The Book, Cat, & Cat Book Lovers Almanac

of historical trivia regarding books, cats, and other animals. Actually this blog has evolved so that it is described better as a blog about cats in history and culture. And we take as a theme the advice of Aldous Huxley: If you want to be a writer, get some cats. Don't forget to see the archived articles linked at the bottom of the page.

July 11, 2013

July 11, 1930

Julia Trevelyan Oman (July 11, 1930 to October 10 2003) was an English set designer whose family had deep roots in British intellectual history. Our details about her life are from her Guardian obituary. Her grandfather held a Chichele chair at Oxford, specifically he was a Chichele professor of modern history. Her father, Charles Chichele Oman, a director of the Victoria and Albert Museuum, was, one assumes, related somehow to Henry Chichele, 15th century founder of All Souls College, Oxford. And on her mother's side (Joan Trevelyan) Julia  was related to Macaulays and Trevelyans.

Julia Trevelyan Oman was a set designer, for the theatre, for the BBC, for movies  (Straw Dogs), and for opera (La Bohème.). Her stringent standards meant that the letterhead on a paper used in a performance had to be period specific, though it was invisible to the audience. The underwear in historical dramas had to be accurate for the time and class in question. She frequently traveled to the relevant locales to determine the facts for her stage designs. "When she designed Eugene Onegin for Covent Garden in 1971, Oman flew to Leningrad to study costumes contemporary with Pushkin in the Hermitage (where she found the communist curators less bureaucratic than many of those in London)." Her obituary quotes her saying, "It's as hard to get things wrong as to get them right."

[In reference to the setting for Covent Garden's production of La Boheme] "She immersed herself in the novel of the opera, Henri Murger's Scènes de la Vie Bohème; she gutted dictionaries of art and haunted the Warburg Institute to find out about the forgotten salon artists of the late 19th century. She discovered that Murger and the composer Puccini had largely based the character of Marcello on an obscure painter called Tabar, whose few surviving works were mouldering in French provincial museums, and recreated one from Rouen to take its place on the set - it showed a nude in distress being dragged along by a sturdy white steed."....

"Oman was born in Kensington, west London, a few minutes stroll from the Victoria and Albert Museum, where her father was an authority on antique silver and plate and, after the war, keeper of the department of metalwork....She studied at the Royal College of Art and in 1957, went straight from graduation to BBC Television, where she stayed for 11 happy years designing up to six sets a week.....She hit the jackpot in 1966 with Jonathan Miller's Alice In Wonderland by taking an audience straight through the television looking glass into Charles Dodgson's comfortable middle-class England. After that, her telephone never stopped ringing, and she took the plunge into freelancing."....

In 1971, she married the writer and historian Roy Strong; three years later, he became director of the V&A. The museum seemed part of her heritage ... and remained her research base of first resort, at any rate until her husband resigned from his post in 1987.

Roy Strong was knighted in 1982 so she was Lady Strong when, in 1986 she became a CBE.

Her marriage to Sir Roy Strong bore fruit in books they wrote together, many with her charmingly domestic drawings of their adored cats, and home-grown bottled fruits and preserves. Their crowning achievement was the creation, over 30 years, of an elaborately conceived, three-acre garden, which records, in lyrically poetic visual style, the highlights of their lives and times, with, for example, the Ashton Arbour (after Sir Frederick) and the Nutcracker Garden.

After her death her husband published a book about their garden: The Laskett: The Story Of A Garden (2003).  This garden is now open to the public. 

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