Pavlova: a hidden treasure

Sometimes there’s a treasure right under our noses. We’ve just never noticed it before.

That’s the case with this Mitchell Library photograph of Anna Pavlova taken during her first tour to Australia when the conductor was the bearded Lucien Wurmser.

He’s seen here between the ballerina and the tall man identified by Robert Woodley at the Mitchell Library as James Stuart MacDonald, the artist, art critic, and director of the National Art Gallery of New South Wales. Click on the photograph for a close look.

But there’s a mystery here. We can date the year of the photo as 1926, when Wurmser was conductor and music director of the Pavlova tour that year. She returned to Australia in 1929, but Wurmser did not. And as the photographer was Sam Hood, the photo was almost certainly taken in Sydney where Hood worked.

Yet in 1926, MacDonald lived in Melbourne where he was art critic for the the Melbourne Herald. In 1928, he was appointed director of the National Art Gallery of New South Wales and moved to Sydney.

So, in 1926, was MacDonald visiting Sydney? Or was Hood visiting Melbourne where the Pavlova troupe opened the Australian tour in March that year?

More fascinating detail in this photograph: the low level of the paintings, the spats worn by all the men except MacDonald, the lettering, partially obscured by the net curtain, on the door – one line appears to begin with MAC backwards but the letters appear to be followed by a D, which is not reversed – the dainty feet and tiny ankles of Pavlova who is draped in a roomy velvet jacket over a tightly wrapped cravat.

If anyone can identify the location and the couple on the left, I’d be grateful.


  1. Bob Meade
    Posted December 18, 2011 at 9:20 pm | Permalink

    My first round choice for the man at far left is John Henry Tait.

  2. Posted December 19, 2011 at 3:22 am | Permalink

    We didn’t notice the “TH” on the top of the door. “THE” or THIS” ?? Could it say the Melbourne Herald and the creasing in the curtain is obscuring it? It seems unlikely to be Melbourne as the Hood collection doesn’t contain photos of Melbourne, though he did a later trip on the Hume Highway via Canberra to Adelaide for family reasons.

  3. Bob Meade
    Posted December 19, 2011 at 5:24 am | Permalink

    I’m tending to a stronger view that John Tait is at the far left of the picture.

    Comparison, though grainy:

    I’ll need to get a look at a book about the Taits which hopefully has an identified portrait to be sure.

  4. Posted December 20, 2011 at 2:13 am | Permalink

    A definite photograph of Tait:

  5. Bob Meade
    Posted December 20, 2011 at 4:04 am | Permalink

    Thanks Mr. Woodley. Although similar in some respects, comparing the two men in the different photographs now suggests that the unidentified man is NOT John H. Tait.

    What do you think?

  6. Linda Emery
    Posted December 20, 2011 at 10:45 pm | Permalink

    Mystery solved I believe. The photo is at the Macquarie Galleries in Bligh Street Sydney on 19 April 1926, where Anna Pavlova was invited to open an exhibition of water colours by artist Blamire Young. The man on the left is sculptor Sir Bertram Mackennal (see ADB entry) and next to him probably his wife Annabella.

  7. valerie
    Posted December 21, 2011 at 2:03 am | Permalink

    Brilliant! Thanks so much Linda

  8. Posted December 20, 2011 at 11:03 pm | Permalink

    After working for years now comparing photos, I’m hopeless at it! The hat in th eother photo makes it difficult.

  9. Bob Meade
    Posted December 21, 2011 at 1:42 am | Permalink

    Yep. So I think that I need to get my hands on a book about the Taits illustrated with photographs. There is a small bibliography at the end of the Taits’ entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography here:

    Of course since that entry was written by Mr. Frank Van Straten OAM noted historian of theatre, perhaps Mr. Van Straten could help out here. Perhaps confirming or ruling out a Tait, or even identifying the enigmatic couple and the location.

    I’ve put out some feelers to get in contact with Mr. Van Sraten.

  10. Linda Emery
    Posted December 21, 2011 at 2:24 am | Permalink

    Correction – Sir Bertram Mackennal’s wife was Agnes, not Annabella. Agnes was born about 1866 so would have been 60 when this photo was taken, so the unidentified woman could be her.

  11. Bob Meade
    Posted December 21, 2011 at 5:02 am | Permalink

    Frank Van Straten agrees that it’s Sir Bertram Mackennal, and supplies the Sydney Morning Herald article of the next day:

    He also points out that the reversed lettering on the door is “The Macqu …”

    Frank Van Straten also suppied a photographic portrait of Mackennal similar to this:

    which is even more alike to the image in the photograph.

  12. Bob Meade
    Posted December 21, 2011 at 5:03 am | Permalink

    p.s. When I posted my comment at no. 8, I neglected to read the solution to the mystery given by Linda Emery at no. 6.

    Well done Linda!

  13. Posted December 21, 2011 at 6:06 am | Permalink

    Thanks Linda and Valerie, I’m off to change our Catalog record! Wonderful and Mackennal was a friend of Melba’s, see:
    The sculptor seems to have favoured spats and European style tailoring, while Tait was outdoorsy and his suits look more American.

  14. Posted December 21, 2011 at 6:31 am | Permalink

    PS Mackennal’s father was John Simpson Mackennal and his mother was Annabella. Sculptor Sir Edgar Bertram and his wife Lady Agnes Mackennal (nee Spooner) are in the group with Pavlova

  15. Posted December 21, 2011 at 6:39 am | Permalink

    Sorry another update – The illustrated history of Mackennal on the Art Gallery of NSW website has has a photo of him on a ship in Australia with his wife in 1926. He held a sell-out exhibition of 44 works at the Macquarie Galleries in Bligh Street, Sydney (Exhibition of bronzes by Sir Bertram Mackennal KCV) from 7th -20th October

  16. valerie
    Posted December 21, 2011 at 7:48 am | Permalink

    I’m so grateful for everyone’s input on this – very happy to hear from you all. Thank you!

  17. Linda Emery
    Posted December 21, 2011 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    Glad to have been able to help. Excellent that the catalogue record at Mitchell can be updated.

  18. valerie
    Posted December 22, 2011 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    I’m posting an update on the Pavlova mystery photo

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to R; unidentified couple, Anna Pavlova, Lucien Wurmser,  James Stuart MacDonald, Mieczyslaw Pianowski

L to R; unidentified couple, Anna Pavlova, Lucien Wurmser, James Stuart MacDonald, Mieczyslaw Pianowski, 1926, photo, Sam Hood, courtesy Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW, digital order number, a297060