Remembering Peter Ellenshaw

by Wade Sampson, staff writer
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Peter Ellenshaw passed away at the age of ninety-three in Santa Barbara, California on February 12, 2007, and a number of tributes have already appeared on the various Disney oriented websites.

I had the honor and the pleasure of talking with Peter Ellenshaw several times over the years. When I met him, my first impression was that here was this slight, short, dapper gentleman (in all senses of that word) who spoke almost too quietly, as if he didn't want to disturb anyone but I knew that a giant lived in that body.

He had a charm and a British wit that brought a smile to everyone who met him and while he had an honest appreciation for the work he had done, he demonstrated no ego; that it was great work but simply a job well done just as if he were a simple country gardener who had created a pleasant landscape.

He had a great personal respect and affection for Walt Disney. Like many of the great Disney Legends, Peter worked in obscurity for many years transforming Disney live action films into those magical memories that still enchant audiences today despite the advances in technology.

Peter Ellenshaw was born William Samuel Cook Ellenshaw (his mother preferred the name "Peter" so that is what he was called the rest of his life) inLondon, England, on May 24, 1913.

He was raised in the city of Essex that was in the path of the German zeppelins during World War I. AsPeter once recalled, "My mother put us (Peter and his two sisters) under the kitchen table while the zeppelins were overhead and gave us pencils and paper to draw with" and an artist was born.

As a young man, Peter was fortunate tobecome the assistant of British portrait painter, Walter Percy "Pop"Day, who had been awarded an O.B.E. (Order of the British Empire) in 1947 for his contribution in developing the technique of matte painting for cinema.For seven years, Day and Ellenshawworked closely together onmany classicfilms including some for Alexander Korda including"Things to Come? and The Thief of Baghdad."

Matte painting is an amazingly effectivespecial effect where an object or landscape like a castle, a row of houses,a ship, or an island is painted on glass and the glass is thenset in front of the camera so that both the real setting and the painting are filmed at the same time. The result tricks the eye of the camera into seeinga barren mountainside now sporting a huge castle on top and a bridge on the path leading to the castle or a small set with Roman columns becoming a widescreen elaborate coliseum.

In 1947, Peter's work caught the attention of an art director for the Walt Disney Studios. Disney was in the pre-planning stages of his very first live-action film, Treasure Island, which would be produced in Great Britain. Thus began a professional collaboration and friendship with Walt Disney that would span 30 years and 34 films. Peter supplied mattes for the three remaining Disney films to be made in Great Britain (The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men, The Sword and the Rose, and Rob Roy) and soon re-located to California in 1953 where he did matte work on Disney's first United States-produced live-action feature film, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Ellenshaw's matte paintings saved Walt the cost of expensive location trips and elaborate settings. When Davy Crockett headed for 19th-century Washington, D.C., or Mary Poppins flew over the rooftops of London or Robin Hood stormed the castle or Paul Revere rode down the streets of 18th-century Boston that was all the magic of Peter Ellenshaw.

Nearly ten years after his work on 20,000 Leagues, Peter won his own Academy Award for his work on Mary Poppins. In all, he was involved in 34 films for Walt Disney Productions between 1947 and 1979. As a matte artist, the wide range of Ellenshaw's contributions can be found in Johnny Tremain, Old Yeller, Zorro, The Great Locomotive Chase, Swiss Family Robinson, The Absent Minded Professor, Blackbeard's Ghost, and The Love Bug, to name just a handful of films that featured his artistic talents.

In addition, Peter contributed to the special photographic effects of Darby O'Gill and the Little People, served as production designer on Island at the Top of the World and as art director for Bedknobs and Broomsticks and The Black Hole.

Ellenshaw regarded Walt Disney not only as a source of inspiration but also as a good friend. "Walt had the ability to communicate with artists," recalled Ellenshaw. "He'd talk to you on your level—artist to artist. He used to say, 'I can't draw, Peter.' But he had the soul of an artist, and he had a wonderful way of transferring his enthusiasm to you".

One of Ellenshaw's first Disney projects upon his arrival at the Studio was to create a rendering for Walt?s newest project, Disneyland. Ellenshaw went to work painting an aerial view of the proposed park on a 4'x8' piece of storyboard. The painting was then used by Walt Disney to help introduce television audiences to his new project as well as attracting potential sponsors. Peter joked that he never saw an additional penny from all those postcards sold of Walt standing in front of that huge painting.

Ellenshaw contributed his artistic touch directly to many of the early Disneyland Tomorrowland attractions at the new theme park, including the first Circarama show A Tour of the West sponsored by American Motors, TWA's Rocket Ship to the Moon and Space Station X-1 that showed a "satellite view of America from fifty miles up."

During his time at Disney, Ellenshaw maintained his identity as a traditional landscape artist and always found time in the evenings and weekends to work on his own canvases. He is considered today one of the premier seascape and landscape artists in America. The locations of his paintings are frequently recognizable, but there is never a literal rendering of what one would see there.

It was Walt Disney who introduced Peter to the beauty of the desert. When Walt was in the St. Joseph Hospital shortly before his death, Peter painted for him a desert vista featuring the smoke tree that Walt loved. The tree had a light, feathery appearance resembling smoke and was prominent at Walt?s vacation home in Palm Springs, the Smoke Tree Ranch. Walt?s secretary, Tommie Wilck, took it to the hospital to give to Walt on December 10, 1966, and told Peter how Walt proudly told the hospital staff that "one of his boys" had painted it especially for him.

During World War II, Peter married Bobbie Palmer and they had a son, Harrison, born in 1945 and a daughter, Lynda, born in 1958. Bobbie Ellenshaw passed away in December 2000 after fifty-eight years of marriage. In 1993, Peter Ellenshaw was named a Disney Legend.

Fortunately, there are two books that showcase Peter Ellenshaw and his art but both are out of print and difficult to find: The Garden Within: The Art of Peter Ellenshaw (1996 Mill Pond Press) and Ellenshaw Under Glass (2003 Camphor Tree Press).

However, an interview with Peter Ellenshaw by Disney Historian Jim Korkis is currently available in the recently released Walt?s People: Volume 4, part of a series of books that showcase interviews with people who worked with Walt Disney (order a copy here.

Here is an excerpt (used by permission):

J.K.: What was Walt Disney really like?

P.E.: What was Walt Disney like? That?s what we?d all like to know, isn?t it? Walt was the only person who was not an artist who could talk to you like an artist. The only problem you would have had with Walt was if you were not as enthusiastic about a project as he was. I would remember him coming by and talking to me about something and would get me all stirred up with enthusiasm and I would start work on the project. Then about three weeks or later I might get discouraged and think "Why did I get involved with this? It won?t work!" and then Walt would come by and talk and get me all enthusiastic again. It wasn't a false enthusiasm. He really believed it could be done and he was able to make you believe it. Great man. Wonderful man. Loved him. Missed him. Missed him terribly. Missed him so much that I'd wake up in the middle of the night and wonder why I was weeping. It was because I'd lost him. It was wonderful knowing him. The men who were really privileged were those animators who knew him many years before that. They were wonderful people who really knew him. I was privileged to know them. I was just one of the people who knew Walt just from live action. I'm not boasting about that. I'm very humble about that. I used to sit around with these men who and worked with him in animation and we'd ask, "What makes this ordinary man so extraordinary?" Because he seems so normal. He seems so common in his thinking. He has no taste. Suddenly, you realize he has exquisite taste. He had a certain way of thinking and looking at problems from over there. We were all looking at it the same way from the common view and he'd say something and we thought he hadn't been listening to what we were saying at all. Actually, he had seen it from another view. In meetings, I felt obligated to come up with something so I?d come up with some stupid thing. "Peter, what are you talking about?" he'd say and lift that eyebrow.

J.K.: Any final thoughts you?d like to share?

P.E.: Extraordinary things happen in your life if you want them to.