The Coburn Tapestries at the Sydney Opera House

A brief history of John Coburn's masterpieces.

By Sydney Opera House

The Coburn Tapestries at the Sydney Opera House

Curtain of the Sun (1973) by Max Dupain, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South WalesSydney Opera House

The Curtain of the Sun in the Opera Theatre, now known as the Joan Sutherland Theatre, at the opening of the Sydney Opera House in October 1973.

Curtain of the Moon (1973) by Max Dupain, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South WalesSydney Opera House

The Curtain of the Moon in the Drama Theatre in October 1973.

The official opening of the Sydney Opera House on 20 October 1973 (1973) by Max Dupain, State Library of New South WalesSydney Opera House

The colours of anticipation

When the Sydney Opera House opened to the public on 20 October 1973, about eight years had passed since the original architect, Jørn Utzon had withdrawn from the project, following a serious disagreement with the Minister for Public Works, Davis Hughes. In Utzon’s wake, Hall, Todd and Littlemore – a consortium of three Australian architects – was engaged to finish the third and final stage of the building, including its interior spaces and the glass walls that would enclose them. One aspect of the building that had been so important to Utzon was the use of colour in the experience of visiting the Opera House. “The idea was to see a spectacular building as you arrive and as you enter the foyers you see additional colours... As you enter the Minor or Major hall this explodes into a very rich expression of colours, which uplift you in that festive mood, away from daily life, that you expect when you go to the theatre, a play, an opera or a concert.” Whilst Utzon was unable to realise all of his ideas, the spirit of his intentions in the use of colour was captured in Peter Hall’s theatre interiors. This included John Coburn’s majestic tapestries the Curtain of the Sun and the Curtain of the Moon, the original house curtains of the Opera Theatre (now the Joan Sutherland Theatre) and the Drama Theatre, respectively.

John Coburn in Paris, Coburn Family Archives, 1970, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House
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Coburn was already one of Australia’s best-known modern artists when he was commissioned to design theatre curtains in 1969.

Peter Hall at work on a model of the Sydney Opera House, R.L. Stewart/Fairfax Syndication, 1968, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House
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At the time, Australian architect Peter Hall was immersed in designing the Opera House’s interiors.

Hall was striving to find a balance between his interpretation of Utzon’s designs, changes in requirements for the building, and his own design aesthetic.

The Coburn family residence outside Paris, Coburn Family Archives, 1970, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House
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Coburn’s abstract style was well-established in its application of simple, clear shapes and radiant colours, and the artist had amassed international recognition through his paintings, prints and tapestries.

When it was suggested to Peter Hall that Coburn could design two tapestries as curtains for the opera and drama theatres, Peter Hall readily agreed.

Installation of the Major Hall stage machinery (1965) by Max DupainSydney Opera House

John Coburn describes his first reaction to seeing the context for the Curtain of the Sun.
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“Looking up at the huge shells of roof, and in the opera theatre, looking down at the proscenium arch, I was very excited about the whole thing. I could just see it and I couldn’t wait to get home to put my ideas down on paper. I designed the two curtains that night, really.”
John Coburn.

Curtain of the Sun, Sydney Opera House, John Coburn, 1973, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House
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Curtain of the Moon, Design for Tapestry Curtain, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, John Coburn, 1970, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House
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Aubusson Tapestry (1946-07) by David E SchermanLIFE Photo Collection

A centuries old craft

Coburn travelled to France to oversee creation of the tapestries by Pinton Frères, the renowned weavers of Aubusson and Felletin. Weaving had been practiced since the fourteenth century in the region, and after World War II the works of artists such as Le Corbusier, Cocteau, Dali, Calder and Picasso had been realised by the talented generations of craftspeople. 

Weaving the Curtain of the Sun, Coburn Family Archives, 1970, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House
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One of the looms used to weave the Curtain of the Sun and the Curtain of the Moon, Coburn Family Archives, 1970, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House
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John Coburn describes the weavers' craft in Felletin, 1970, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House
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Aubusson Tapestry, David E Scherman, 1946-07, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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John Coburn and Davis Hughes stand in front of the Curtain of the Sun (1972) by Coburn Family ArchivesSydney Opera House

The return to Sydney

In 1971, the finished tapestries were shipped to Hamburg to be made into functioning stage curtains, and they arrived in Australia in 1972 where they were hung temporarily in the Opera House Recording Studio. In a media statement, Davis Hughes, Minister for Public Works heralded them an “artistic triumph”. Fifteen months later, at the opening of the Opera House, their sheer size, vibrant colours and striking abstract imagery were an undeniable focus of attention.

Preview hanging of the Curtain of the Moon (1972) by Coburn Family ArchivesSydney Opera House

Members of the public view John Coburn's Curtain of the Sun on the occasion of his death in 2006 (2006) by Sydney Opera HouseSydney Opera House

Shortly after the opening, the Curtain of the Moon was moved into storage and it was not long before the Curtain of the Sun followed.

This was in part a response to the artistic requirements of performances, as well as the damage caused to the tapestries in the live theatre environments.

Concern for their conservation has kept them out of the public eye, except for rare occasions such as in 2006 to mark John Coburn’s death.

Conservation of the Curtain of the Sun and the Curtain of the Moon (2017) by Sydney Opera HouseSydney Opera House

Conservation and heritage

The tapestries are comprised of a lattice of both warp and weft threads. The warp is made of cotton and runs vertically remaining invisible behind the horizontal weft, which is wool and holds the pattern and colour.

Prior to being woven, the warp for both tapestries was sent to Germany to be fire proofed. Once the tapestries arrived back in Sydney they were again treated with a fire retardant. A 1990s conservation assessment identified that the fire retardants had caused deterioration of the tapestries and there was significant weakening of the threads. Other damage was also observed at this time, including a tear and burn marks from being in a live theatre environment.

In the 1990s the Victorian Tapestry Workshop undertook extensive restoration works on both tapestries.

Detail of the Curtain of the Moon being cleaned (2017) by Sydney Opera HouseSydney Opera House

A further condition assessment and cleaning were undertaken in 2017 by International Conservation Services, which found that the prior conservation work had left the tapestries in excellent condition, nearly half a century after their creation.

Restoring the Curtain of the Sun, Sydney Opera House, 2017, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House
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Conserving the Curtain of the Sun, Sydney Opera House, 2017, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House
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One night a month after opening (1973) by Max Dupain, State Library of New South WalesSydney Opera House

Elements of a rare and wonderful heritage

John Coburn's son Stephen recalled in 2018 that his father regarded the Curtain of the Sun and the Curtain of the Moon as his “greatest art works”, and their cultural and artistic significance remains beyond doubt. Today the tapestries stand as exceptional examples of Coburn’s abstract modern style and the weavers’ craft, and as a reminder of Jørn Utzon's intent for the bold use of colour in the theatres, realised by Peter Hall. As such they endure as vital and wonderful elements of the Opera House’s history and heritage.

Credits: Story

Curated by Sam Doust and the Sydney Opera House Coburn Tapestries Exhibition team. Research undertaken by Dr. Anne Watson on behalf of the Sydney Opera House.

With thanks and acknowledgements to the Coburn Family Archives, the Sydney Opera House collection, Mitchell Library State Library of New South Wales, and the Hall Family Archives.

The Australian Government has kindly provided funding support for the exhibition through its Protecting National Historic Sites Program.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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