Cloud railway bridge (1998)

Arranged the commission of the Cloud railway bridge by Ralph Koltai over the Kilburn High Road.

Sightlines: Tribute to Ralph Koltai 

“Engineer of the Imagination”

As the curator of Koltai’s exhibitions since his first retrospective   in  1997 at the Lethaby Galleries, Central School of Art, London,  I have had a unique insight into   point of view and creativity in his constant search to find ‘the visual metaphor’.

His great interest was working with experts  finding the way to realize his visions. He was ever open to new materials and experiments, and although he did not fully enter the digital world,  was wise enough to have good assistants who could do so. His close relationships with Charles Woolff of Talbot plastics where they developed the famous acrylic tubes creating the Forest of Arden in Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It‘ at the Old Vic (1967 were the start of a long working relationship. Charles recalls:-


I acquired my connection with Ralph Koltai by a take-over bid. In August 1968 I purchased Talbot Designs and Ralph had already commissioned Talbots to make the now very famous all-plastic sets for the National Theatre production of ‘As You Like It in 1967.  This very early use of plastics on stage consisted of simple flat fabrication  that was  rolled and seamed into tubes , that  were hung from the files and lit to create the magical forest.

A tragic incident, in the summer of 1973, changed everything for designers and suppliers of plastics for public spaces. A fire occurred in the Summerland Fairground on the Isle of Man, killing 50 people. The immediate effect was the introduction of the strict requirement for all plastics used in public spaces to be a self-extinguishing grade plastic. Polycarbonate, new to the market in the 70’s, was the answer, but PC was primarily for flat application use, such as unbreakable windows. 

I would often receive calls from Ralph asking the frequent question, ‘Charles, can you make this?’

On one occasion, sitting in front of me in my office, Ralph took an A4 sheet of paper, carefully crushed it and said, ‘I want this – 10 metres high’. This, after a lot of R & D, became the set for Shaw’s ‘Too True To Be Good’, in 1976, using a combination of cold and heat treatment to create these structures. With Tippett’s ‘The Ice Break’ in 1977, Ralph started to design sets using large areas of plastic. The problem of expansion and contraction became a serious one and affixing to a stage ’flat’ created unacceptable distortion. By the time the RSC’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ had arrived in 1982, we were hanging all sheets like drapes, from the top, allowing free side movement. Polycarbonate in the 80’s was only available in clear or opal and Ralph, whilst in our factory one day, spotted some bronze acrylic and said, ‘I want this for the flooring. Can you do it?’ The challenge was mind-blowing and was going to require some very creative and lateral thinking. But I agreed, because I knew, that between us, we could find an answer. We produced the flooring in 6mm clear PC with bronze tinted polyester mirror film applied to the underside. The finished effect was stunning and the production was deservedly chosen later to open the Olympic Arts Festival,1984 in Los Angeles. Wow! My favourite set. 

Looking back now over 50 years, our association with Ralph, with his ambitious creativity, helped Talbot to make some remarkable projects in the theatre and the arts. His increasing fame and recognition gave our company the opportunity to become involved in creating much innovative and unique art in plastics. 

The Photographer, artist and writer Judith Aronsen  commissioned  by the Sunday Telegraph magazine in 1978 was at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s workshops  where ‘The Tempest’ was being constructed. Her brief was “ to capture the life and work of the set designer Ralph Koltai”. She writes:

“Ralph Koltai invited me to his studio and then his home, both sites of wonder. But nothing was an exciting as watching Koltai upright on the set a few days before opening night. A consummate gentleman, Koltai directed the costume designers, fitters, the props craftsmen. It was obvious he enjoyed his job. No sniping, always cordial, many jokes.  Everyone seemed pleased to be in his company. For the opening scene a great wave was created from plywood covered in patent leather that stretched out across the stage. For Ariel’s entrance a trapeze was concocted to fly him in from the void above the curtain riggings. A scale model of every detail  created in Koltai’s studio was on hand for reference. I couldn’t believe my ears – as I waited for some test action – when I heard the actor Ian Charleson (Ariel) refuse to try out the trapeze – the insurance wasn’t  in effect yet. A little kerfuffle, but then who should lift off from the stage into the rafters, behind a shimmering scrim , but  the master himself. There was a delighted twittering amongst us while, with no snag, a safe landing was achieved .

In another one of Koltai’s productions ( Geoffrey Hill’s  version of Ibsen’s ‘Brand’ ) with Robert Stephens at the National Theatre, the stage set “ under the glacier’s rim “  was another challenge for the actors to navigate. How often do we see a stage floor transformed into anything truly resembling the great spaces of water and of  land ?  

Mike Barnett was the mechanical engineer who developed the hydraulic system for ‘ ‘Brand ‘astutely observed  Ralph as “ an intuitive engineer “  and that “  he loves nothing more than to be in an engineering workshop   with the problem right in front of him “   He recalls that  people can still  remember the shock of the new at  the   first production meeting when Ralph presented  the Brand scale model to the production teams.  As Ralph happily   demonstrated   his model  of a huge mountain side with snow at the highest point and grass at the stage floor end, ending with an avalanche, with all the sections moving rapidly, he was enjoying himself  so much, he was  unaware of the deep silence that fell, as people wondered about the cost and the achievability.    “Ralph claims he doesn’t have any idea about engineering, but he is actually an intuitive engineer, and he loves nothing more than to be in an engineering workshop with the actual problems right on front of him”.   Ralph was always practical, worked quickly and mostly three dimensionally. He reached the unknown, and   production teams that went with his visions  were hid creative partners.

Ralph worked a great deal with the Opera Director David Pountney and one of the most interesting works was Ralph’s concept for Verdi’s ‘Simon Boccanegra’ a touring production for Welsh National Opera. (1997)  Touring has limitations from the start  – adapting to different spaces, get in times, and weight amongst others.  The  opera is full of dramatic medieval intrigues, and scenes that require speedy and hardly perceptible scene changes. Ralph  ‘invented ‘   a suspended hanging track forming a V shape, along which two walls that could move up and down stage and rotate so that both sides of the 2 walls could be seen as appropriate.. Mike Barnett remembers “ One wall is clear plexiglass, partially silvered and lit to look airily transparent, with an open doorway. The opposite wall was inspired by a piece of rusty steel that he found  at his home in France, where many old disused farm  tools were rotting  in ditches. He was fascinated by it’s texture , and he took it to a local blacksmith , to a huge gash cut into it.  This then realised in fiberglass, and in several sections  so it could tour. The combined weight of the track and two walls track  weighed  around two tons ! “(

Later in 2016 , this became the system for the ‘Figaro Trilogy’ also for Welsh National Opera, with Director Pountney   and Simon Boccanegra  was reused to perfect effect.

Stephen Pyle  of SP Studios, who translated Koltai’s never ending fascination   with shapes spheres and materials , textures and illusions of space  recalls:

“My first meeting with Ralph was as a humble prop-maker at Scottish Opera in 1967, preparing his set for The Rakes progress destined for The Edinburgh Festival. A daunting figure appeared in a leather coat ,smoking a bent cheroot, swept in pursued by a pretty assistant, I was in total awe.   In fact he turned out to be charming and generous with his praise for the efforts of one and all , and I became a lifelong fan. 

Although I followed his achievements at a distance we did not meet again in person until 1979, by which time I was trading in my own right. The project was ‘Richard III ‘ at the NT.   Ralph’s model was made from lead sheet , with various channels for ‘Blood’ to run down the walls and across the stage. 

From a  wooden structure made by the NT workshops under John Phillips . My shop coated all the surfaces with a metallic resin and then polished the entire surface , with floor sanders. Ralph was as usual generous with his praise, unlike some of the press critics. !

I think Ralph always knew his worth, but was sometimes disappointed with others recognition.   I recall his invitation to Stratford to watch a matinee of ‘Much Ado about Nothing’  During lunch he kept re -arranging that day’s copy of the Guardian on the table , eventually he said “ Oh it’s my birthday today , look it’s in the paper” and he was so proud. 

In 1983 we collaborated on three very different projects. the musical ‘Bugsy Malone’ and the other the Opera ‘Les Soldaten’ staged at a concert hall in Lyon directed by  Ken Russell .  Russell’s only directorial  wish was simply to have  “three different acting areas “.  Ralph took him at his word  and the set of Les Soldaten comprised three enormous sections of dismembered female anatomy which were sculpted and moulded in the UK then shipped and assembled in a space in Lyon without  needing any stage equipment  ( see photograph ). I recall Ralph being very supportive of the lighting designer who was very daunted by working with Ralph ,and Ken Russell .    The third was his wonderful design for ‘ Cyrano de Bergerac’ for the RSC at the Barbican. The flown autumnal tree in the last act was very simple in construction, but breathtaking to look at.  

Ralph’s next invitation to collaborate was for the 1989 musical of ‘Metropolis’ the set being based on part of a car engine . Sadly the project was far to big to juggle with my existing commitments at the time, but I was able to make the 3D front cloth which was metallic resins .

1990 was the year of “ The Planets’ ballet, at the R.O.H and the creation of a 3.2 metre diameter glass-fibre sphere, which tested our techniques and experience to it’s limits. Ralph’s love of the sphere, a constant element of all his works, was brought magnificently to the stage.  

Ralph’s invitations to collaborate were sadly absent during his seventies.  However in 2006  we once again created a new piece  : ‘The Romans in Britain’ for the Sheffield Crucible , an amazing piece of sculpture based on a tree root that he had found. It was wonderful to be working with him again , and his enthusiasm did not seem at all diminished. Despite budgetary limitations  we managed to achieve what he wanted. An image that was at once derived from natural forms, but surreal in its scale.   

In 2007 at the age of 83 back he came with a sculpture as part of the British stand at PQ 2007 in Prague , again the task was to recreate rusty metal with fibreglass which I hope we achieved. 

Our last opportunity to collaborate came in 2010 when he was invited to design a sculpture , containing a screen to display film commemorating the ‘Kindertransport’ rescue of children from Europe His sphere within a sphere , evoked the circle of his life. 

Ralph was always respectful , charming and challenging . I am grateful that our last project together was a fitting tribute to a remarkable historic event by a truly remarkable artist. 

Remarkable artists are often known for their generosity, and Ralph shared his practice and influenced many former assistants to become designers in their own right. Once such is Mark Bailey who recalls his years with Ralph :

I was Ralph’s assistant for 5 years from 1984-1989 and worked with him on 14 productions . When I worked for Ralph, he always designed in 3D, never drawing his ideas first. We  would  begin work in the model box, sometimes using pieces from Ralph’s collection of pieces of rusty metal, Perspex, stones or other ‘textures’. Ralph was a bit of a magpie always collecting potentially useful materials, he loved to use ‘the real thing’, if he wanted rusty metal we would find the right piece of rusty metal rather than painting a piece to look like rust. He would arrive with the germ of an idea, the evolution of which seemed effortless, and then we would work sculpturally until the moment of ‘The Accident” when suddenly everything coalesced and a new design began to take shape. 

Ralph often gave the impression that his designs somehow just happened, and to a certain extent they did. On one occasion working on the Tannhaüser for Geneva (1986) Ralph asked me to cut a large circle of card, he then cut it into 3, twisted each piece and put them in the model box: The Valley of the Wartburg. But behind the apparent effortlessness were long periods of intense thought, discussion and finessing with Ralph, cigar between his teeth, and myself spending long hours, often late into the night, sitting in front of the model box refining and honing to produce the perfect distillation of the piece. To be Ralph’s assistant you needed to be a night owl! 

In Spring 1998 Nicolas Kent the Director of the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, NW London  had an inspired  idea:-  “There had been  a large Railway bridge spanning the Kilburn High Road since the end of the 19th century.   Sadly, for much of that time its redecoration was never a Council priority. Around  the new millennium the Government suddenly released funds for the regeneration of the High Road, and we managed to persuade Railtrack (as it then was) to join in and do something creative with the bridge on the understanding that whatever we did would be no more than  a geometric colour scheme following the structure of the bridge.

I had known, but never worked with, Ralph Koltai for years, and on the spur of the moment thought that a commission like this might really appeal to him. Little did I know what I was taking on! Ralph came to look at the bridge and have lunch with me, he was very intrigued about this public Commission-the money was derisory but his enthusiasm was infectious.

I gave him the brief, and said that Railtrack had made it quite clear to me we could not deviate from a simple geometric schemes. He said he quite understood and went away to draw up some ideas. A couple of weeks later the most stunning designs arrived on my desk: the concept completely ignored the brief, could not be executed by Railtrack contractors, and essentially needed a scenic artist to work for three weeks on scaffolding above the Kilburn High Road. In essence it was the painting of a beautiful light blue clouded sky scene on the south side of the bridge, and a darker starry night sky on the north side.

Trying to get Railtrack to agree to allow this to happen took 5 months of negotiations, but the result was a much loved local landmark which has cheered and inspired  those using the Kilburn High Road for almost 20 years now. Only a genius like Ralph could have so stubbornly refused to allow his vision to be compromised by regulations and practicalities, and in so doinggiven birth to a design that was so original and loved.  ( see Photograph )

He was rightly proud of it, as was Kilburn.”

Ralph Koltai CBE RDI was always up for a challenge ! He has left a remarkable legacy of his works in his studio in France where he lived so happily as a French resident with is wife  Jane Alexander Koltai. We hope in the future to make these works available to the interested to the worldwide heater community and the public.

Professor Pamela Howard OBE
January 30
th 2019

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