Perfect Portraits

One of the treasures in the Performing Arts Collection is a album containing 160 carte de visite photographs of Australian performers from the 1860s and 1870s. A carte de visite is a small photograph, usually a portrait, presented on a piece of card 6.5 cm x 10cm. The size of carte de visites made them an economical and extremely popular format as they could be easily shared and mailed to friends and family.

The beautiful photograph above is of one of the Wiseman sisters, most likely Fanny Wiseman (1846-1933), an actress who performed on the Australian stage for over four decades in pantomime and melodrama. Her theatrical family included sisters Emily (1844-1881), Alice (1850-1940) and Laura (1857-1943).

Laura Wiseman 1992.079.001-136. Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.
Emily Wiseman 1992.079.001-133. Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.

These photographs show an exquisite level of detail, capturing the intricate costume decorations and elaborate hairstyles of the actresses. Their photographer achieved such perfection by using a headrest; a metal frame that prevented the sitter from moving and blurring the photograph. The base of the headrest has been carefully hidden beneath draped fabric, but is visible in Fanny and Laura’s portraits.

Not all photographers during the period used headrests. This lively photograph of Benhamo and Zebrediah of Burton’s Circus (1877) gives some idea of the extraordinary balance and strength of circus performers who could remain still during the long exposure time.

Brothers Benhamo (William Benham) and Zebrediah (Zebediah Benham), 1877. 1992.079.001-190 Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.

Another striking portrait from the album is of Lena Carey, dressed in costume for the production “Pygmalion and Galatea”. Carey appeared as ‘Galatea’, a statue come to life, in the very successful 1873 production with George Coppin (1819-1906) and Hattie Shepparde (1848?-1874). The State Library of Victoria have two portraits of Hattie Shepparde in the role of ‘Cynisca’. When Shepparde died the following year in childbirth, Lena Carey was among the famous actresses to be pallbearers at her funeral.

Lena Carey, c.1873. 1992.079.001-29. Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.
Hattie Shepherd, 1873, by Charles Hewitt. State Library of Victoria, H9476.

Can you help?

There are a number of unidentified photographs in the album. If you know the names of any of the performers below we’d love to hear from you. As a hint, the handwritten notes around the edges of the photographs are mostly misleading. Please post any suggestions in the comments field below or contact us via our Research Centre.

1992.079.001-128. Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.
1992.079.001-191. Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.
1992.079.001-195. Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.
1992.079.001-196. Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.
1992.079.001-128. Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.

Cutting The Collection & Thumb Through

Cutting the Collection 2
Two costume designs, one with gold trims and pink flowers, and the other with green sash and four strands of beads under the chin, by Attilio Comelli for act two from the musical The Girl From Utah, c.1913/ upon a photograph of the stage set for the musical comedy Follow Through, 1930 or 1932. Gracia Haby & Louise Jennison, collage from Cutting The Collection digitally printed zine, edition of 100, 2016

One of the most rewarding things about being custodians of this great Collection is seeing the surprising ways in which people engage with history to create new work. The Performing Arts Collection is a valuable resource for students, historians, writers, documentary makers, designers and other arts practitioners seeking to find out more about Australia’s rich performing arts history. Every once in a while someone comes along and re-imagines the Collection in ways we never thought possible.

Artists and avid theatre-goers, Gracia Haby and Louise Jennison visited the Research Service earlier this year and found a treasure trove of imagery ripe for digital re-interpretation. The result of their investigations can be found in two new zines, Cutting The Collection and Thumb Through which were recently launched at the Melbourne Art Book Fair at the National Gallery of Victoria. Gracia speaks eloquently about the thought process behind Cutting The Collection informed by ‘the ephemeral nature of dance; the thrill of a live performance and the trace it leaves; notions of recording what was, whilst not ever able to capture or document it fully; and the importance of such collections’. You can read more about the creative process and development here.

Not content with one remarkable publication, Gracia and Louise hit upon the idea of creating Thumb Through as both a flip book  and as a moving collage which re-energises the static images in new and unexpected ways. Both publications evoke the brilliant, always ephemeral energy captured (but not quite) in the objects left behind after the curtain has come down.

Roll Up! Roll Up! Circus Automata Is In Town


Circus Automata by Mark Ogge, 2015

There has been quite a buzz around Arts Centre Melbourne this week with the arrival of Circus Automata, a mechanical coin-operated diorama created by Melbourne artist Mark Ogge.  The diorama is the culmination of Ogge’s lifelong fascination with set painting, circus, vaudeville, commedia dell’arte, Weimar cabaret, Renaissance painting, automata, 18th century miniature paper theatres and Daguerre’s popular diorama theatres of early 19th century Paris.  Ogge has also drawn inspiration from historical circus and performance photographs held in Arts Centre Melbourne’s Performing Arts Collection which he has studied over many years.

Within the diorama’s proscenium arch a fanciful world of some twenty-three characters including a strongman, acrobats, a human cannonball and a whimsical donkey unicorn come to life. Each figure is powered by a tiny motor and is accompanied by its own sound effect and choreography.

Detail2Photograph by Mark Ogge

Ogge’s circus-inspired paintings and installations have been drawing gasps from audiences around the world since the early 2000s. In 2001 he designed and painted an elaborate new façade for the much-loved Famous Spiegeltent and for ten years Melbournians have watched it magically appear and disappear from the Arts Centre Melbourne’s forecourt.

Since 2006 Ogge has been the official artist of Speigelworld, an Australian-led immersive entertainment experience based in New York. Under the patronage of Australian impresario Ross Mollison, Ogge has created a series of works designed to celebrate the opening of each new Spiegelworld show. Artworks have included a monumental archway for Spiegelworld’s New York base and this three-dimensional mechanical diorama created for the opening Absinthe in 2015.

Circus Automata, accompanied by its original artwork, will be on display in Smorgon Family Plaza, Arts Centre Melbourne until 20 March 2016.


Con Colleano: “The Australian Wizard of the Wire”

Flip-Flaps and springs from “The Australian Wizard of the Wire

Con Colleano - The Australian Wizard of the Wire
Con Colleano – The Australian Wizard of the Wire

After I watched the feet-tingling 2008 documentary “Man On Wire” about Philippe Petit’s high-wire stunts, I rediscovered an incredible wire-walker much closer to home.

Con Colleano (1889-1973), was born Cornelius Sullivan of Aboriginal, Anglo-Irish and West Indian descent. Colleano began his circus life in his family’s rural circus, the Colleano’s All Star Circus. He performed his first act at 3 years of age doing tricks upon his father’s feet called the Risley Act.

Eventually, Colleano could perform nine different acts including bareback riding, flying trapeze, tumbling, trampoline, and playing the trombone in the circus band. With years of training, he perfected his performance on the tightwire, developing his unique forward ‘feet to feet’ somersault. This took almost ten years to learn. His act was influenced by Spanish bullfighting and his costume was that of a ‘toreador’ or bullfighter. He would dance on the wire, performing flip-flaps and springs to a standing  position as well as the forward somersault.

Photograph of Con Colleano performing a somersault on the tightwire
Photograph of Con Colleano performing a somersault on the tightwire

One of the earliest donations to Arts Centre Melbourne’s Performing Arts Collection, the Colleano family collection of photographs was donated in 1979 by Mrs. Winnie Colleano (neé Trevail) – herself a well known Australian Vaudeville Soubrette. Other Colleano Family members are represented in the collection, including Maurice Colleano, acrobat, dancer and comedian; his wife Elsie Bower, Hoyce, George and Lyn, and Winnie Trevail (Wife of Con Colleano) also an acrobat.

Photograph of the Colleano family, 1932
Photograph of the Colleano family, 1932

Whilst Philippe Petit’s story is now being re-told in a feature length 3D film The Walk, Con Colleano’s collection provides a more intimate snapshot of the art of wire walking.

You can view more of the Colleano Family collection in our catalogue here.

Introducing the Quirky McKirkus Family Circus!

Roll up, roll up! The circus has come to a computer near you! Quirky McKirkus Family Circus is an exciting new educational website designed to introduce primary school students to the rich history and traditions of circus in Australia. Developed by a collaborative team of Arts Centre collections and education staff, the site includes 42 dynamic, multi-disciplinary activities, a gallery for children to upload their own work and a  swag of user-friendly teacher resources.

Enter the Big Top and you’ll find over 120 rare and unusual circus photographs, posters, costumes and objects from the Performing Arts Collection’s extensive circus holdings sitting alongside poems, stories and videos created to inspire children to imagine what it would be like to be a clown; to run away with the circus, or to master tightrope-walking.

So what are you waiting for? Take a quick break from whatever you’re doing and run away to the Quirky McKirkus Family Circus  – we’ll have the popcorn waiting!

Australia’s Circus community mourns the loss of patriarch Doug Ashton

All of us here at the Arts Centre’s Performing Arts Collection express our sincere condolences to the Ashton family on the passing of Doug Ashton.

Doug was an enthusiastic supporter and major donor to our circus collection, particularly but not only of Ashton’s memorabilia, and he along with wife Phyllis were responsible for the circus collections’ development into one of national significance.  We will be forever grateful to Doug, not only for his own extraordinary life, but also for his generosity and interest in helping us build this important historical resource. 

Phyllis and Doug Ashton riding a horse bareback, Wirths Olympia. Photograph by Harry Jay. Performing Arts Collection.
 More about the Ashton’s Circus Collection and a selection of some of the Catalogue Records can be found here.