Born in 1913, barely a year before World War
I was to assail England with bomb-dropping zeppelins and an
economic downturn that would last for decades, master painter
Peter Ellenshaw would spend his early years in hardship. War
was the devil that haunted all of us, driving out happier memories,
he writes in is pictorial autobiography, Ellenshaw Under Glass
(Camphor Tree Publishers, 2003).
Ellenshaw's father died
in 1921, and his mother soon married the groundskeeper on an
estate in Kent. Ellenshaw's biological father had 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 as his mother remarried and his family moved
into 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 wrote 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 local artist who would
later mentor him not only in painting on canvas, but in painting
on glass for the purpose of creating matte backgrounds for film.
This man would play a pivotal role in his life in several ways.
Percy Pop Day, as he was called, was to become a legend in pioneering
visual effects for film. Later a recipient of the O.B.E., Days
relationship with Ellenshaw became one of mentor-apprentice,
as the younger of the two began working alongside the elder
doing visual effect work for studios.
After serving his country as
an RAF pilot in World War II, Ellenshaw returned to work for
Mr. Day at the studios. After a brief yearlong stint at MGM,
Ellenshaw left in 1947 upon receiving a call to work for Walt
Disney Studios on the film, Treasure Island. As it turned out,
his partnership with Disney would last over thirty years and
earn him five Oscar nominations. For his work on "Mary
Poppins" in which he recreated scenes of Edwardian London
in 102 different mattes, he won an Academy Award. 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," he
wrote years later. He talked to me as a father would. I cherished
our relationship. However, after Walt Disney passed away in
1968, making movies wasn't the same anymore. After Walt was
gone, things were different, he wrote in his autobiography.
I ceased to be as interested in film making.
At this time more than ever,
Ellenshaw became more engrossed with his second career"
- painting landscapes for the sheer beauty of it. By 1968, it
was occupying every possible spare moment as he scurried to
keep up with the demand created by galleries and collectors.
Disney's The Black Hole in 1976
was Ellenshaw's last film for Disney Studios, viewed both as
an artistic masterpiece and a cinematic failure. Ellenshaw began
to broaden his Hollywood horizons at that point, working on
Superman IV with son Harrison in 1984.
The work of Peter Ellenshaw
is represented in both public and private galleries worldwide.
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, and the Disney Legends Awards.
In February of 2007, Peter passed
away peacefully at his home in Santa Barbara, California. He
was 93 years of age.