FAMSF Portraits Featured in Set for San Francisco Opera

Recently, our photo services and imaging department responded to a rather unusual request from San Francisco Opera set designer Naomie Kremer. Kremer, who was designing a video set for an operatic adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic The Secret Garden (premiering on March 1, 2013) asked if she could incorporate portraits from the Museums’ permanent collection into her design. As today’s guest blogger, Kremer takes us on an incredible journey into The Secret Garden, giving us a sneak peek into the fantastical world she created.

Kremer Image

Image by Naomie Kremer

The Secret Garden is a well-loved children’s story familiar to many generations. I’ve discovered that for many people, it is an iconic story that strikes a deep chord and seems to stay in their subconscious long after its last reading.

The story starts in India, around the year 1900. Mary is a neglected, unwanted child of a fun-loving English couple living it up in the days of the British Raj. Her personality, point of view, and slightly surreal sense of life seem to be deeply affected by being British in India.

India home

Mary’s home in India

A cholera epidemic strikes, and in true fairy-tale fashion the wicked are struck down. Mary is orphaned and sent to Yorkshire to live with her uncle Archibald Craven.


Mary travels by train through the Yorkshire Moors

Craven, described as “crooked,” has been broken by the death of his beloved wife, Lilias, who died giving birth to their only child, 10-year-old Colin. In a miasma of grief and misdirected love, Craven has managed both to ignore and overprotect his son, convincing him that he is a cripple who must be confined to bed as an invalid.

Colin, the saddest character in the story, is a child who hasn’t yet lived. He’s bad-tempered, he doesn’t connect with anyone, and his father travels all the time to avoid being reminded of his dead wife. Colin’s isolation is total. Perhaps because she identifies with his loneliness, isolation, and willfulness, Mary breaks through her cousin’s angry shell. In the process, she learns how to be herself, to be in the world, and to give and receive love.

Mary’s new home, Misselthwaite Manor, is ruled by secrets. Her first night in the mansion, Mary hears moaning and crying, but she’s cautioned not to investigate their origins, a warning she ultimately ignores.


Important scenes take place in the hallways of Misselthwaite Manor, and in a way, they represent the connective tissue between the story’s characters. Since Mary dares to go where she’s been forbidden, dramas, both real and psychological, ensue.


Mary hears moaning sounds and sets out to find their source. Set features Portrait of John Tait of Harvieston by Sir Henry Raeburn


Sir Henry Raeburn (Scottish, 1756–1823). John Tait of Harvieston, 1800. Oil on canvas. Gift of Richard B. Gump. 59.50

When Mary hears the moaning sounds again, this time, perhaps due to her newly found self-confidence, she’s determined to follow the sound to its source. This scene irresistibly conjures up a dark hallway with flickering shadows and looming portraits.

Looming portraits

Deciding to follow the source of the frightening sounds, Mary ventures into the hallway, which scrolls by as she walks. Set features portraits of William Turner by Sir Joshua Reynolds and Samuel Kilderbee of Ipswich by Thomas Gainsborough


Left: Sir Joshua Reynolds (English, 1723–1792). The Reverend William Turner, 18th century. Oil on canvas. Museum purchase, Mildred Anna Williams Collection. 1952.74. Right: Thomas Gainsborough, British, 1727–1788. Samuel Kilderbee, ca. 1757. Oil on canvas. Museum purchase, M.H. de Young Endowment Fund. 54479

Including the Fine Arts Museums’ portraits is a perfect way to hint at Mary’s venerable family made up of generations of proud landowners and beautiful women. I recast William Merritt Chase’s Portrait of Miss D. as a portrait of Lilias, which dominates Craven’s study.

Craven study

Mary in Craven’s study where she assumes that William Merritt Chase’s Portrait of Miss D., ca. 1900, depicts Lillas

Miss D.

William Merritt Chase (American, 1849–1916). Portrait of Miss D., ca. 1900. Oil on canvas. Foundation Gift of George R. Roberts in memory of Leanne B. Roberts. 2005.67

My research into this story is in part true to my own lived experience. In young adulthood, I spent five months living in India, and then three years in England. This spring, I videotaped in Yorkshire, with its eccentric gardens (secret or not), grand manors, and exotically rugged moors.

Making this video set, I knit together a fabric to support the action of this opera. The play between reality and fantasy, realism and surrealism, is fluid and wide open. My goal is to stretch reality but not so much that the fabric tears.

Enter Naomie Kremer’s surrealist world in The Secret Garden from March 1–10, 2013 at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall.

For more information, please visit San Francisco Opera.