it yourself. I do like to get my hands dirty.’

To illustrate her work at the National, she points to the model for Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days. The set consists of a huge area of earth mounds spiked with jagged lumps of concrete. ‘The designer didn’t want any painting, so all the surfaces and textures needed to look natural,’ she says. ‘I spent a lot of time sampling, working out what textures and materials we were going to need. My job is to realise the designer’s dream.’

An important aspect of Vernon-Smith’s work and the main reason she won the Young Vic Award is her tireless fostering of young talent. The paint shop takes about four students a month from art colleges in the UK, as well as overseas.

Vernon-Smith believes it is important for students to get a taste of the pressure of theatre before they decide if it is really what they want to do. ‘I feel sorry for students coming out of design courses because they are being given expectations few can achieve,’ she says. ‘They would be well advised to develop alternative ways of making a living, because there are not enough design jobs to go round.’

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