Liss Llewellyn Fine Art - 20th Century British Art

John Moody (1906-1993)   BIOGRAPHY

War, 1928
Framed (ref: 5059)

The original woodblock, 3 x 4 in. (7.6 x 10.2 cm.)


This striking image was produced by Moody in 1928.  Born in 1906 he had been too young to participate in the war, but suffered its consequences.  His woodcut sums up, poignantly, his sense of the futility of war and and antagonism towards the 'old order' which had condemned so many to a needless death.  As such he was expressing the mood of his generation.

We are grateful to Richard Thompson for assistance.

John Moody (1906-1993)

Born on April 6th 1906, John Moody was the oldest of four children. He was educated at Bromsgrove School, but rejected the idea of a university education, choosing first to spend two years in a London publishing company before deciding to become a painter. His talent for drawing had been evident from quite young and throughout his life he was to turn to painting and sketching whenever he could find the time.

After a basic training with the Royal Academy Schools, Moody was first offered a studio by Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden, two successful artists of the inter-war period. By 1930 he was exhibiting in various London exhibitions, teaching at Wimbledon School of Art and had become a founder member of the New Kingston Group of painters. In 1995, Mark Adams, a Sotheby's specialist in modern British and Irish pictures wrote: "I think that John Moody's work is really wonderful, and I think it is a great shame that the theatre absorbed so much of his energies. It does not surprise me that he should have shared a studio with Bawden and Ravilious, as his work has that particular inter-war flavour that one sees in their work... He was clearly a superb portraitist as well.."

Recognising that life as a striving painter was inherently unhealthy, as well as poor, Moody sought other avenues for his creative energies and, in the spring of 1930, won an open scholarship to the Webber-Douglas School of Singing. Without realising it, he had embarked upon the course that was to determine the rest of his professional career. At the end of only his second term, his singing teacher, Walter Johnstone Douglas wrote: "His musical development is astonishing & the voice continues to improve both in quality & quantity. Has obviously talent for the stage".

By the summer of 1931 his opera teacher, Enriqueta Chrichton, wrote of his performance in the School's production of Figaro: "Has made excellent progress, and made a real the Gardener: his deportment and poise have improved greatly". This was to be just the first in a series of Buffo parts.
During his time at the 'Webb-Doug' he also sang in La Boheme, Cosi fan Tutte, and Rutland Boughton's Bethlehem (performed at the Chanticleer Theatre, where he also painted the scenery). Amongst the students with whom he sang in some of these productions was a young woman who had entered the school in 1929 and was training to be an opera singer. Her name was Helen 'Nella' Burra and they were to marry in August 1937.

Moody's talent for the stage encompassed not only acting ability and singing, but (as one might have expected) scenic design and painting, as well as stage management and production. Launching himself into an acting career, he made his debut in Derby Day, under Sir Nigel Playfair at the Lyric, Hammersmith, before playing in various West End productions which included The Brontes, Hervey House and After October.
For two seasons - in 1934 and 1937 - he played at the Old Vic alongside, amongst others, Charles Laughton and Laurence Olivier. More significantly, it was as a member (1933-9) of Rupert Doone's Group Theatre that he gained recognition for his ability to interpret the avante garde drama of the day, performing (amongst others) in Auden and Isherwood's The Dog Beneath the Skin  The Ascent of F6, and T.S. Eliot's Sweeney Agonistes, in which he played Sweeney.

It was to Robert Moody, John's brother, that Auden and Isherwood dedicated 'Dogskin' with the words 'To Boy with Lancet'. Auden had been at Oxford with Robert Moody and they and Christopher Isherwood shared 'digs' together with the Mangeot family in London. Isherwood studied medicine with him (for a very short time) hence Robert Moody's appearance as 'Lee' in Isherwood's Lions and Shadows and the 'medical' dedication in 'Dogskin.'
Though the Burra-Moody Archive contains the majority of John Moody's papers from this period, some relating to his Group Theatre collaboration with the painter/designers John Piper and Robert Medley, the composers Benjamin Britten and Herbert Murrill, and with Auden and Isherwood are now in the Theatre Museum in London.

Whilst Moody was active in the Group Theatre, Nell Burra was in Germany studying singing. Her brother, Peter, had by this time become an established literary, music and drama critic and was watching Moody's progress in the avante-garde theatre with interest. (He was highly critical of the 'commercial' theatre in which Moody and many of his fellow actors played during the 1930's). During this time he appears to have kept his sister informed; the hundreds of letters that survive in the Archive between Nell, her brother and their mother Ella, provide a fascinating insight into the world of the performing arts in which they were all involved throughout the 1930's. Peter Burra's tragic death in a flying accident in April 1937 was undoubtedly a factor in Nell's decision to remain permanently in England (she had planned to continue her singing in Hungary after leaving Germany) and most probably the reason why she and John Moody decided to marry four months later. Though they were rarely able to spend much time together during their hectic early careers in the theatre, at least marriage seemed to offer the promise of future security and stability.

The years 1937-40 saw Moody working all over Britain as actor, producer, broadcaster and teacher. After a spell at Croydon Repertory, he moved on to Guildford Repertory where, apart from producing numerous plays, he staged his first opera, Stanford's The Travelling Companion.  In 1938 the BBC engaged his services as a temporary announcer at its Midland Regional Offices in Birmingham.
In July 1939 he was appointed producer to the Scottish National Players in Glasgow though the declaration of war appears to have denied him the opportunity to join the company.
Early in 1940 he became Principal of the Old Vic Theatre School in London though the blitz was soon to hasten its evacuation to the country. In October, while serving in the Auxiliary Fire Service, he was seriously injured in a bomb blast which was to have a lasting effect upon his health. Thanks to the support of his wife, and that of his mentor, Tyrone Guthrie, after a relatively short period of convalescence he re-joined the Old Vic School at its new home in Shipston-on-Stour, Warwickshire. Here he was to remain until the summer of 1942.
The Burra-Moody Archive holds a considerable amount of material from this period, including correspondence, student lists, production budgets and programmes

Whether his injuries permanently affected his memory is unclear, but it appears that they contributed to his decision to give up acting and to concentrate on producing. To this end Tyrone Guthrie was, once again, at hand to assist him.
In July 1942 Guthrie appointed him as producer to the Old Vic Company in Liverpool, for two seasons. Here he staged plays by Shakespeare, Shaw, Tchekov, Ibsen and Marlowe whose Dr Faustus contained music specially composed by Anthony Hopkins and ballet sequences by Andre Howard.
Peter Pears had suggested to John Moody that Michael Tippett would be willing to write the music, but Tippet recommended "a young protege" of his, Hopkins, to undertake the task.

He then went on to work for Sir Barry Jackson at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. During the year in which he was there, his remarkable staging of Klabund's Chalk Circle won him an invitation from the Carl Rosa Opera Company to undertake a new production of La Tosca, followed a few months later by La Traviata. This was to be the beginning of a long and distinguished career in the world of opera In December 1945, (probably on Guthrie's recommendation) Moody joined the Sadlers Wells (Opera) Company as a producer.

Just after Christmas he received a letter from Joan Cross, who had run the company during the war, saying: "If it is not too late, I would like to wish you every success at the Wells,...I hope you are getting a lot of pleasure out of the 'chaps' there, they're a nice lot. And I gather that most of the rather tiresome ones have gone now. I expect we shall meet soon. I shall be in the theatre working on Grimes very shortly... Till then!"

Peter Grimes was performed eight times at Sadlers Wells after its much-heralded first night success in June 1945 and represented a landmark in English musical history. But as Desmond Shawe-Taylor later remarked in Opera in England Since the War "Many people may have hoped that Peter Grimes would be the first of a series of successful operas composed by Benjamin Britten for Sadlers Wells, and perhaps later on for Covent Garden; but if so, they left out the inevitable bad fairy of English opera. The acclamation of press and public was still fresh when one of those schisms which have so often ruined our operatic prospects caused Britten himself, his producer (Eric Crozier) and his two principal singers (Joan Cross and Peter Pears) to leave Sadler's Wells........Meanwhile Sadlers Wells (has) been obliged to re-form its ranks..."

The inevitable result of the 'schism' to which Shawe-Taylor refers was that those associated with the breakaway 'Grimes Group' were seen as innovators and progressives while those who remained with the old Wells administration tended to be viewed as conservative, if not old-fashioned.
This is illustrated in Humphrey Carpenter's biography of Benjamin Britten when he quotes a reporter's comments on the audience reaction to the first performance of Grimes; "Amid the cheers... 'a few timid and half-hearted boos', but these were quite drowned by enthusiastic applause.... Ronald Duncan had the impression that the boos were for Guthrie when he took a bow on behalf of the Wells administration".

The relationship between Britten and Guthrie does not appear to have been particularly amicable. Britten was unsympathetic towards the lavish sets and orchestral arrangements associated with Sadlers Wells' (and by definition Guthrie's), and Guthrie, respectful as he was of Britten's "taste and intelligence", had never been able to sympathize with his desire for 'naturalistic' staging of his operas, or for the inclusion in his scores of conversational scenes. Britten, he felt, "was not consistent" Shawe-Taylor also stressed in his 1948 article that it was hard to attract a Sadlers Wells opera audience to anything unusual, however good (Grimes being the exception), and that even box office favourites like La Boheme were not immune to the growing effects of competition from elsewhere. Hence the more successful popular revivals were essential to demonstrate the Company's continuing "excellence in ensemble.".

It was against this background that John Moody's time at the Wells began. Despite being, in some peoples' eyes, 'tarred with the same brush' as Guthrie, over the next four years he successfully staged Figaro, The Barber of Seville, Hansel and Gretel, Il Tabarro, Snowmaiden, Il Pagliacci, Il Trovatore and, to great acclaim, the first British production of Verdi's Simone Boccanegra (1948). As a lighting expert (his experience having been gained from his Group Theatre and repertory days) he also undertook the lighting for the Sadlers Wells Theatre Ballet. By 1949 continuing disagreements within the Company began to make him question his future there. Perhaps due to his wartime injuries, or because he was not, by nature, a confrontationist (Richard Fawkes described him in his obituary notice as "a quietly generous person (who) always put others before himself") 'theatre politics' seem finally to have got the better of him, for later in the year he unexpectedly resigned his post and left the Company Uncertain of the direction in which his career was now heading, he cast around for fresh opportunities in the theatre.

By chance, his wide experience of the stage and the personal qualities required to manage productions and performers of all kinds caught the attention of the recently formed Arts Council of Great Britain which was then looking for a candidate to fill the post of Drama Director. Although sceptical about accepting a 'desk job', he was impressed by the the Council's apparent willingness to accept new artistic horizons. He was to hold the post for the next five years during which time he represented the Council at the International Theatre Congresses in Zurich, Paris and the Hague and got to know most of the leading figures in the world of the performing arts. [The correspondence in the Archive relating to this period is particularly interesting.]

At the end of 1949, while on a Council visit to a performance of Ibsen's Ghosts at the Grand Theatre in Swansea, Moody slipped away to catch the first Act of the Welsh National Opera's The Bartered Bride at the Empire. As the story goes, Huw Wheldon, the young director of the Welsh Arts Council, who had insisted on his English colleague seeing the WNO in action, drove him at breakneck speed back to the Grand to catch Act 2 of Ghosts, then back to the Empire for Act 3 of the opera. If the intention was to get him hooked, then Wheldon succeeded. Moody at once grasped that this largely amateur Company held great potential, particularly in the uniquely Welsh power of the chorus. Bill Smith, the maverick businessman-Chairman of the WNO, who was undoubtedly behind this manoeuvre, had been particularly impressed by Moody's ground-breaking production of Simone Boccanegra at the Wells a year earlier and was determined to introduce such professional expertise into his own Company. The result of all this was that Smith managed to persuade the Arts Council to release Moody temporarily in 1952 to produce Verdi's Nabucco - an opera that Moody had first seen in Switzerland and suggested to Norman Tucker at Sadlers Wells, though this was not taken up.

Like Boccanegra it was to be a resounding success and would help transform the WNO into a nationally recognised company. By 1954 the role of an arts bureaucrat was beginning to dull his creative senses and he accepted the offer of directing the Bristol Old Vic at the Theatre Royal, which, under Hugh Hunt and Denis Carey, had already achieved a considerable reputation in provincial theatre. His five years there from 1954-9 have been described as 'a period of utter artistic integrity'. Not only did he run the Theatre, but also the Theatre School, as well as lecturing in drama at Bristol University. A whole generation of young actors owes a debt of thanks to Moody's teaching skills, as do numerous up-and-coming playwrights and directors of the period. The Archive has an extensive list, including correspondence.

In May 1958, at the height of his success at the Bristol Old Vic, tragedy once again struck the family. John and Nell Moody's son William was drowned in a boating accident on a weir near Bristol. As an only child his death was a devastating loss, particularly for Nell whose twin brother Peter had died under equally tragic circumstances some twenty years previously. Perhaps as a way of counteracting his grief, John continued working at the Theatre Royal until the end of the year Just before Christmas 1958 he and Nell left for Israel having accepted an offer to produce a play for the Ohel Company of Tel Aviv. During the months that they were there he staged, in Hebrew, the already successful London West End play Five Finger Exercise. The Jewish Chronicle reporting at the time under the headline, Ohel Improves with British Director, stated that "Mr Moody has done a great deal for the cast, and their effort to turn out a good performance is actually felt".

On their return from Israel in the spring of 1959, although still technically contracted to the Bristol Old Vic, Moody was approached by Bill Smith of the Welsh National Opera over the vacant post of Director of Productions. This was to prove to be a most opportune engagement. He had nothing to prove to Smith and yet there was much that he felt he still had to give to the world of opera. His first production, seven years after the highly acclaimed Nabucco, was yet another rarity, Rimsky-Korsakov's May Night which he and Nell translated from the Russian to provide a new English libretto. This was to be the beginning of a productive period of cooperation between man and wife. Over the next few years they were to provide new English translations of many libretti including Carmen, Prince Igor, The Pearl Fishers and a number of popular Verdi operas. In 1993, Richard Fawkes wrote of Moody's nine year term at the WNO: "Among his most memorable productions were the first staging this century of Verdi's La Battaglia di Legnano, Rossini's William Tell, the premiere of Grace William's The Parlour, Macbeth, and a Boris Godunov considered at the time to be the finest ever seen in Britain... During the sixties many young singers were given their first opportunities by WNO including Elizabeth Vaughan, Josephine Barstow,Thomas Allen, Margaret Price, Delme Bryn Jones, Donald Macintyre, Ryland Davies and Anne Howells. It was with Moody that such artists first learnt how to appear on stage and delve into character. Their success, and today's pre-eminence of WNO, are part of his legacy."

John Moody resigned from his post at the WNO in 1969 though his expertise was retained as Joint Artistic Director and Counsellor to the Board. Retirement from active stage work enabled him to offer his services as an examiner and consultant to the Drama Department of the University of Bristol, but just as importantly, for him, it gave him the chance to return to his first love, painting.

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