Obituary: Alexander Schouvaloff, former Edinburgh Festival assistant director

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Born: 4 May, 1934, in London. Died: 30 December, 2012, in London, aged 78.

Alexander Schouvaloff had long standing connections with the arts in Scotland, principally through the Festival, but he was a keen observer of many arts companies here. He was an authority on the Diaghilev company and especially its famous designers – Pablo Picasso, Léon Bakst and Alexandre Benois. Schouvaloff wrote widely on the period and curated a hugely successful exhibition (Parade) at the 1979 Edinburgh Festival in the Edinburgh College of Art that was acclaimed for its design ingenuity. It was so successful, in fact, that it transferred to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

As Richard Demarco recalled to The Scotsman: “The exhibition was a seminal experience. Alexander displayed the exhibits with such style: it was a hymn of praise to Diaghilev and beautifully brought together the visual and the performing arts.”

Alexander Schouvaloff came from an aristocratic and diplomatic Russian family. His father won an Oscar for his designs for Moulin Rouge (directed by John Huston).

Schouvaloff attended Harrow School where he showed early theatrical talent, playing the title role in a complete version of Hamlet. While at Jesus College, Oxford he came with the Oxford Theatre Group to the 1954 Edinburgh Fringe.

Schouvaloff did his national service with the Royal Military Police at SHAPE in Paris and, in 1965, became George Harewood’s assistant for one year and then for two years worked with Peter Diamand at the Edinburgh Festival.

Both directors concentrated on the music and opera programme and gave Schouvaloff a free hand to develop theatre projects. He brought such adventurous productions as Pop Theatre’s The Trojan Women with Flora Robson and Cleo Laine and The Cherry Orchard by The Prospect Company with Lila Kedrova.

In his autobiography Lord Harewood wrote of the year they worked together: “My last colleague was Alexander Schouvaloff, a man of the theatre who was prepared to face making decisions – even unpleasant ones – on his own.”

He is particularly remembered in Edinburgh for the Parade exhibition in 1979. In fact, Schouvaloff used the wide-open spaces of the College of Art admirably and while it displayed many costumes it was the magnificent designs by Bakst that Schouvaloff showed with particular panache.

As Schouvaloff wrote in the 1979 programme: “The experience, excitement and stimulus of seeing these costumes all assembled together is becoming increasingly rare.”

In 1974 he was appointed the founder curator of the Theatre Museum, which came under the auspices of the V& A. The museum had many theatrical collections which had need of a permanent home – not least Richard Buckle’s mainly Diaghilev costumes which had been seen at his famous 1954 Edinburgh Festival exhibition. Schouvaloff had to overcome increasing political and financial setbacks – at one point there was a high profile campaign, Save the Theatre Museum.

Schouvaloff and Sir Roy Strong, curator at the V&A, eventually decided on a building on the piazza at Covent Garden, close by the Royal Opera House. Schouvaloff was keen to include all aspects of British theatre from music hall to circus, mime and pop.

After many delays the museum was opened by Princess Margaret in 1987 with Schouvaloff rightly calling it a “collection of collections”.

It was opened to the acclaim of the press and the public thronged through its galleries. But for all the museum’s perfect location the space itself was not ideal. The entrance from Drury Lane was rather gloomy and the basement, where most of the exhibits were shown, appeared claustrophobic and lacked dramatic rigour.

Worse, the initial enthusiasm and good relationship between Schouvaloff and Sir Roy deteriorated and there was a degree of acrimony in their dealings. Schouvaloff’s relations with Sir Roy’s successor, Dame Elizabeth Esteve-Coll, proved no happier and he left the museum in 1989.

It was a disappointment as Schouvaloff had displayed much patience and tenacity in getting the museum opened. Indeed, as an adjunct to the museum’s activities he had mounted a reading of the complete works of Shakespeare over several days. The readers included many of the leading actors of the day, such as Eartha Kitt as a vibrant Cleopatra.

Schouvaloff concentrated on writing books, including Stravinsky on Stage and Léon Bakst – The Theatre Art, and contributed to several catalogues for international exhibitions.

Demarco remembers him with a very personal affection. “If it had not been for Alexander there may not have been a Demarco Gallery in Edinburgh. After his time at the Festival he stayed in touch and was hugely encouraging for many of my projects. He gave my career a dramatic boost. He and his wife Daria were born enthusiasts.”

Schouvaloff was twice married. His first marriage to Gillian Baker was dissolved. He is survived by Daria, whom he married in 1971, and a son by his first marriage.

ALASDAIR STEPHEN