Vol.18 No.2, 1997, Fall/ Automne



William Gill (1854-1943) was a respected and prolific scene-painter based in Halifax and Boston. Of his many works, only one known example remains--an Italianate Garden Scene sitting in a small theatre in Musquodoboit, Nova Scotia. This feature briefly outlines the career of a neglected Canadian artist, and provides for the journal's readers the images of his damaged, deteriorating, but still evocative legacy of scene design in Canada.

William Gill (1854-1943) était un peintre de décors respecté et prolifique dont la vie se
partageait entre Halifax et Boston. De ces nombreuses oeuvres, une seule reste – une scène de jardin italienne qui demeure dans un petit théâtre à Musquodoboit, Nouvelle-Écosse. Cette chronique passe brièvement en revue la carrière d’un artiste canadien négligé, et fournit aux lecteurs de cette revue des images d’un héritage endommagé, mais toujours évocateur, de la peinture de scène au Canada.

Born in Chatham, Kent, England, 6 June 1854, William Gill came to Halifax as a child of four when his father, a Royal Engineer pensioner, became gardener to Lord Mulgrave, Governor of Nova Scotia (1858-1863). When his father died on 17 June 1867, Gill, at the age of thirteen, found employment as an usher in the Temperance Hall and the Theatre Royal. Observing and studying under various scenic artists, in particular Forshaw Day,(1) Gill mastered the techniques of the scenic artist and acquired a local reputation painting sets for amateur productions. In 1873, at the age of eighteen, and created his first professional stage scenery for the Fiona Myers Company's production of Rip Van Winkle which, according to the Acadian Recorder, did "the youthful artist much credit" (8 May 1873). He completed his amateur apprenticeship when he created the sets for the 60th Rifles production of Ali Baba, which opened at the Temperance Hall, Halifax, on 31 March 1875.

The next month saw William Gill as a full-time professional scenic artist employed by J.W. Lanergan and William Nannary for a season in Saint John and Halifax (Acadian Recorder 16 April 1875). His first task was to paint "three new and beautiful scenes" for Two Orphans for E.A. McDowell's company, which was visiting the Saint John Academy of Music, under the sponsorship of Nannary, from Montreal's Theatre Royal. Impressed with Gill's work, McDowell invited him to prepare scenery for the inaugural season of the Academy, which began on 16 November 1875. In Montreal he painted sets for Our Boys, Giroflé, Alixe, Rose Michel, Rosedale, Two Orphans, Pique, Shaughraun, and Field of the Cloth of Gold. In a tour later in the season, Gill's scenery was seen by audiences in Ottawa, Kingston, Toronto, and Quebec City. Following this success, Gill rejoined Nannary's company and prepared scenery for seasons in Halifax (at the Academy of Music) and Saint John. Still only 22 years of age, he created the scenery for Around the World in 80 Days, which the Saint John press described as the "most gorgeous spectacle ever presented on a St. John stage" (qtd. in Smith 128). Two weeks later, the Halifax reviews were even more complimentary. Gill's first foray into the United States led him to the Boston Museum in 1878 where he and Thomas Glessing created the scenery for the first production of H.M.S. Pinafore in America (Mail, Halifax, 12 March 1935). Gill "was at the Museum some four years, but returned there many times to give help on special productions" (Acadian Recorder, Halifax, 9 July 1929). Robin Thurlow Lacy, in his Biographical Dictionary of Scenographers 500 BC to AD 1900, places him at the Boston Museum from 1881 to 1891, where he shared the position and the responsibilities of scenic artist with E. La Moss, and collaborated with Thomas Glessing and B. Sherwood. Shows credited in part to Gill were Jeannie Deans (4 April 1881); Aladdin ("with Wm Mozart's painterly help"--5 February 1882); and Princess Ida (with John Hillyard--11 February 1884). During this same period, at the Gaiety Theatre, he created the sets for Spectre Knight (additional scenes by B. Sherwood and J. Thompson, 28 May 1880). He was the staff scenic artist at the Tremont Theatre in 1893-94 (Lacy 247), and at the Majestic Theatre and the Music Hall, Boston, at the turn of the century (Record, Sydney, 20 April 1904).

Although primarily based in Boston after 1878, Gill continued to work in the Atlantic region. In June 1881, he returned to Halifax to create the scenery for W. H. Lytell's production of The World, performed in Halifax in July and in Saint John in August (Acadian Recorder, Halifax, 8 July 1881). In 1884, again for Lytell, he painted the scenery for The Silver King (Smith 152). In 1886, he recreated the scenery for E. A. McDowell's The Geneva Cross, originally designed ten years earlier at the Academy of Music, Montreal (Smith 156). In 1889, he was employed again by McDowell at the Lansdowne Theatre, Saint John, where (according to the New York Dramatic Mirror) he contributed to Little Em'ly "no less than 5 new sets of scenery, which for beauty and finish, have never been excelled" (20 July 1889).

In addition to painting sets for individual productions, Gill was asked to create stock sets on at least seven occasions. His earliest commission was for Mount Saint Vincent Academy, in 1873, for the opening of the Sisters of Charity school in Halifax. William Gill's drop curtain for their Music Room theatre was still being used in the 1930s (Mail, Halifax, 11 December 1933). Pleased with his efforts, the order invited him to create the stock scenery for Mount St Agnes School in Bermuda around 1894. Other stock scenery created by Gill included a new set for the Mechanics' Institute, Saint John, when it was renovated in 1881 (Morning Chronicle, Halifax, 5 May 1881); the act curtain in the Lansdowne Rink, Saint John, when it was made into a theatre by the Micawber Club in 1888 (Smith 162); a set for the Tremont Theatre, Boston, in 1891; and for the Sydney Lyceum in Cape Breton in 1904, which Gill created in a six week period (Record, Sydney, 20 April 1904).(2)

His Canadian masterpiece, however, must be the set of stock scenery created in 1892 for the Halifax Academy of Music, commissioned by its Directors, who were impressed with his work at the Tremont Theatre in Boston. Gill spent six months creating this set, which consisted of: a drop curtain entitled "On the Riviera"; a "Wood" scene with a purling brook; a landscape with a winding and graceful overhanging tree; an Italianate garden scene; a dungeon cell; a mountain pass; an ocean scene; a street scape; a "Fancy" chamber in white and light tones of yellow and sage green; a second "Fancy" chamber in pink and grey; a "Gothic" chamber in greens and brown; a "Plain" chamber in buff; and a "Kitchen"--all these with their own matching wings or sidepieces, doors, and arches. In addition, Gill painted a curious medley of set pieces that included cottages, houses, marble columns, drapery, trees, garden walls, and vases (Acadian Recorder, Halifax, 16 February 1892).

Gill was one of the finest itinerant scenic artists of the nineteenth century; but with the rise of the theatrical touring monopolies in the United States after 1900, and the resulting centralization of set construction in New York City, Gill's talents were no longer required. He spent the remainder of his life in the Boston area, where he married and raised two children while selling real estate. He died on 21 February 1943, forgotten by his chosen profession. His death certificate, however, listed his occupation as "scenic artist" and his business as "theatrical."

An Italianate Garden Scene

Of all Gill's works, the only known survival is from the 1892 series. The drop depicts a formal garden with a rectangular pool leading from a statue in an apsidal enclosure. To stage left of the pool are tall cypress trees, balanced by topiary hedges on the stage right side.

It has survived, as with so much theatrical art, because it became useful in another environment. When the Academy of Music (then known as the Majestic Theatre) closed in 1929, a Mrs. Harriet Claypool purchased Gill's Italianate Garden drop scene and side pieces, as well as the Majestic theatre seats, for use in a theatre then being built as part of the Oddfellows Lodge in Middle Musquodoboit. Much later, in 1985, the Lodge was renovated and reopened as the Musquodoboit Bicentennial Theatre. At that time Gill's Garden Scene was touched up by Roberta Annand, a local artist, and became the drop curtain. However, since the Italianate Garden Scene was not flame retardant, the fire marshal rejected its use as a front curtain, and it was relegated to the up-stage area of the Bicentennial Theatre.

The drop would not have survived at all had it not been moved to this small theatre in rural Noval Scotia; it has, however, continued to deteriorate. It suffers from water damage, rips, and a poor storage environment.

The oldest known piece of Canadian scenic art in existence can be seen in the accompanying photographs.

Appendix: Captions for Photographs
(Photographs are unavailable for the electronic version)

Photograph One. The Stage of the Halifax Majestic Theatre (formerly Academy of Music) on 28 June 1929, as seen from the Balcony. [Courtesy Public Archives of Nova Scotia; PANS - N1318]. Willam Gill's 1892 Garden Scene was employed as a backdrop in the theatre's final production, Victor Herbert's Fortune Teller, produced by the Halifax Dramatic Club.

Photograph Two. A close-up of Photograph One. The drop depicts a formal garden with a rectangular pool leading from a statue in an apsidal enclosure. To stage left of the pool are tall cypress trees, balanced by topiary hedges on the stage right side.

Photograph Three. Gill's Garden Scene used as the Drop Curtain at the opening of the Musquodoboit Bicentennial Theatre, Middle Musquodoboit, Nova Scotia, in 1985. It was moved there in 1929. [Photograph by Judith Shiers-Milne].

Photograph Four. Painted Stair Unit held in the Musquodoboit Bicentennial Theatre [Photograph by Judith Shiers-Milne]. Although at least two side-pieces were purchased in 1929, only this one stair unit remains. Stored on a dirt floor in the basement of the Oddfellows Lodge, the paint is cracked and falling from the canvas.

Photograph Five. The Drop Curtain in its current state, stage right side [Author's Collection]. Water damage has washed much of the paint from this side of the drop, no doubt weakening the underlying fabric.

Photograph Six. The Drop Curtain in its current state, stage left side. [Author's Collection]. During the transfer to the upstage fly, the drop fell on a piano and suffered two three-corner rips, visible on the stage left side of the reflecting pool in the central area of the drop.


1. In correspondence, Gill credits Forshaw Day as having the greatest influence upon his training. Day had studied architecture and design at the Royal Dublin Society, and served as a draughtsman in the Halifax Naval Yards, 1862-1879. During his years in Halifax, he also taught art, prepared sets for Garrison theatre productions, and supplied a panorama, "From Paris to London," for Fiske's professional theatre company in 1867. After leaving Halifax, Day became the Professor of Freehand Drawing at the Royal Military College, Kingston, 1879-1897. Other scenic artists in Halifax whose works influenced Gill would have included Dobble, Swain and Farren.
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2. A later paper, 25 May 1904, describes the drop curtain as the "Ruins of Carthage," which was originally a steel engraving by Dick, from a design by William Linton. Although most depictions of this subject treated the ruined city as a mere accessory to Caius Marius in exile, Linton and Gill's rendition subordinated the consul and emphasized the ruins over the solitary figure.
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Acadian Recorder, Halifax.

Lacy, Robin Thurlow. A Biographical Dictionary of Scenographers 500 BC to AD 1900. New York: Greenwood, 1990.

Mail, Halifax

Morning Chronicle, Halifax

New York Dramatic Mirror

Record, Sydney

Smith, Mary. Too Soon the Curtain Fell. Fredericton: Brunswick Press, 1981.