Edinburgh artist who drew the Emerald City

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WHEN Dorothy's cyclone-hit house was blown into the Land of Oz, she knew immediately that she was "not in Kansas anymore". This fantastic, vibrant world that she found herself in – so magical and different from home – was lovingly created by the talented people at the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) studio for the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. One of the most recognised films in history, there are few people who have never seen the yellow brick road or the enchanted forest.

One of the most memorable scenes in the film is the moment when Dorothy and her companions first see the Emerald City. This phosphorescently glowing city was home to the wonderful Wizard of Oz. Like most of the backdrops in the film it was painted on glass and sprung from the imagination of the scenic artists at MGM. These craftsmen had to get their ideas from somewhere, and it may be that this most evocative of painted backdrops owes as its genesis a view from a humble flat in the west end of Edinburgh.

George Gibson was born in the Scottish capital in 1904 and grew up in a small flat at the junction of Bread Street and Spittal Street, appropriately just down the way from the Edinburgh Filmhouse on Lothian Road. His daily view was to follow the tarmac road to the rocky inclines of the extinct volcano on top of which sits Edinburgh Castle.

Gibson studied at Glasgow School of Art and became apprentices as a scenic designer after studying. Two years later, in 1930, he emigrated to America where he found his way to Los Angeles. He was employed with several Hollywood studios before his appointment as an illustrator with MGM. By 1938 he had become head of the studio's scenic design department and was involved in a number of high-profile projects, not least of which was Oz.

The design for the film was overseen by Cedric Gibbons, MGM's art director, but Gibson, was a busy man too, with a number of projects on the go. It is not too great an assumption to suggest that Gibson, in fact, ended up doing most of the designing on the Judy Garland-starred film.

Mark Cousins, director of the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1995 and 1996, stumbled across the connection between Edinburgh and the Emerald City by accident.

"We decided to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Edinburgh Film Festival by an extravagant thought," says Cousins. "We thought it would be fun and challenging to transform Edinburgh Castle into the Emerald City. No-one knew about the Gibson connection at that time."

Going through the MGM archives Cousins came across a reference to Gibson.

"It struck us as remarkable that a man born in the shadow of the castle would end up painting the most iconic image in cinema," he says.

On the web

For anyone unfamiliar with the path to Oz, have a look at this official website and click on the words "Emerald City" in the bottom right-hand corner of the page.

Intrigued, Cousins tracked down an elderly Gibson who confirmed that he played a big part in the creation of The Wizard of Oz. Cousins remains convinced that Gibson took his inspiration from the view from his childhood home. He's now seeking to have the flat where he lived recognised for its significance.

"Every time I tell the story to people who live here they're very interested," says Cousins. "It's strange that there's no plaque."

Without anything to signal the location of Gibson's first home, few people will know that they could be looking at the view that inspired the most famous of all celluloid cities. And if the castle was the inspiration for the Emerald City, then surely nearby Lothian Road could be considered to be Scotland’s very own yellow brick road.

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