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William Chappell - Muses and the Beau Monde

Updated: Feb 16, 2021

William Chappell, born 27 September 1907, was a British dancer, ballet designer and director. He is most noted for his designs for more than 40 ballets and revues, including many of the early works of Sir Frederick Ashton and Dame Ninette de Valois.

Chappell was born in Wolverhampton, the son of theatrical manager Archibald Chappell and his wife Edith Eva Clara Black (née Edith Blair-Staples). Edith, the daughter of an army officer, was raised in Ceylon and India; in pursuing a career in repertory acting, she moved away from her upper-middle-class roots and married twice to fellow actors, by the first of whom she had a daughter, Hermina, the second time being to Archibald Chappell, by whom she had two daughters, Dorothea and Honor, followed by Billy. Chappell was acutely aware of his 'déclassé origins': whereas his mother's brother had maintained a conventional upper-middle-class life, being a tea-planter in Ceylon and able to provide his son, Patrick (who was close to Billy and spent time with his aunt's family in school vacations) with a public school and Oxford education, Chappell studied at Balham Grammar School.

After his father deserted the family when he was still a baby, Chappell and his mother moved to Balham, London, where she pursued a career as a fashion journalist. Edith's daughter by her first marriage, romantic novelist Hermina Black, Chappell's half-sister, was living nearby in Wandsworth. Chappell studied at the Chelsea School of Art where in 1923, aged 14 he met fellow students painter Edward Burra and photographer Barbara Ker-Seymer forging lifelong friendships. Ker-Seymer was considered one of the group designated by the tabloid press as 'Bright Young People' and it is very likely that Chappell dropped by a party or two.

Chelsea School of Art

Chappell did not take up dancing seriously until he was 17 when he studied under Marie Rambert, whom he met through his friend Frederick Ashton.

For two years Chappell and Ashton toured Europe with Ida Rubenstein's company under the direction of Léonide Massine and Bronislava Nijinska (sister of Vaslav Nijinsky). Chappell returned to London in 1929 to dance with Rambert's Ballet Club (later Ballet Rambert), the Camargo Society and Ninette de Valois's Vic-Wells Ballet becoming one of the founding dancers of British ballet.

Flip through the 1935-6 Season programme of Vic-Wells Ballet to find the roles played by Chappell and Ashton.


In the summer of 1931 Chappell went to Toulon with Barbara Ker-Seymer and a handful of the other Bright Young Things and artists of the time including Edward Burra, Brian Howard, David 'Bunny' Garnett, Marty Mann, Jean Cocteau, Freddy Ashton and Arthur Jeffress. Ker-Seymer photographed the holiday, adding the pictures to one of her many photo albums. In 1977 Ker-Seymer's partner Barbara Roett donated it to the Tate. Below you can flip through a few pages from that photo album.

Chappell created more than 40 roles for Rambert and Vic-Wells including the Rake's friend in de Valois's The Rake's Progress, the popular song in Ashton's Facade, the title-role in Ashton's The Lord of Burleigh, the re-creation of two Nijinsky roles, Le Spectre de la rose and the faun in L'Apres-midi d'un faune.

His flair as a designer was encouraged by Rambert and for this he is best remembered. In parallel with his dance career he designed more than 40 ballets or revues, including many of the early works of Ashton and de Valois including Costume design for Ashton's Capriol Suite, (music, Peter Warlock’s sixteenth century peasant dances) and La Péri 1931, Ashton's Les Rendezvous 1936, and The Blue bird (The Enchanted Princess), (music by Pyotr Tchaikovsky for the Vic-Wells Ballet - 1936).


Chappell designed both set and costume and performed in Antony Tudor's Lysistrata.

Lysistrata (Tudor, 1932): William Chappell, Walter Gore, Antony Tudor

He worked on Members Only 1937, Les Patineurs (music by Giacomo Meyerbeer, arranged by Constant Lambert - 1937) and The Judgement of Paris 1938. Chappell's designs for Les Patineurs remained in the repertory and his conception for Les Rendezvous, although frequently revised, continues. He brought his vast experience of ballet design to opera, musical theatre, revues and drama, as both director and designer.


Below is a film featuring Chappell's costume design in 'Mars and Venus' with Pearl Argyle and Harold Turner, first performed in 1929. There is a glitch in the film, it is locked in fast forward speed, to watch them dance in real time you must change the settings of the Playback speed to 0.75.


In 1936 Job: A Masque for Dancing with Robert Helpmann, and the Vic-Wells Ballet Company (now The Royal Ballet) produced and choreographed by Ninette de Valois on BBC Television (11 November 1936) - as Elihu/The Three Messengers. This was the second broadcast of ballet on British television following the official start of the BBC high definition television service on 2 November 1936.

At the outbreak of war in 1939, he was the first male dancer to join up, spending the duration of the war as a second lieutenant and entertaining the troops.

In his book Studies in Ballet he describes an occasion in North Africa when his company had no transport and had to march to their destination about eighteen miles away. He used this story to illustrate the benefit of ballet training to legs and feet, allowing a middle-aged man to arrive fresher than men nearly half his age, who had only received the routine Army physical training. He also emphasised the importance of a long unbroken tradition and continuity in the training of male dancers. He was of the opinion that the war was a factor that had caused chaos in the Sadler's Wells Company and rendered valueless years of work. He contrasted the treatment of the ballet in England and in Russia, where male dancers were considered important enough in their work to be kept in it.

By 1940 he was able to continue his design works beginning with Frank Staff's The Seasons (music by Glasunov for Tudor's London Ballet) and the dance suite Tartans, both 1940, Giselle and Coppélia for the Sadler's Wells Company, Ninette de Valois' The Wise and Foolish Virgins, Bar aux Folies-Bergère and Fête polonaise 1941, Mona Inglesby's Amoras (music by Elgar for the International Ballet - 1941) and costume design for Everyman 1942

On the left is a picture captioned "Alone with my art! Love Billy" July 1941

By the 1950s Chappell had moved into direction as well as choreographing, credited with directing The Lyric Revue (with Dora Bryan, Graham Payn and Ian Carmichael - 1951–1954), High Spirits 1953, Sheridan's The Rivals 1956, Noël Coward's South Sea Bubble (Lyric Theatre with Vivien Leigh - 1956), Arthur Macrae and Richard Addinsell's revue, Living for Pleasure 1958, Wolf Mankowitz's Expresso Bongo 1958, Frank Loesser's Where's Charley? 1958/59, On The Avenue 1961, Wolf Mankowitz Passion Flower Hotel 1965, George Farquhar's The Beaux' Stratagem 1967, The West End revival of Enid Bagnold's The Chalk Garden (with Gladys Cooper and Joan Greenwood 1971.

In 1962 he was invited by writer and lecturer on dance Peter Brinson to take part in a series of 8 lectures on 'The Ballet in Britain' at Oxford University where he entertained an academic audience with his thoughts on problems of ballet design. Other speakers included Dame Ninette de Valois director of the Royal Ballet, Marie Rambert, Arnold Haskell, William Cole and Douglas Kennedy.

The lectures were later turned into a book where Chappell contributed drawings along with his lecture.

In the same year Chappell played the part of the artist Titorelli in Orson Welles' The Trial (1962 film), based on the Kafka novel of the same name. Click the photo below for the link to watch the film, Chappell's scene as Titorelli is at 1:39:00.


During the mid 1960s Chappell took on the task of creating a libretto for The Violins of Saint-Jacques. The opera was in three acts by Malcolm Williamson to an English libretto by Chappell after the 1953 novel by Patrick Leigh Fermor. It was first performed at Sadler's Wells Theatre in London on 29 November 1966 by Sadler's Wells Opera in a production by Chappell and was revived there and at the London Coliseum in the years immediately following.

Chappell worked in various roles in films during his career, from dance director to costume designer. He played the rose of Benno in Le Lac des Cygnes with Margot Fonteyn, Robert Helpmann and the Vic-Wells Ballet Company on BBC Television (13 December 1937). In the 1940s he was the costume designer for The Winslow Boy in 1948 and Golden Arrow in 1949. He was an uncredited dancer in Flesh and Blood in 1951 and was the dance director for the 1952 Moulin Rouge. His final contribution to film was as a dance arranger for The Prince and the Showgirl in 1957, staring Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Oliver.


After writing two previous books on ballet, Studies in ballet in 1948 and Fonteyn: Impressions of a ballerina in 1951, Chappell moved to write about his lifelong friend Edward Burra, who had since become a painter, draughtsman, and printmaker, best known for his depictions of the urban underworld, black culture and the Harlem scene of the 1930s. He wrote first Edward Burra: A painter remembered by his friends in 1982 and his final piece of work Well Dearie!: The Letters of Edward Burra in 1985.


Chappell retired to his home in Rye in East Sussex after what could only be called a prolific career spanning over 50 years. He suffered a long illness and died in his home in Rye on the 1st January 1994 aged 86.




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