I first got to know Susan Benson over the many years I reviewed the Stratford Festival, starting in 1976 (during the long-vanished golden era of Robin Phillips). The celebrated British designer was already putting her stamp on Canadian theatre, opera, and ballet, and my admiration for her work resulted in a fairly extensive personal collection of her renderings. When the theatre designer Michael Eagan viewed some of my framed Bensons, he singled out her rendering of Fenton, from The Merry Wives of Windsor, in 1982. “This costume design is worth your entire collection,” he said. “Besides the fine modelling of the figure and face, the subtle colouring seems to be there and not be there.
Eagan was spot-on: Benson renders Fenton with black ink and watercolour. The delicate accuracy of her fine lines — along with her cleverly restrained use of muted earth tones for Fenton’s cloak, jacket, pleated trousers, boots, and hat, finished off with just two touches of light blue florets — shows how a gifted artist can capture character through costume design. In this piece, she combines fine portraiture with practical illustration for her cutters and embroiderers in their workrooms.
Unlike many other renowned designers — Tanya Moiseiwitsch comes immediately to mind — Benson always produces fine art. This is true whether she is sketching a hat or turban (The Summoning of Everyman), a giant masquerade mask (Romeo and Juliet), a cape (The Golden Ass), a huge door with carved birds of prey (Julius Caesar), a doll (The Crucible), a concept study (for an alternative production of The Mikado), preliminary set ideas for The Woman, a storyboard for The Magic Flute, or exquisite scenery based on Fragonard and Watteau (The Marriage of Figaro).