Mary Poppins glides through the air beneath an umbrella. Fifty chimney sweeps dance over the rooftops of London. Captain Nemo pilots his submarine, the Nautilus, to the island of Vulcania. Such Disney moments, and many more, were created by Peter Ellenshaw, special effects artist, matte painter, and production designer. A renowned sea and landscape artist, Peter created paintings that look real enough to step into.
The story of how Peter first became interested in art is about as dramatic as his paintings. Born in London on May 24, 1913, Peter was raised in the town of Essex, which was in the path of German zeppelins during World War I. As he once recalled, “My mother put us [he and his two sisters] under the kitchen table while the zeppelins were overhead and gave us pencils and paper to draw with.” An artist was born.
Because of his father’s death in World War I, Peter was forced to leave school at age 14 to help support his family. While working as a grease monkey in a garage, he pursued his artwork and soon met matte artist Walter Percy Day. Before long, Day offered the young artist a job in film and Peter went on to work on Alexander Korda’s Things to Come, Michael Powell’s A Matter of Life and Death, and Mervyn LeRoy’s Quo Vadis, as well as The Thief of Baghdad, The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, and Spartacus.
Peter first met Walt Disney in 1948, when Walt began production of his first completely live-action motion picture, Treasure Island, in England. Intrigued by Peter’s artistry, Walt personally chose him to recreate scenes of long-ago England on painted backgrounds for the film.
Walt later brought Peter to Hollywood to work on his adaptation of Jules Verne’s classic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea; the film went on to win an Oscar® for best special effects in 1955. Ten years later, Peter won his own Academy Award® for his work on Mary Poppins. As a matte artist, he contributed to such films as Pollyanna and Swiss Family Robinson, and he was also responsible for production design on Johnny Tremain. In addition, Peter contributed to the special photographic effects of Darby O’Gill and the Little People, served as production designer on Island at the Top of the World, and as art director on Bedknobs and Broomsticks. In all, Peter contributed to more than 30 Disney feature films.
A collection of his breathtaking art was published in 1996 as The Garden Within: The Art of Peter Ellenshaw,” which inspired the wildly popular “Winnie the Pooh in the Garden” series of Disney collectibles and merchandise.
Peter Ellenshaw passed away on February 12, 2007, in Santa Barbara, California.