Peter Ellenshaw Biography
1913 - 2007
Peter Ellenshaw was a renowned landscape artist, motion picture art director, matte designer, Academy-Award winning special effects artist, and official Disney Legend who worked on many features during an storied artistic career that spanned more than six decades. His art can be found in public and private collections around the world.
Born in London, England in 1913 barely a year before World War I besieged the U.K. with bomb-dropping zeppelins and an economic downturn that would last for decades, Ellenshaw spent his early years in terrific hardship, "War was the devil that haunted all of us, driving out happier memories," he wrote in his pictorial autobiography, Ellenshaw Under Glass, published in 2003. Ellenshaw's father died in 1921, and his mother soon married the groundskeeper on an estate in Kent. Ellenshaw's biological father had his family living in Wilton Castle, near Enniscorthy, Ireland, and prior to his father's death, Peter had been attending a private school in which he was taught, among other things, fine social graces. This ended abruptly when his mother remarried, and his family moved into the cramped living quarters on the estate his new stepfather tended to. Here, instead of kindly doffing his hat for the ladies, the seven-year old Ellenshaw was enlisted for the purpose of holding the lantern while the latrines were emptied at night. Recurrent and frequent childhood illnesses left Peter unable to pass the basic entrance exams for grammar school, and at his mother's suggestion, he became an auto mechanic at 14. Simultaneously, his mother also encouraged him to develop his artistic talent, especially painting and drawing. It was in this manner that Peter managed to keep his floundering self-esteem afloat. "I certainly developed an inferiority complex," he confessed years later, "because in England, dirty unskilled work was the lowest rung on the social ladder."
It was around this time that Ellenshaw had a chance meeting with a neighbor, a famous local artist of his time, Walter Percy Day. It was a relationship that changed the trajectory of his life. Percy "Pop" Day, who went on to become a legend in pioneering visual effects for film and later a recipient of the O.B.E., played a pivotal role in Ellenshaw's creative development, discovering his talents and taking him on as an assistant, tutoring him not only in painting on canvas, but in painting on glass for the purpose of creating matte backgrounds for film. (Mattes are realistic paintings done on glass, against which films of actors and other parts of the set are projected; then both painting and film are re-photographed to create a new, realistic image.)
After serving his country as an RAF pilot in World War II, Ellenshaw returned to work for Day at the studios, reestablishing their mentor-apprentice relationship as the younger of the two began working alongside the elder doing visual effect work for studios. After a brief yearlong stint at MGM, Ellenshaw left in 1947 after his work caught the attention of an art director for the Walt Disney Studios, who asked Ellenshaw if he was interested in working on a project for 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.). In 1953, the Ellenshaws moved from Great Britian to the United States where Peter began creating full-time for the Walt Disney Studios. As it turned out, this partnership, a professional collaboration and personal friendship with Walt Disney, would span more than thirty years and 34 films with Disney, earning Ellenshaw five Oscar nominations, including an Academy Award for his work on "Mary Poppins," in which he recreated scenes of Edwardian London in 102 different mattes. Walt Disney became Ellenshaw's mentor and friend, spurring him on continually to perfect his craft and push the creative envelope. "Walt was the dominant figure in my life for all those years," Ellenshaw explained. "He talked to me as a father would. I cherished our relationship." Ellenshaw thought of Walt Disney as a source of inspiration, a wonderful executive, and over the years, a close friend. "Walt had the ability to communicate with artists," said 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 on transferring his enthusiasm to you." However, after Walt Disney passed away in 1968, making movies wasn't the same anymore. "After Walt was gone, things were different," he wrote. "I ceased to be as interested in film making."
One of Ellenshaw's first Disney projects upon his arrival at the Studio was to generate a conceptual rendering of something called "Disneyland." Ellenshaw went to work painting an aerial view of the proposed theme park on a 4x8-foot piece of fiberboard. The painting was then used by Disney to help introduce television audiences to this new, cutting-edge project, while he simultaneously used the painting to attract backers on this exciting new concept in outdoor entertainment.
In 1964, Ellenshaw won the Best Special Visual Effects Academy Award for his breathtaking matte work in Walt Disney's beloved line-action musical-fantasy, Mary Poppins. Not only did Ellenshaw create the beautiful landscapes of Victorian London, he was also responsible for giving inspiration to the creation of the rousing rooftop dance of the chim-chimney, chim-chimney sweeps in the lively, "Step in Time" dance sequence. At this time more than ever, Ellenshaw became more deeply engrossed with his second career—painting landscapes for the sheer beauty and pleasure of it. By 1968, this was occupying every possible spare moment, as he scrambled to keep up with the demand created by galleries and collectors.
Disney's The Black Hole (in 1976), viewed both as an artistic masterpiece and a cinematic failure, was Ellenshaw's last film for Disney Studios. Ellenshaw began to broaden his Hollywood horizons at that point, working on Superman IV with son Harrison in 1984. In 1993, Ellenshaw was officially designated a "Disney Legend" by The Walt Dinsey Company during a ceremony at The Walt Disney Studios officiated by Michael D. Eisner and Roy E. Disney.
During his amazing film career, Ellenshaw was nominated for four Academy Awards. His storied movie credentials speaks to the enormity of his artistic talents and range as a painter. Highlights include - The Thief of Bagdad (1940), A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), Old Yeller (1957), Johnny Tremain (1957), Darby O'Gill and the Little People (1959), Pollyanna (1960), Swiss Family Robinson (1960), The Absent-Minded Professor (1961), Mary Poppins (1964, Academy Award winner), The Love Bug (1969), Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971, Academy Award nominee), The Island at the Top of the World (1974, Academy Award nominee), The Black Hole (1979, Academy Award nominee), Dick Tracy (1990).
He has been the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including those by the American Film Institute, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Film Institute in Chicago, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the R.W. Norton Art Museum in Shreveport, Louisiana, along with the Disney Legends Awards. He has had many one-man exhibitions, and his Disney art was included in a retrospective show at New York's Museum of Modern Art. An artist who continually strived to paint better, Ellenshaw eventually turned his artistic attentions to painting the world's most famous golf courses. He says of this prolific and celebrated career - "The wonderful thing in painting is that one can never reach the peak of one's endeavor."
Ellenshaw managed to maintain his unique identity as a traditional landscape artist during his Disney years and always found time on evenings and weekends to work on his own canvases. After he retired from the film business, Ellenshaw dedicated his life to his passion for fine art painting. Numerous works were created, of both Disney Fine Art and non-Disney themed subjects, which have been highly collected. In February of 2007, Ellenshaw passed away peacefully at his home in Santa Barbara, California. He was 93 years of age.
World Wide Art
World Wide Art is known for its wide selection of limited editions and originals by renowned artists, including the luminescent works of Peter Ellenshaw. Their expert staff also specializes in custom conservation framing. In business since 1996, World Wide Art is located in the San Francisco Bay Area and is a well-known art shop for both serious collectors and casual decorators. The staff at World Wide Art not only deals art, but are collectors and artists themselves who consider their work a labor of love and lifestyle of art appreciation.