Sunday, July 2, 2023

Alfred Tischbauer Scenic Designer

 Early Scenic designers were trained fine artists who for various reasons chose to display their talents on the stage. The influence of European trained artists who came to Australia to produce scenery was immense. They imported an aesthetic which influenced later scenic designers and painting in Australia one such imported artist was Alfred Louis Tischbauer.

Alfred, known as ‘Tish’ to his friends, was born in Paris in 1853-54 and was the son of Alexandre Tischbauer and his wife Marie Julie.  Tish trained as an artist in Paris and was involved in the Paris Commune of 1871, with other communards, he was apparently transported to New Caledonia.

In 1879, Alf arrived in Australia and by 1880 he was living and painting in Sydney. That year he exhibited at the Melbourne International Exhibition and in 1883 he showed an oil of George Street Sydney at the NSW Art Society exhibition.  During these years he also taught painting and drawing at the School of Design and the Working Man's College in Sydney.

Tischbauer’s paintings were mostly realistic portrayals of Sydney street scenes and he was particularly well known for his precise details and mastery of perspective. He taught the latter at several schools. Both of these qualities were useful skills for a successful scenic artist.

In 1881, Tisch was credited for creating the scenery for a play at the Standard Theatre in Sydney called the Colliery Girl. The Coal mine, a scene for the play was advertised as ‘the most exciting scene ever produced in Sydney.’

He mixed teaching, painting and scenic design in his early years in Australia in order to make a decent living. This mixture of occupations was common for scenic designers of the era as the profession was an unstable one which relied on the whims of  managers. Unless a designer was employed by the larger companies  such as J C Williamson or the Tivoli circuit, they had to rely on an uncertain income stream. Tischbauer obviously realized this and used his artistic skills in the service of  a variety of employers.

Socially, Alf mixed with fellow Frenchmen in the French Association of New South Wales. In 1885 he was involved in a tribute to Victor Hugo, a notable supporter of the Paris Commune , organized by the society.

He continued to stay in Sydney as a base until the late 1880s when he began working as a scenic designer for Alfred Dampier, an Australian producer of dramas. Tischbauer provided the scenes for Dampier’s 1887 season at the Royal Standard in Sydney and in 1888 he was working at the Theatre Royal in Melbourne, presumably for Dampier. The plays Dampier produced at this time were dramas and classical Shakespeare productions and Tischbauer was responsible for scenes both contemporary and historical.

In the early 1890s Tischbauer worked almost exclusively for Dampier under the name ALTA, and the two men became very close. Tish painted scenery for several plays including “For the Term of his natural Life’, and ‘Robbery Under Arms’. In the latter his scenes included, the diggings by night, and the terrible hollow. Robbery Under Arms was reviewed as romantic fare and ALTA’s scenery was atmospheric and haunting. By 1893 he was being listed as ‘Monsieur ALTA Tischbauer, celebrated artist.’

Tischbauer seemed happy with Dampier and was in constant and well paid work. Money was always a consideration with Tish, although he was very generous to his friends, so the financial security of a long running position with a prominent manager would have been very satisfying.

However, the stability of employment was marred by Alfred’s romantic adventures.

In 1891, Selina Palmer, a Dampier domestic servant, took her own life by swallowing poison. The cause of her despair was an ‘attachment’ to the celebrated French artist Alfred Tischbauer.

Selina had met Alf at the Dampier’s residence and the pair had spent some time together, but Tish stated publically at the inquest into her death, that they had not been intimate. However, Selina’s last letter to him implied otherwise. It said she was in ‘difficulty’, a common euphemism for pregnancy at the time, and stated that Alf had asked her to go to America with him. The letter pathetically stated, ‘ I cannot live without you, so I must die’. The tragedy was ruled a suicide due to unrequited love.

Dampier’s daughter and leading lady, Lily testified on Alf’s behalf at the inquest, and it was clear that the Dampier family supported their scenic artist. It was an indication of the closeness of the relationship that Alf was a frequent visitor to the manager’s home.

Tischbauer remained working with Dampier until 1893 when another scandal ruined the friendship forever.

Dampier was a victim of the economic depression of the 1890s and by 1893 owed several creditors a large sum of money. One of these creditors was Alfred Tischbauer.

Dampier owed a huge sum of over 6000 pounds to various people and companies. Tischbauer was owed back salary of 591 pounds, an enormous sum for the time. He never received the payment and he held a grudge against Dampier for the rest of his life.

Tisch’s livelihood was ruined and he was forced to take odd jobs in design and teaching until 1894 when he was appointed art director at the Sale school of Mines, Art and Technology. Tisch hated everything about the job and it was clear that his heart belonged to scenic design, however, his problems with Dampier had stopped other managers hiring him for work.

In 1895, Tish’s job at Sale was under threat because of the bad economic outlook. He was depressed and melancholy and wrote to a friend, that ‘ being born unlucky what can a man expect but d bad luck for ever and ever.’ Fortunately the school’s finances improved and Alf was asked to stay. The regular wage and his ill luck in the theatre world made him accept the continuation of his position

In 1896 he was still unhappy at Sale, saying, ‘I was not born for a country life, the people there are generally very narrow minded and one is always afraid of hurting their is very monotonous after all and it is a very poor substitute for an active man.’

He was still brooding about Dampier.

‘One manager is not more honest than the other, the worst is that we always suppose men better than they really are..while the rogues laugh in their sleeve.’

He added that Dampier, ‘must hate me like a vile serpent or poison, which sentiment I return cordially.’

Alf was planning to travel to the United States and stayed in Sale, ‘wretched place’, in order to save money. In 1897 aged 43, he returned to Melbourne and married Harriet Vincent Watson, a 21 year old teacher from Sale. They were married at St John’s Church in Footscray by Harriet’s father, George, a reverend in the Church of England.

Tisch was keen to leave Australia but he remained until 1903 when he and Harriet took ship to San Francisco. It was a terrible trip and Tisch was sick all the way due to the rough seas. The couple lived in O Farrell Street near several theatres including the Orpheum.

Alf maintained a precarious existence as a scenic designer in the United States for the rest of his life. In 1909 he wrote about working in the US, saying it was ‘good enough for those acquainted with managers’, but difficult for him because he was accustomed to being an independent contractor and ‘one feels the bossing’ when working for another.

He was still bitter about Dampier and when he heard of his old managers death he focused on debt rather than grief, saying ‘ now the chances to recover some of my poor earnings are gone forever.’

Tischbauer died in the United States around 1922 and his wife Harriet returned to Australia that year. She died in Australia in 1925. Many of Tish’s paintings are still extant and his painting of George Street is kept by the NSW State Library, the Art Gallery of NSW also has some of his work. Tischbauer remains a little known but talented contributor to theatrical entertainment in Australia in the late 19th Century.

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