New Acquisition from Holden Brothers’ Circus

The Holden Brothers’ Circus, founded in 1892 by Adolphus Holden (1868-1938), was one of the longest running family circus’ in Australia. With thanks to his grandchildren, Francis, Barry and Maree, the Australian Performing Arts Collection is now home to a unique photographic collection capturing a specific moment in the nation’s performing arts history. The comprehensive collection of over 500 photographs, 600 negatives, archival material and a number of important props, provides an intimate insight into the life of a travelling circus in the mid-twentieth century.

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Adolphus Holden with ‘Nancy’ the pony, 1900

As a child Adolphus Holden lost part of his left leg in a railway accident in Melbourne and during his rehabilitation discovered a talent for acrobatics. Showcasing these skills, the circus Adolphus established included the trapeze act The Flying Gordons, featuring himself, his son Ernie and later performer Harry MacKenzie.

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Poster advertising Gordon the Great (Adolphus Holden), c 1900

During the early years, the circus toured extensively during the summer months, returning to Melbourne to perform vaudeville-style acts in theatres during the winter. The circus underwent numerous iterations over its lifetime with various family members continuing the circus.

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Roy (Yank) Condon and Francis Gerald Holden, c 1940
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Kenneth Francis Holden, c 1940

The photographs in this collection, dating from 1900s-90s, document life on the road throughout New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania with five generations of the Holden family.

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Barrie and Maree Holden (foreground), Queenscliff, VIC, 1950
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Francis David Holden (back right) and local children, VIC, 1950
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On the road to Pyramid Hill, VIC, 1950

Francis Gerald Holden (1906-1966) was one of a large number of siblings who joined the their father, Adolphus, in his circus. Francis regularly performed his rope spinning act under the name of Tex Gordon. Following in the family tradition, his family joined him on the road with his children later continuing the family circus until the early 1990s.

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Francis Gerald Holden with his children – Francis David (left), Maree (middle) and Barry (front right) – and his brother Lennie (back right), c 1950
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Francis Herald Holden (back centre) with daughter Maree (front centre) and local children, Werribee, VIC, 1950

Nicole Bowller
Assistant Curator


New Acquisitions from Holden Brothers’ Circus
8 February – 22 April | Hamer Hall, Level 6
Arts Centre Melbourne
FREE

 

Hermia Boyd & Lola Montez

2018 marks the 60th anniversary of the vibrant Australian musical Lola Montez. Our current display in Smorgon Family Plaza, made possible by a recent donation to the Australian Performing Arts Collection, celebrates both the musical and the designer, Hermia Boyd.

Lola Montez was devised by Alan Burke (writer), Peter Stannard (composer) and Peter Benjamin (lyrics) who sought to create a uniquely Australian musical. Set in Ballarat, the story was inspired by the real-life exploits of Lola Montez, the celebrated and notorious courtesan and dancer, who visited the Australian goldfields in 1855-56.

Lola Montez

Lola Montez, born Maria Dolores Eliza Rosanna Gilbert in Ireland in 1821, led a colourful and often scandalous life. After a childhood spent in India, England and France, and a failed married before the age of 20, Montez trained briefly as a dancer in Spain where she assumed her stage name. She then travelled across Europe performing her risqué routines.

After affairs with Franz Liszt and Alexandre Dumas, Montez travelled to Munich (claiming to be of Spanish nobility) and won the heart of King Ludwig I of Bavaria. Rising within the court she exerted great political influence until her identity was exposed, Ludwig abdicated and she fled to Switzerland. Tours of North America, Europe and Australia followed.

Montez’s reputation preceded her in Melbourne, with audiences on the San Francisco goldfields the first to see her provocative ‘Spider Dance’ in the early 1850s. In Australia miners were said to have thrown gold nuggets on stage during her performance, but critical reviews were less favourable. Offended by a negative review published in the Ballarat Times, Montez publicly attacked the editor Henry Seekamp with a horsewhip.

A century later, this story was bought to life by Bourke, Stannard and Benjamin who first staged the musical in Melbourne in 1958. This production by the Union Theatre Repertory Company (now Melbourne Theatre Company) was directed by John Sumner and starred Justine Rettick in the title role, with set and costumes designed by Warwick Armstrong. Impressed by the musical, the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust then backed a commercial season in Sydney and Brisbane. This was directed by George Carden, featured English actress Mary Preston and was re-designed by Hermia Boyd.

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Hermia Boyd – designing an Australian gold rush musical

Hermia Boyd (née Lloyd-Jones) was born in Sydney where she studied sculpture at East Sydney Technical College. During her studies she began working for Guy Boyd, a member of the artistic Boyd family, decorating his pottery. It was here she met Guy’s brother David whom she married in 1948. The couple travelled widely, spending extended periods of time living in both Australia and Europe where they set up their own pottery studios in Sydney, London and southern France. During this time Hermia frequently exhibited and worked across various mediums including ceramics, printmaking, painting and sculpture.

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In 1958, after Hermia, David and their family returned to Sydney, the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust employed Hermia as the designer for Lola Montez. Continuing the long tradition of artists designing for the stage she conceived both the sets and costumes for the musical. Her attention to detail and artistry invested the production with what critics described as a ‘picturesque grandeur’ that captured ‘the spirit of the place and the time’.


Although the musical received mixed reviews, the soundtrack was a success when it was released on record with the single ‘Saturday Girl’, featuring Michael Cole and Jane Martin, becoming a Top 40 hit.

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Decades later, there is renewed interest in the musical. A revival is currently in development with a collaboration between the original composer Peter Stannard (now 86) and The Follies Company. The gala performance for this production opens at Parramatta Riverside Theatres on 2 June 2018.

Nicole Bowller
Assistant Curator


Hermia Boyd & Lola Montez: Designing an Australian gold rush musical
20 January – 25 February | Smorgon Family Plaza
Arts Centre Melbourne
FREE

Creating the State Theatre Stage Drop Curtain

Graham Bennett, Paul Kathner, Ross Turner, Kevin Pierce and Peter Petit painting the State Theatre curtain at Scenic Studios, Melbourne, 1984, Victorian Arts Centre Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

One items in our collection about which the Research Centre has received multiple enquiries this year is the Drop Curtain on the State Theatre stage.  I’m sure not many people realise that the curtain itself is an official museum object, catalogued into the Australian Performing Arts Collection!  Actually, it’s quite possibly the hardest working object we have, as it is never in storage and always takes pride of place, working nightly on stage.

Early design ideas for the curtain included using a method of embroidery and applique, (think Bayeux Tapestry) or even hand-weaving the entire curtain into a giant actual tapestry! As an artwork it would have been majestic indeed but may have dated over time. The medium of tapestry also was not going to work as a stage curtain which needs to be heavy for the correct drape but also requires the flexibility to fold and move quickly, easily and repeatedly.
John Truscott commissioned Graham Bennett to design the curtain in 1984. Bennett also designed and painted the beautiful celling of the Vic Restaurant. Next time you are in there, look up and admire his work.

The Design
Graham Bennett’s design features a representation of a lyrebird’s fanned tail as the centrepiece where the two halves of the curtain meet. A clustered spray of native flora comprising fern leaves, gum leaves and wattle flowers are painted on the far right and left lower sides; an exact mirror image of each other.  Above each of these, a smaller Victorian Coat of Arms is presented, on each top corner of the curtain.  In this insignia the female figures of Peace and Prosperity stand either side of the Southern Cross and a Kangaroo holding a crown.  The figure of Peace on the left, holds an olive branch and Prosperity on the right, has a cornucopia by her side.  They stand on a grassy mount with the State motto ‘Peace and Prosperity’ at the base of the figures. Depicting the Coat of Arms at a smaller size emphasises height of the curtain and allows the native flora and fauna motifs to dominate the eye.  Four ribbons draw all the elements of the curtain together. They hang vertically from the crests at each side and are laced through the bouquets.  Large golden curls of ribbon then work their way along the bottom section of the curtain becoming entwined in the lyrebird motif.

Painting the enormous curtain, Victorian Arts Centre Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

The Creation
The finished curtain is made of dense red upholstery velvet from Windsor Fabrics.  There was much interest in the curtain when our social media page posted some information on it and everyone asked “How did they get it looking so glimmery?”  In fact the surface was painted in multiple layers of “impasto”, a technique whereby the brushstrokes are thick and visible. Each layer was dried before adding the next, so that the result is a thick buildup of shimmering paint that glistens under the spotlights. The other secret about the paint itself is that there is gold leaf mixed through it.  When lit, the light bounces off the colour of the paint and the metallic gold particles, bringing out all the more brilliance to the piece.

The curtain cost $90,000 and was the gift of the then State Bank of Victoria. It took three months to create at Scenic Studios and the team who worked on it included Graham Bennett, Paul Kathner, Ross Turner, Kevin Pierce and Peter Petit.

By Claudia Funder, Collections Coordinator, Research Centre

The Arrival – behind the Scenes in the Performing Arts Collection

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The Australian Performing Arts Collection recently received an exciting new acquisition of costumes from Opera Australia. This acquisition included 44 costumes from the past 60 years of Opera Australia’s history, and were worn by some of Australia’s most renowned opera singers including Emma Matthews, Cheryl Barker, Anthony Warlow, Robert Gard and many others. The acquisition included almost 200 individual parts including dresses, pants, vests, shirts, crinoline, armour, hats, wigs and accessories.

The costumes began their journey at Opera Australia’s headquarters in Sydney, and traveled to Melbourne in a specially fitted costume truck with our courier, International Arts Services, in partnership with Garde Robe.

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Australian Performing Arts Collection and International Art Services staff unloading costumes from the Opera Australia acquisition, June 2017
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Australian Performing Arts Collection and International Art Services staff unloading costumes from the Opera Australia acquisition, June 2017

On delivery day in Melbourne, members of our Collections team were on hand to carefully unload the costumes for sorting. Each item was labeled and a condition report completed to help us better understand and care for the object appropriately. Capturing this information on arrival provides a valuable reference point to monitor any changes that occur to the materials over time.

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Sorting, sorting, sorting.
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In order to keep track of almost 200 items, all the new arrivals were checked off our inventory list and labelled

In addition, each item was photographed in our in-house studio, with the photographs used for internal reference only and added to the object catalogue record in EMU (our collection management database) for tracking purposes.

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Photographing the costume worn by David Hibbard as Pietro Fleville in Andrea Chenier, 2001/2, Opera Australia

Once the photography was complete, the costumes entered quarantine. All new arrivals must undergo quarantine before entering the collection to kill any pests that might have made their homes within the garments. This is particularly important for objects that may have been in storage for extended periods, as was the case here. The first step is to deprive insects of oxygen, this is achieved by placing the items in airtight plastic storage for several weeks. Once this phase is complete, additional freezer treatment will be undertaken to kill stubborn pests. Pests pose a huge risk to organic based cultural material as many love to feast on fabric and paper, and could potentially cause carnage if they managed to enter the collection undetected.

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Costumes from Opera Australia in quarantine storage

After the quarantine period, the costumes can finally enter the collection. At this point the registration team fully catalogue, rehouse (using archival grade boxes and padded hangers), and professionally photograph each item for online publication. Each item is given an individual identification number so it can be easily located and tracked for use in exhibitions and research.

A selection of our new Opera Australia costumes will be on display in the Smorgon Family Plaza at Arts Centre Melbourne (near the box office) from 14 October 2017.

 

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From left: Margot Anderson, Curator of Dance & Opera, Fiona Wilson, Collections Coordinator, Elyse White, Collections Operations & Logistics Registrar, Jean Chen, Assistant Registrar, Collections and Nicole Bowller, Assistant Curator (not pictured) June 2017

 

 

 

 

Open House 2017

Quietly tucked away, beneath the lawn at Arts Centre Melbourne, hidden below Inge King’s iconic Forward Surge (colloquially known as ‘The Wave’) is the home of Australia’s performing arts history.

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Inge King, Forward Surge, 1976, 50mm mild steel 
Commissioned in 1975, William Angliss Art Fund
Public Art Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

Established in 1975, the Australian Performing Arts Collection is formally recognised as a state collection but has a national focus encompassing the history of the performing arts in Australia across dance, music, opera, theatre, circus, comedy, puppetry and magic. The collection currently holds over 650,000 objects including costumes, set models, stage designs, props and puppets, photographs, posters, programs, and the archives of some of Australia’s most significant performers, companies and designers.

It is not often we get to open our doors to the public, but once a year during Open House Melbourne we get to do just that. During twelve tours over two days, we brought over 100 people through on a whirlwind, showstopping tour of the Australian Performing Arts Collection. So much to see and so little time!

This year the highlights included:

  • Dame Nellie Melba’s costume from La Traviata
  • Kylie Minogue’s gold hot pants worn in the ‘Spinning Around’ music video
  • Geoffrey Rush’s costume worn in Diary of a Madman
  • A handwritten notebook  by Nick Cave
  • Wirth’s Circus scrapbook documenting the early history of Australian circus
  • Costumes from Dame Edna’s stage wardrobe
  • Peter Allen’s maracas
  • MTC’s set model for Summer of the Seventeenth Doll 
  • Leather jacket worn by Bon Scott of AC/DC
  • Designs from Australia’s leading stage designers including Ann Church, Jennie Tate, Mel Drummond and Roger Kirk.
  • Not to mention clown shoes, ballet shoes, magic tricks, puppets and much much more!
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Notebook compiled by Nick Cave, 1984-1985, Gift of Nick Cave, 2006, Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne
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Hot pants worn by Kylie Minogue in Spinning Around video, 2000, Gift of Kylie Minogue, Cultural Gifts Program, 2004, Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne
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Set model for Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, Melbourne Theatre Company, 1995, Gift of the Melbourne Theatre Company, 1995, Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne
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Maracas purchased by Peter Allen in Rio de Janeiro, 1977, Gift of Larry Rinehart, 2009, Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

Thank you to everyone who attended! We absolutely love showing you around and hope to get to share more of Australia’s performing arts history with you. We think this collection deserves a permanent gallery of it’s very own. What do you think? Tell us in the comments below!

In anticipation of the circus

Posters have always played a crucial role in the promotion of travelling circuses. High Hopes: in anticipation of the circus celebrates the recent donation of the Vern Ellis Collection, consisting of over 40 circus posters, to Arts Centre Melbourne’s Australian Performing Arts Collection and provides an insight into the rich history of circus in Australia.

Dating from the 1920s to 1960s, these posters (also known as bills) were part of pervasive campaigns that announced the imminent arrival of each circus. Advance agents employed by the circus were sent out several weeks ahead of the company to paste posters in prominent locations across towns: on walls, billboards, shop windows and telegraph poles.

Gwen Chaplin and Olive Ellis promoting Wirth’s Circus, Brisbane, 1940s
Gift of Mrs. Barbara St. Leon, 2015
Arts Centre Melbourne, Australian Performing Arts Collection

During World War II when men were unavailable, Wirth’s Circus employed women to post bills in major cities. Wearing crisp white uniforms, they created a sense of excitement and additional publicity for the circus.

A well-designed poster differentiated a circus from its competitors and enticed potential visitors to attend. By the mid-twentieth century Australian circus posters had evolved from heavily text-based designs to more elaborate graphic imagery. Bold, eye-catching and colourful, these posters offered a glimpse into the circus tent, inviting audiences into a world of breathtaking skill and spectacle. Borrowing from the American circus poster and comic book traditions, posters often depicted complex narratives with aerial views of large performances contrasted with feature acts in close detail.

L-R: Poster for Perry Bros Huge Circus and Zoo, c.1920s–1930s; Poster for Perry Bros Huge Circus and Zoo, Wellington, 1929; Poster for Holden Bros Combined Comedy Stage Show, 1930s; Poster for Bullen Bros Circus, Townsville, 1961
Vern Ellis Collection, 2017
Arts Centre Melbourne, Australian Performing Arts Collection

Early posters made use of bold text to differentiate each circus from its competitors. As the number of circuses increased, and international companies toured Australia, further distinction was required to set each circus apart. Imagery became more elaborate as printing technology improved, while the claims on posters grew wilder in an attempt to draw larger crowds using phrases such as ‘death defying, danger deriding’, ‘the greatest’ and ‘the only big responsible show coming this season’. The location and date of performances provided the specifics of the event but were less prominent. This information was often handwritten, printed or attached to posters at each town, allowing a generic poster to be used for an entire tour.

High Hopes: in anticipation of the circus is on display from 29 June – 15 August, 2017 in the Smorgon Family Plaza, Theatres Building, Arts Centre Melbourne.

Nicole Bowller
Assistant Curator