The Art of Ann and John Bloomfield

Coinciding with an exciting new exhibition opening at BFI Southbank, BFI are delighted to announce that Ann and John Bloomfield, one of Britain’s most successful costume design partnerships, have generously gifted their collection of original designs in its entirety to the BFI National Archive.

The pair’s sumptuously, lavishly detailed costume designs were recently featured on the Antiques Roadshow BBC100 special, with John Bloomfield talking to expert Lisa Lloyd about their work on the ground-breaking BBC drama series The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970) in the shadow of Alexandra Palace.

To celebrate the donation of The Ann and John Bloomfield Collection and in recognition of the pair’s influence on and incredible contribution to the art of costume design, the current BFI Southbank Mezzanine Gallery exhibition, Costume Design: the Alchemy of Ann and John Bloomfield, runs through to 15 January 2023. Staged in consultation with the Bloomfields, the exhibition reveals the story of their long and fruitful creative partnership, bringing together design drawings as well as original costumes and accessories from their 40 year career. The display showcases some of their best known work including The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970, BBC), Doctor Who (1977, BBC) and the original Poldark series (1975-76, BBC) through to big budget blockbuster films such as Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) and The Mummy (1999).

The Ann and John Bloomfield Collection of original drawings donated by Ann and John are exquisite, but it is the transformation of everyday items that marks out their process as extraordinary. They bend materials to the will of an industrious imagination. Drawings are beautifully rendered and collaged from the pages of Sunday newspapers and magazines. The accompanying exhibition will showcase over 70 of these drawings and photographs, alongside a number of key loans: jewellery assembled from glass beads, and sumptuous period costumes created through the innovative reuse of household materials such as upholstery fabric, piped glue, washers and everyday hardware. Their collection is an astonishing insight into their labour and creative inventiveness, capturing a key moment within the history of British design for film and television.

Claire Smith, Special Collections Senior Curator, BFI National Archive said, “We are incredibly grateful to the Bloomfields for their generous donation to the BFI National Archive, and that these unique drawings – each a standalone work of art in its own right – will be available for future generations to study and enjoy. They give a real insight into Ann and John Bloomfield’s creative process, and will provide a great platform for new research and understanding into this incredibly exciting field. Our accompanying exhibition is an opportunity to celebrate Ann and John Bloomfield as central figures in British costume design; to explore their roots in television and their subsequent global reach; and to ask what influence they may have had on contemporary practice. We always value the opportunity to work closely with donors such as Ann and John, and hope that audiences will enjoy getting to know their work in detail as much as we have.”

Ann and John Bloomfield’s screen careers began in 1962, at the dawn of colour television in the UK. Global recognition came early, thanks to their work on The Six Wives of Henry VIII (BBC, 1970), the phenomenally popular, groundbreaking series that helped to establish the BBC as the decade’s pre-eminent producer of costume drama. This was in no small part down to the sumptuous period detailing that Ann and John built into every ensemble. Many of the original drawings use old magazine paper and photocopy with tissue paper, giving a three dimensional feel that is difficult to achieve in a painted medium alone. Together, these drawings distil the qualities of the character through line and paper, giving us a first glimpse of their look and feel.

Thanks to the Bloomfield’s ingenuity and artisanal skills, to the camera, these are colourfully rich, regal Tudor garments and bejewelled accessories, but on closer scrutiny, the Bloomfield sketches and costumes unlock the secrets to their creation, emerging from painted and bleached fabrics, as well as a selection of everyday haberdashery and household items to bring the lives and loves of the Tudor Court to life. Such was the interest in the costumes that they went on exhibition at the V&A Museum, London, before touring the world.

While Ann is credited on many of John’s films, her full contribution is less well known. Ann Beverley and John Bloomfield first met at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in 1961. John was working part time at the theatre whilst studying Law at the University of Birmingham. Ann had been awarded a one year Bursary from the Arts Council to work as the theatre’s Assistant Designer and Scenic Artist, having completed her training at Wimbledon School of Art and The Bristol Old Vic. John soon realized that he wanted to work in Design, rather than Law, and luckily had Ann to lead him through the early stages. Cutting their professional teeth in the world of theatre design, they moved into television during one of its most expansive and creative periods. Ann’s first TV role was at Television Wales and the West (T.W.W) in 1962.

As they married and had a young family (daughter Sarah in 1964, and son Daniel in 1970), John secured a permanent position as a Costume Designer at the BBC. Ann did not take up freelance work for the BBC until 1974, but throughout this early period, she was still very much involved in John’s process: helping with drawings and offering advice. Ann’s design work included the TV opera, Gianna Schicchi (1976). Ann also became a part-time tutor at Wimbledon School of Art, where she ultimately went on to train generations of young designers, who followed in their footsteps. This included Howard Burden, one of the costume designers on the BBC’s recent revival of Poldark (2015 – 17).

Ann and John Bloomfield went on to work together on a number of high-profile global film productions, including Conan the Barbarian (1982), Conan The Destroyer (1984), Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), Waterworld (1995), The Mummy (1999), The Mummy Returns (2001) and A Good Woman (2004). Despite increasingly large budgets their process remained intricate, personal and rooted in their early training, nearly always starting with the sketch.

Costume Design: the Alchemy of Ann and John Bloomfield exhibition runs at BFI Southbank from 30 September 2022 – 15 January 2023.