Nadia Benois, mother of actor Peter Ustinov, was one of Russian Imperial Theatre's finest artists who emigrated and made a career as theatre and film set designer and worked with the Royal Ballet in London.
She was born Nadezhda Leontievna Benois on May 17, 1896, in St. Petersburg, Russia. Her father, named Leonti (Louis) Benois, was the owner of the famous Leonardo Da Vinci's painting 'Madonna Benois'; he was of Russian, French and Italian ancestry, and was an architect, who built several landmarks in St. Petersburg. Her mother had Ethiopian Royal ancestry. The large family of Benois lived in a grand mansion near the Imperial Mariinsky Opera House in St. Petersburg, that was built by her architect grandfather Nikolai Benois.
Nadia Benois was brought up in a highly cultural environment in her family mansion near the Opera House. She began her studies in art under her uncle Alexandre Benois, who was the neighbour next door and had an art studio. She graduated from the St. Petersburg Academy of Fine arts and worked for the Imperial Mariinsky Opera House in St. Petersburg. In 1916 she married a Russian-German pilot Iona (Jona) von Ustinov (nicknamed Klop). After the Russian revolution of 1917 she was undecided about emigration, but when she became pregnant in 1920 the couple emigrated to London, England. Her son Peter Ustinov was born in 1921, and she lived in England ever since.
Nadia Benois made a career as a ballet and opera set designer with the "Russian Seasons" produced by the impresario Sergei Diaghilev. From 1930's she collaborated with Marie Rambert and the Rambert Dance company at the Duchess Theatre in London, where she produced her acclaimed design for ballet 'Dark Elegies'. She later worked with the Royal Ballet on productions of ballets by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. She was a costume designer for two films directed by her son Peter Ustinov: 'Vice Versa' (1948) and 'Private Angelo' (1949). She also was a fine artist and participated in many art exhibitions in London and Paris during the 1920's -1930's. Her artworks are now owned by such museums, as the Tate Gallery, the Carnegie Institute, the National Gallery of New Zealand, and other collections worldwide.