Edinburgh-born artist who created the Emerald City for 'The Wizard of Oz' to be honoured at last

He is Scotland’s forgotten Hollywood hero despite a key role in one of the most iconic movies all all-time and a 35-year career with one of the world’s biggest film companies.

Monday, 17th February 2020, 8:21 pm
Updated Monday, 17th February 2020, 9:08 pm
George Gibson's first major production for MGM was The Wizard of Oz in 1939.
George Gibson's first major production for MGM was The Wizard of Oz in 1939.

But now the Edinburgh-born artist who based his design for the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz on his childhood view of the castle, will finally be honoured in his home country.

The life and work of George Gibson, who pioneered the painting of scene backdrops for movies for Metro Goldwyn Mayer after learning his craft at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal, will be celebrated in a special event at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, in April.

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The event will see the unveiling of lost pieces of art from the golden age of Hollywood which Gibson worked on, but were kept in storage for more than 80 years until recently.

Edinburgh-born George Gibson worked for movie giants MGM for 35 years as the head of its scenic art department.

Backdrops from some of Gibson’s movies - including Marie Antoinette, Madame Curie, The Skipper who Surprised His Wife, The Light Touch and The Washington Story - have been donated to the RCS following talks with the Art Directors Guild in the United States after they were recovered from MGM’s studios.

The Lost Art of Hollywood event will recall how Gibson was hired as MGM’s first ever head of scenic art and worked on The Wizard of Oz as his first major production.

He also worked on Singin’’ in the Rain, North by Northwest, Brigadoon, An American in Paris and The Shoes of the Fisherman before retiring in 1969, but kept painting his own watercolours, even in his later years, until he died in 2001 at the age of 96.

Born in 1904,Gibson was brought up in Spittal Street, in Tollcross, which looks onto the castle. He moved with his family to Fochabers, in Moray.

His website, which is maintained by his daughter, Jean Gibson-Gorrindo, states: “He was exposed to theatre at a very young age, appearing in school productions and becoming involved in scene painting and other behind-the-scenes tasks.

"It was here that his tremendous artistic talent was first recognised, and his parents were encouraged to provide artistic training for their son.

“He returned to Edinburgh to study art at Edinburgh College of Art, and also studied at Glasgow School of Art. In 1930, he emigrated to the United States, eager to pursue a career in scene painting for theatre.

"He eventually landed in Hollywood, taking temporary jobs with various studios as the opportunities arose."

Gary Fry, scenic art lecturer with the RCS, said: “The event is really about bringing George Gibson home to Glasgow, as he studied at the art school, on Renfrew Street, and did his apprenticeship at the Theatre Royal on Hope Street, which are right on our doorstep.

“He was only 26 when he moved to America. He really wanted to work in theatre in New York, but the financial crash had just happened when he got there and the theatres were all dark.

"The story goes that he saw a picture of California in a magazine and decided to move there.

“Scenic art for films was very much a new industry at the time. Most films were shot outside, but the big studios couldn’t control the light or weather.

MGM’s new scenic art department painted the backdrops for external scenes.

George was the head of the scenic art workshop, working with the studio’s art director, Cedric Gibbons, and had about 10 staff.

"He was unheralded in Scotland, but was also unheralded in America, despite spending 35 years in the industry, but that was very much the nature of scenic art. It’s an invisible art form. If it’s done properly you don’t see it.”