The son of actors, William Chappell was born in Wolverhampton on 20 September 1907. His parents separated and his mother, Edith Blair-Staples, moved the family to Balham, South London c.1913, and became a fashion journalist. Chappell went to Chelsea Polytechnic at the age of fourteen (1921); he met Edward Burra, with whom he was united by their exceptional youth, and fellow students Barbara Ker-Seymer and Clover Pritchard (later de Pertinez), who remained life-long friends. Chappell and Burra visited Paris (1925), Marseilles and Toulon (1927, 1928 and 1931). Through Burra, the Royal College students Irene Hodkins, Basil Taylor and Lucy Norton joined their artistic circle, with whom they shared a fascination for cinema and all forms of popular entertainment. Chappell's portrait was painted by Burra, John Banting and Cedric Morris.
On leaving college in 1924, Chappell became committed to dance. He performed in cabarets with Mildred 'Bonzo' Challenger, but was given a crash course in classical ballet by Marie Rambert, whom he knew through Frederick Ashton. Despite this late start he was to create a number of important roles. Chappell and Ashton toured Europe with Ida Rubenstein's company (1928-9) under the direction of Massine and Nijinska. Throughout the 1930s, Chappell appeared in ballets produced by Rambert and Ninette de Valois's Vic-Wells company at Sadler's Wells (from 1934); he created the title role in Ashton's The Lord of Burleigh. He simultaneously began to make designs for the stage which established his reputation; among his earliest were schemes for de Valois' Wise and Foolish Virgins and Ashton's Les Rendezvous (both 1933, Sadler's Wells), Capriol Suite (1935, Duke of York's) and Les Patineurs (1937, Sadler's Wells).
After army service in the war (entertaining the troops, 1939-45), Chappell returned to work on designs for ballet. These included Coppelia and Les Patineurs for Covent Garden (both 1946) and Swan Lake at the Coliseum (1947). He was particularly active with both companies in 1950-1 but found time to write Studies in Ballet (London 1948) and Fonteyn: Impressions of a Ballerina (London 1951), before branching into musical Revues - such as The Globe Revue (1953, Globe Theatre) - and West End musical comedies where he seized the opportunity to direct and produce. He was assistant director to Orson Welles on Moby Dick (1955, Duke of York's), later working with him on the film of The Trial (1962). In the 1960s, Chappell produced and wrote the libretto for Violins of St Jacques (1966, Sadler's Wells), taught at the Opera centre and painted cat portraits much admired by his friends. His theatrical productions were again numerous in the 1970s, including directing and designing Purcell's Fairy Queen (London Opera Centre, 1974) and The Marriage of Figaro (Sadler's Wells, 1974). In the 1980s, Chappell edited two collections relating to his friendship with Burra and embarked on his own memoirs. He died in Rye on 1 January 1994.
William Chappell (ed.), Edward Burra: A Painter Remembered by his Friends, London 1982
William Chappell (ed.), Well Dearie - the Letters of Edward Burra, London 1985
'Artists' Lives', Taped interviews with Cathy Courtney and Caroline Cuthbert, National Life Story Collection, British Library National Sound Archive, 1991-3
William Chappell (27 September 1907 – 1 January 1994) was a British dancer, ballet designer and director. He is most noted for his designs for more than 40 ballets or revues, including many of the early works of Sir Frederick Ashton and Dame Ninette de Valois.