Baronova painting uncovered at the State Library of NSW

At the State Library of New South Wales a new ballet treasure has come to light – a very large painting of the dancer, Irina Baronova.

As far as I know, this painting has never been displayed anywhere.

The artwork, (below, left) by the illustrator and cartoonist Virgil Reilly, was used as a cover image for The Australian Women’s Weekly on 17 June 1939 and was uncovered recently by Michael Carney, who works in the eRecords Program at the library.

Baronova, one of the stars of the Covent Garden Russian Ballet tour of Australia in 1938/39 is shown in a white tutu in a pose that is based on Maurice Seymour’s photograph of the dancer in Swan Lake.

Reilly’s oil on canvas painting (97cm x 128 cm), was captioned “The Dancer” and had no relationship to the contents of the magazine on the date it was published 17 June, 1939. (The Covent Garden Russian Ballet tour throughout Australia ended in April 1939).

Reilly – who signed all his work “Virgil” – worked at a time when magazine editors favoured illustrations rather than photographs for their cover images.

Born in Victoria, in 1892, Reilly worked for many publications both as a staff artist and a freelancer. In Melbourne, he contributed to the magazine, Lone Hand and the newspaper, Truth.

In 1920 he joined the staff of Smith’s Weekly where he found his niche with a series of provocative illustrations published under the title of Virgil’s Girls.

As well, Reilly was a cartoonist and book illustrator and his art works featured on several covers of The Australian Women’s Weekly.

The art historian, the late Joan Kerr, wrote that Reilly was a very small man who said he regarded himself as one of Sydney’s oldest leprechauns.

He married five times and had four sons, one of whom was killed in the second world war and one who died in a car accident.

I wonder if Reilly ever met Baronova? It seems unlikely but it would have been a fascinating encounter – the “leprechaun” and the ballerina.

Baronova spent the last years of her life in Australia where I interviewed her a number of times, the last in 2001 when she told me “The queue to the pearly gates is getting very short. I’m 82 now. Who knows? I might have a stroke tomorrow”.

She lived or a further seven years. On June 28, 2013, it will be exactly five years since her death.

Thanks to Robert Woodley at the State Library of NSW for letting me know of this painting.


  1. Posted June 26, 2013 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    When Michael showed me the painting I first thought Riabouchinska, but eventually I found the Maurice Seymour photograph. I thought we had a copy of that but it was in the National Library. Michael and I had been looking at two other Reilly paintings when he said he had just started working on a large oil of a ballerina! And I wasn’t disappointed when I saw it. It is soon to be re-stretchered and stabilised.

  2. Posted June 26, 2013 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    This is such a rare and exciting find ! I don’t think we have anything quite like in the collection – certainly not an oil painting that size of a baby ballerina!

  3. Posted June 27, 2013 at 11:31 pm | Permalink

    So it was published after the Company had left, a tribute to how much excitement the ballet had brought the city and how much it was missed, as if the long sold out season was not proof enough. Vergil was a commercial artist and the Library has two smaller paitings of his, one of which is a spectacular blonde in an orange Lana Turner sweater leaning against the bonnet of a deco American car, and the other one of the Weekly’s greyscale drawings for its serial novels

  4. Lee Christofis
    Posted July 2, 2013 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

    Valerie, this is a real treat of a story. I don’t believe the cover to be in the Baronova Papers at the National Library and neither of her daughters has ever mentioned it. Thanks for posting this news!

  5. valerie
    Posted July 2, 2013 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Lee…the size of the painting has to be seen to be believed! I hope so much the painting is displayed somewhere in the library soon.

  6. MIchael Carney
    Posted July 24, 2013 at 12:41 am | Permalink

    Thanks Valerie. Great that the discovery has been publicised in this way and your research is very interesting. I wonder if Baronova ever saw the painting?

  7. valerie
    Posted July 25, 2013 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    I hope she did Michael. Congratulations on finding this painting

  8. Posted October 17, 2013 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

    A postscript to the story of the discovery of the painting. The State Library Preservation team has re-stretchered the canvas and it is now hanging in our Framed Picture Store. She will need a frame to be put on display but can be seen by making an appointment with Pictures staff

  9. valerie
    Posted October 19, 2013 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    Robert, that’s very good news, thanks for letting me know.

  10. kate Gorman
    Posted October 29, 2013 at 2:34 am | Permalink

    I stumbled across this post- I own a similar large billboard photo – I’d say it was taken at the same time – same tutu -same releve- but her hands are intertwined facing downwards. I saved the sign from the rubbish skip when I was working at The Comedy Theatre in 1988 and they were having a clean out from under the stage area. It was obviously used at the front of the theatre when she was touring there. it’s about 5 foot high, it a photo that has then been hand coloured and lacquered, it has her name hand painted in gold along the bottom. I am happy to send you a picture if you are interested in seeing it. let me know where to email it.

  11. valerie
    Posted October 29, 2013 at 5:42 am | Permalink

    Kate, that is great news! What a find – I’ll send you my email

  12. Posted October 29, 2013 at 6:30 am | Permalink

    Kate – the State Library of Victoria or the National Library would be very interested to speak with you!

    The National Library has a smaller copy of your photograph, which is also by Maurice Seymour, at :

    It’s interesting that the photo was found under the Comedy Theatre. I’m not sure where the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo danced in Melbourne but I would have thought it would have been at Williamson’s bigger theatre, Her Majesty’s. Perhaps Williamson’s were just using the Comedy as a store.

    Robert Woodley

  13. valerie
    Posted October 29, 2013 at 7:00 am | Permalink

    I’ve just checked, the Ballets Russes tour of 1938/9, with Baronova, performed at His Majesty’s (as it was then called). The theatre is in the same street as the Comedy Theatre – I think they are opposite one another.

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Irina Baronova, cover of The Australian Women's Weekly, June 17, 1939

Irina Baronova, cover of The Australian Women’s Weekly, June 17, 1939

Irina Baronova, photo © Maurice Seymour, National Library of Australia

Irina Baronova, photo © Maurice Seymour, National Library of Australia

"The Dancer", portrait oil painting of Irina Baronova in costume for Swan Lake, ca. 1939 / Virgil Reilly, Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW, ML 1309

“The Dancer”, portrait oil painting of Irina Baronova in costume for Swan Lake, ca. 1939 / Virgil Reilly, Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW, ML 1309