From the first moments of Mary Poppins Returns, there is reference to the genius artistry that was a part of creating the original. The opening titles, which are fanciful paintings which one assumes are concept work used to build the magical nanny’s London, are a mix of art by Oscar-winning concept artist Peter Ellenshaw created in the 60s, and images influenced him created by one of the concept artists who worked on the new release. They speak to the rich colors and evoke an atmosphere redolent with fog, mist, and chimney smoke, that places us squarely in a London of distant memory.
Many fans of the original 1964 Disney live action classic, Mary Poppins, are well aware that film won five Oscars, including a Best Actress win for Julie Andrews, who had been passed over for My Fair Lady, but won the year both films were released against Audrey Hepburn, who had played Eliza Doolittle. The song Chim Chim Cher-ee and the impressive score meant two Oscars for the Sherman brothers, who both literally and figuratively became legends in their own time. Editor Cotton Warburton, who put together many of the wackiest, most beloved family-friendly live action films, including The Happiest Millionaire, The Absent Minded Professor, and The Love Bug, garnered his only Academy Award for Mary Poppins. Artists Eustace Lycett (who worked on some of the best rides at Disneyland), Hamilton Luske (who co-directed Cinderella, Pinocchio, Lady and the Tramp, and a host of other Disney animated features) and matte background painter Peter Ellenshaw, shared an Oscar for Special Effect and Special Visual Effects. Ellenshaw, Andrews, Luske, and the Sherman brothers all became ‘Disney Legends’, an honor bestowed on people who make extraordinary and integral contributions to the Walt Disney Company.
Peter Ellenshaw was already known for his artistry, having been in the film industry since the late 30s. His first project was assisting on 1936’s sci-fi wonder Things To Come. He apprenticed with one of the most successful, renowned matte artists, W. Percy Day. Standouts of films on which he assisted Day are 1940’s The Thief of Bagdad, and 1948’s The Red Shoes. His first film for Disney was Treasure Island, continuing with beloved classics like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Old Yeller, and Swiss Family Robinson.
Though he lived in the US from 1953, he grew up in England, making him perfect to capture the atmosphere and visual majesty of early 20th century London. For Mary Poppins, Ellenshaw was responsible for the gorgeous matte backgrounds that made up the skylines and rooftops of London.
There is, in his work, the perfect expression of the magic of film and the importance of collaboration in creating a movie with lasting power and beauty. One cannot imagine Mary Poppins without remembering his wonderful scenes of London through which Mary flies, or the rooftops where the chimney sweeps dance. So evocative are these images that when Mary Poppins Returns director Rob Marshall began the task of world building for his new movie, he and his cinematographer Dion Beebe and production designer John Myhre found inspiration from his paintings, even to the point of using his actual concept paintings to bring the audience into the world of London, giving Peter Ellenshaw thanks, and a screen credit. They wanted to get away a bit from the storybook, fantastical look of the first film, but there’s no question that the panoramic views of London used to set mood are heavily influenced by his work.
I never met Peter Ellenshaw, but I visited his studio with his son, Harrison Ellenshaw, and saw huge matte paintings from Mary Poppins and 20 Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. They were spectacular. Harrison Ellenshaw followed in his father’s footsteps and also became a well-regarded concept artist in the film industry, being nominated for an Oscar for his work on The Black Hole. He also worked on Star Wars: A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Tron. and was also Though there are still artists like William Silvers, who is still working in concept art art and creates backgrounds both digitally, and (though rarely) by hand, matte background paintings done by hand are a thing of the past.
The pieces above are available as limited edition giclees on canvas, signed by Peter, who passed away in 2007. It is one case of Disney appreciating an important figure in the history of film and trying to raise awareness of his work, and we at ArtInsights celebrate that and him!
We loved Mary Poppins Returns, and believe many fans of the original will see that Rob Marshall created the film in the spirit of love for not only the books of P.T. Travers, but also the 1964 classic. Now when you see it, you’ll be all the more aware of the Peter Ellenshaw art, and his influence of the look of the new film!
The three images above, by Peter Ellenshaw, are called Practically Perfect, Chimney Sweeps Dance on the Rooftops, and Smoke Staircase, and are available for purchase through ArtInsights. For all art celebrating Mary Poppins available at ArtInsights, GO HERE.
For my interview with Sandy Powell, the costume designer for Mary Poppins Returns (who is already a three-time Oscar winner) read about it on The Credits: GO HERE.
For my review of the film for Cinema Siren, GO HERE.