Satin 'n' Velvet Goatcher

In 1867, when 15-year-old Philip Goatcher jumped ship in Melbourne, no one could have predicted that he was heading for a legendary career in Australian theatre, after a colourful life around the world. Well travelled, well read, a born raconteur and practical joker, he was eventually to become perhaps the greatest scenic artist to work in Australia.

According to stage designer and theatre historian Maurice Jones: "He was one of the finest designer of the late Victorian style of décor. As a trompe l’oeil painter, he had no equal in Australia – past or present."

He was nicknamed Satin ‘n’ Velvet Goatcher because of the textile illustrations he created. By 1890 he had become the highest paid scene painter in the world. Melbourne named a horserace after him. At the age of 60 he could still carry an 82-kilogram bag of wheat under each arm. And when he died, at the age of 79 he was a millionaire by today’s reckoning.

Early Years

Philip William Goatcher was born in London in 1852, close to St.Pancras Station. His father, also named Philip, was born in Petworth, Sussex, but had moved to London to become a policeman, where he married Mary Betts.

Phil W, as he came to style himself, left school in his early teens to work in the Lincoln’s Inn chambers of Sir Charles Wickens, a circuit judge who later became Lord Chancellor. However he soon left this job after surrendering once too often to the temptation to decorate blotting pads, correspondence and office walls with "prizefighters, parsons, monkeys, judges, politicians, ancient hieroglyphics, reptiles and deadly insects".

His precocious art was nourished by an early interest in the theatre. "I was very often to be found about old Sadlers’ Wells Theatre…Stage painting was to my mind the greatest achievement of man, so the desire to study the art took root deeply", Phil W later said, recalling his early life.

As a 14-year-old, with a taste for the sea, he apprenticed himself to a Liverpool shipping firm and sailed for Melbourne. He made his second trip to Australia in 1867. "The captain and I could not agree," Phil W recorded. "The fault was clearly the skipper’s. He very reasonably refused to allow me to take entire charge of everything and he over-ruled my ambition to run the vessel on my own lines." So he jumped ship at Melbourne and walked some 80 miles to stay with an uncle and aunt.

Gold Fever

However, he soon yielded to the gold fever of the time. Panning for gold soon turned to painting scenic illustrations, but work was scarce and wages poor. He returned to Sydney only long enough to join a vessel for San Francisco via the South Sea islands. However he soon left California, with "$10 and a big heart" and travelled to New York via Mexico and Panama. He painted saints in local churches to pay his way.

Phil W was only 19 when he joined famed scenic artist Matt Morgan at Niblo’s Gardens, New York’s leading venue for spectacle and burlesque until burned down in 1872. He displayed some of his talents in productions of Jules Verne’s ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’ and ‘A Journey to the Moon’.
Phil Goatcher - a painter

First Marriage

He returned to London in 1873 to paint scenery at Drury Lane and Covent Garden, associating with a number of leading scenic artists of the day. He married Alice Little in 1875 (by whom he had four children), shortly before he returned to America, where he stayed for the next 10 years. During the decade, he painted for most of America’s leading theatres, managers and acting companies. His speciality was drop-curtains (painted canvas cloths lowered during a performance to mask scene changes) and drop-scenes (painted cloths in lieu of flats). Forty years later, when a long forgotten Goatcher curtain was found, it attracted front-page stories in all the New York papers.

Phil once had a bald assistant who, given any moment to sit down, immediately fell asleep with his head slumped on his chest. Phil painted the outlines of a face on the back of the sleeper’s head so naturalistically that he said even the theatre manager "did not detect the imposition on the capacity for observation".

Hard times

When he returned to London in the 1880s, with his oldest two sons, he was separated from his wife and broken in health – from hard work, domestic worry and chronic bronchitis (from his passion for Havana cigars) that was eventually to kill him. He painted commissions for Hawes Craven, who was the leading stage designer for Henry Irving and Richard D’Oyly Carte. These jobs included first productions of Gilbert and Sullivan light operas.

In 1890 he left for Australia and a contract for 1,000 guineas a year – the equivalent of some £150,000 today. He was aged 38, divorced, strikingly handsome and with two sons to support. He painted many opera and drama productions for the next three years, beginning with ‘The Gondoliers’ at Melbourne’s Princess Theatre.

His painted cloths and scenery for a play famous on both sides of the Atlantic, ‘The Silver King’, were seen in London and New York in 1882-83 before being re-created in Melbourne and Sydney and as the opening production for Perth’s Theatre Royal in 1897.

Besides his stage work, he was often commissioned to decorate public and private buildings such as Melbourne’s Menzies Hotel, and the foyers and auditoriums of new and recycled theatres. In 1896 he decorated – in what was noted at the time as ‘the Hindoo-Gothic’ style – the interior of Sydney’s Palace Theatre.

Second Marriage

In 1899 he married Emma Stone, a Sydney woman more than 20 years his junior. They had twin sons, only one of who survived infancy. The need for a drier climate attracted him west in 1906 and, with his son James, he established a successful painting and decorating business in West Perth. Five years later – his jubilee as a scenic artist – he returned to Melbourne to paint the premiere of ‘The Chocolate Soldier’. He then semi-retired, and died in 1931 at his home in West Perth.

Today

Examples of his remarkable work still survive; notably a 1916 oil-on-canvas painting of ‘The Annunciation’ in St.John’s Anglican Church in Freemantle, and a magnificent mural, painted in 1922, in the Romanesque-style Anglican church in Collie, a coal mining town in Western Australia’s south-west.

Based on an article by David Hough that appeared in the Australian Magazine ‘The Bulletin’ in 1991.
 
If you have any further information on Philip, especially his time in America, or knowledge of his descendants, please email me at goacher@one-name.org