Today's Hours
Museum: Closed
Gardens: 7:00 AM - 5:30 PM
Today's Hours
Museum: Closed
Gardens: 7:00 AM - 5:30 PM
Ellenshaw, Peter
Specialties: Paintings, Prints
View Artwork
Many people own work by Peter Ellenshaw and aren't even aware of it. If
their personal movie collection contains works from the great films of
Alexander Korda, the renowned works of Powell and Pressburger, or the
entertaining movies of Walt Disney, odds are good that they own some

Peter Ellenshaw was born William Samuel Cook Ellenshaw on May 24, 1913;
however, his mother preferred the name Peter so that is what he was known
by for the rest of his life. He spent his early childhood in Essex,
England where his earliest artistic activity was sitting under the kitchen
table drawing the Zeppelins streaming overhead on their way to bomb
London. His father was killed during World War I and, following his
mother's remarriage, the family moved to Kent, which he later described as
"the loveliest garden area in the world." Though the young Ellenshaw
wanted to be an artist, he lacked the money to attend art school.
Fortunately, in 1934 the noted British portrait painter W. Percy Day moved
to his village. At that time, Day was working with film impresario
Alexander Korda as a matte painter, and he hired the eager young Ellenshaw
to be his assistant.

Matte painting, which is quickly becoming a lost art as digital effects
replace it, is a special effects technique where an object or entire
landscape is painted in naturalistic detail on glass. The glass is then
set in front of the camera so that both the real setting and the painted
one are simultaneously filmed. The result can eliminate electric poles
that do exist and supply castles that don't, enabling scenes to be filmed
in largely imaginary landscapes and saving the cost of location shots and
expensive sets.

Working with Day and Korda, Ellenshaw developed his abilities as a matte
and special effects artist on films including classics like The Four
and The Thief of Baghdad. World War II intervened in
his career and Ellenshaw spent five years as a pilot in the R.A.F. Part of
his training took him to the United States where he met and married Bobbie
Palmer. After the war, he set up his own studio as a matte artist, working
on renowned films like the Powell and Pressburger classics A Matter of
Life and Death
and Black Narcissus.

In 1948, Walt Disney brought the production of four live-action films to
England and discovered Ellenshaw's work, hiring him for all four movies.
So impressed was Disney with Ellenshaw both personally and professionally
that in 1953 he asked him to come to America to work on 20,000 Leagues
Under the Sea
. Ellenshaw made the move permanent, working on 34 films
for Disney between 1947 and 1979.

No matter how busy he was with film work, Ellenshaw made sure to find time
to work on his own paintings. With Walt Disney's encouragement, he began
holding exhibitions of his canvases in 1953 as well. Many of his early
paintings were of clipper ships; these quickly sold out, but when more of
the same were requested, Ellenshaw's desire to control his own subject
matter led him to turn to seascapes, focusing on the coasts of California
and Hawaii. These became among his best-known paintings because of their
lyrical quality; though the scenes are recognizable, they are never
literal. Ellenshaw explained, "This would never work because too much of
what one sees is superfluous. In composing a picture, it is necessary to
remove the purely accidental and to search for what is significant. Only
then does one arrive at the truth." A sojourn in Ireland inspired
Ellenshaw with the beauty of its countryside and resulted in his next
series of landscape paintings.

In the meantime, he continued to work as a special effects maven, winning
an Oscar for his matte work in Mary Poppins in 1964, an honor
repeated for 1971's Bedknobs and Broomsticks. He received several
other nominations as well, including one for 1979's The Black Hole,
for which he had come out of retirement to serve as production designer
and special effects director. Ellenshaw used mattes exclusively for The
Black Hole
and his son Harrison executed all 150 of them, a world
record, and a fitting farewell to his years in the movie business.

Ellenshaw spent most of the rest of his life traveling and painting his
remarkable landscapes. Among his favorite locations featured in landscapes
in the R.W. Norton Art Gallery are Ireland (Killarney Mountains, Spring
Gorce, Glenbeigh, Ireland
), Venice (St. Mark's Square and Doges
Palace, Venice
), Alaska (Glacier in Alaska), England
(Buckinghamshire, England), Giverny, France (Monet's Bridge with
Water Lilies, Monet's Garden - Poppies, View of Garden at Giverny, Monet's
Bridge, Spring
, and Poppies), and Nepal (Himalayan
Mountains, Thyangpoche Monastery
). He passed away at his home in
California on February 12, 2007.

Everl Adair, Director of Research and Rare Collections