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

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

Bold and Beautiful: The Creative Vision of Ann Church

A new acquisition capturing the creative vision of Melbourne born designer Ann Church joins Arts Centre Melbourne’s Performing Arts Collection. In a career spanning the late 1940s to the early 1970s, Church designed the set and costumes for companies such as the National Theatre Ballet, Victorian Ballet Guild, The Australian Ballet and the West Australian Ballet. This new acquisition  features set and costume designs, notebooks, photographs and newspaper clippings that provide a valuable insight into our early dance repertoire.

Set design by Ann Church for Les Belles Creoles, National Theatre Ballet, 1949 Gift of the Estate of Ann Church, 2017. Arts Centre Melbourne, Performing Arts Collection. Reproduced courtesy of Mrs Collins.

There are vibrantly coloured set and costume designs for one of Ann Church’s earliest commissions for the stage, Les Belles Creoles. Presented by the National Theatre Ballet in 1949, this production was choreographed by Australian dancer Rex Reid and was the first of many ballets on which they collaborated.

Church continued to design for the National Theatre Ballet’s following seasons.  A selection of costume designs from Margaret Scott’s production of Peter and the Wolf (1950) and the full-length version of Swan Lake (1951) are also represented and show the designers bold use of colour. They capture a sense of movement that makes her designs so in tune with the needs of dance.

Notebooks compiled by Ann Church during the 1950s and 1960s. Gift of the Estate of Ann Church, 2017, Arts Centre Melbourne, Performing Arts Collection. Reproduced courtesy of Mrs Collins.

Notebooks containing fabric samples and working drawings provide a rare glimpse into the creative process Church followed when developing new designs. In some we see whimsical ideas for future  ballets, while other pages tackle the practicalities of fabric selection, measurements and garment construction.

Set design by Ann Church for Melbourne Cup, The Australian Ballet, 1962. Gift of the Estate of Ann Church, 2017 Arts Centre Melbourne, Performing Arts Collection. Reproduced courtesy of Mrs Collins.

The costumes designed by Ann Church for the production of Melbourne Cup were donated by The Australian Ballet in 1998, as treasured pieces from the company’s inaugural season of 1962. This recent acquisition provides further representation of Melbourne Cup through a selection of set designs that formed the backdrop to these costumes. Based on the very first running of the famous horse race in 1861, Melbourne Cup presented a number of challenges for the designer. One of these was to capture the historic setting of the event on stage. A carefully compiled scrapbook of newspaper clippings and articles reveals the depth of research she conducted to recreate this spectacle. The scrapbook also includes photographs that capture the magical journey from page to stage.

Margot Anderson
Curator (Dance and Opera)

 

 

AN INTERACTION BETWEEN MUSIC AND PAINTING

This year Arts Centre Melbourne celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of the creative collaboration between abstract painter John Peart (1945 – 2013) and composer Nigel Butterley (b. 1935). In 1967 the pair took to the stage of the Sydney Town Hall, along with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, to present the collaborative performance Interaction as part of the Last Night of the Proms.

Peart and Butterley conceived the performance as a creative interaction between music and painting, a live ‘happening’ where each could act in response to the other. Prior to the event, Butterley, a pianist and an established composer, wrote a work of five movements, each more energetic than the last. On the evening of the performance Butterley was seated at the piano and divided the orchestra into five sections. This allowed him to direct the various sections of the orchestra to come in and out, responding to Peart’s evolving painting.

Peart, who was only 22 at the time, was establishing a name for himself as an innovative abstract painter. During the performance he worked on the stage above the orchestra, with long-handled paint rollers on a large canvas stretched before the audience. For each of the five movements Peart painted with a different colour, the intensity of which increased as the performance unfolded; the palest used during the first, gentle movement and the darkest during the final, most vigorous movement.

The performance is fondly recalled by Peart’s close friends and directors of Watters Gallery, Geoffrey Legge and Frank Watters, who looked on with “amazed admiration at the way the vast painting came into marvellous and inevitable being as Peart proceeded”. They remarked that “he couldn’t step back and survey the work as it developed, he just flowed with the music. His application of black during the final exciting movement made it hard not to believe he was under the spell of an out-of-body intelligence so inspired did each new mark seem”.

Interaction, 1967, a recent donation to Arts Centre Melbourne’s Art Collection, was a preparatory study created during rehearsals. Although smaller in scale, Peart’s lyrical and direct brushstrokes capture the rhythm and movement of the improvisation on canvas. Produced at the beginning of Peart’s career, the work also signalled his lifelong commitment to an exploration of abstraction and experimentation. The addition of this artwork to the Art Collection enriches the historical interpretation of our Foundation Collection, particularly in the artistic connections with Peart’s abstract contemporaries, Yvonne Audette, Roger Kemp and Donald Laycock.

An Interaction between Music and Painting is currently on display in the Smorgon Family Plaza (May 20 – June 25), featuring Interaction, 1967, alongside the award-winning film, Interaction – music and painting, 1967 (directed by Gil Brealey, reproduced by permission of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation – Library Sales © 1969 ABC TV). This film, produced in the same year as the performance, captures the essence of the creative partnership between composer and painter.

Nicole Bowller
Assistant Curator