Dictionary of Sydney

The Dictionary of Sydney was archived in 2021.

Goatcher, Philip W

CC BY-SA 2.0
Cite this

Goatcher, Philip W

Designer, scene painter and decorator Philip Goatcher (or Phil W as he usually signed his name) was born in London in 1851. He was the son of a scene painter, first apprenticed to his father. As a youth, from around 1866, he travelled extensively, including a visit to Australia in 1867 when he became a student of scenic artist John Hennings in Ballarat, Victoria. His travels then took him to the United States and an association with Niblo's Garden (a New York theatre on Broadway). His experience there established his status as a designer and, after briefly returning to London, he became principal designer at Wallack's Theatre in New York from 1875 to 1885. His work included designs for companies led by David Belasco, Edwin Booth, Dion Boucicault and Lillie Langtry.

Goatcher married while in America and the couple had four children. They divorced in 1890, after which Goatcher returned to England with his two elder sons. While there, in 1890–91 he worked both for Henry Irving and Richard D'Oyly Carte. It is probable that this association with the successful Savoy operas influenced the offer made to him a year later. JC Williamson, who held the Australian copyright on the works of Gilbert and Sullivan, offered him 1000 guineas a year to work for Williamson's in Australia. On his acceptance, Goatcher became the highest paid theatrical designer in the world.

During his years with the Williamson company, Goatcher created many stage designs in addition to the settings for the expanding repertoire of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. His stage settings included the spectacular The Silver King and the annual pantomimes. He was much praised for his transformation scene for the 1894 Christmas spectacular, Cinderella and the Little Glass Slipper.

Goatcher was often privately commissioned to decorate both public and private buildings. Although he continued to design for Williamson's he also ventured into theatrical management. He decorated and then leased the Palace Theatre in 1896. It can be assumed that Goatcher drew extensively on his own experience in his decoration of the Palace, since the decor strongly resembled that of the recently completed Broadway Theatre in Denver, Colorado.

Goatcher has been described as one of the finest designers of the late Victorian style. His preference in stage design was for painting the 'cloths', that is the pictures at the back of set pieces, because in that work 'nothing is left to mechanical effect. It is all art…', [1] but his forte was the trompe l'œil style, particularly in creating illusions of fabrics and drapes. It was a skill which gained him the nickname of 'Satin and Velvet' Goatcher. At an exhibition of the Society of Artists in 1895 it was noted that his 'graceful design for a drop curtain [was] painted with the utmost delicacy and feeling for colour…' [2]

One of Goatcher's most praised trompe l'œil paintings locally came after 50 years of work in the theatre, when in 1911 he designed the scenery for the premiere of JC Williamson's hit musical The Chocolate Soldier. Again it was an act drop, this time painted for the Lyceum Theatre for the opening of the Sydney season. This colourful sheet of canvas appeared to be folds of crimson velvet held in loops by golden cords.

Goatcher was a popular man, well read, a good raconteur and a practical joker. He also suffered from chronic bronchitis. In 1906 he moved to Western Australia for reasons of health and, with his second wife and surviving son James, set up a successful painting and decorating business in Perth. His wife died there on Christmas Eve 1913. Goatcher had semi-retired in 1911after his work for Williamson's, but he remained a substantial landholder in the wheat town of Dalwallinu. He died aged 79 in West Perth on 8 October 1931. Now his only known surviving theatre work is in Western Australia, with a piece in each of Kalgoorlie, Collie and New Norcia.


Gerald Boardman, The Oxford Companion to American Theatre, Oxford University Press, New York, 1984

Anita Callaway, Visual Ephemera, University of New South Wales Press, Kensington, 2000

David Hough, 'Remembrance of scenes past', Bulletin, 15 October 1991, pp 98–99


[1] Table Talk, 8 January 1892, p 8

[2] Sydney Morning Herald, 27 September 1895, p 2