Spencer Shier and the three Russian beauties

For a man who took hundreds of portraits of politicians, businessmen, society figures, actors, and dancers, the Australian photographer, Spencer Shier, rarely appeared in the spotlight himself.

Although he left a rich legacy of photographs, many in the National Gallery of Victoria, his life and achievements were seldom recorded by the media, and even his death notice in 1946, amounted to just five sentences:

“Born 1884, Mr Spencer Raymond Shier well known Melbourne photographer, died suddenly from a heart attack at his home, Power Ave, Toorak, late yesterday afternoon He was in his early 60s.

“During a period of nearly 50 years spent in business, he had photographed many of Melbourne’s leading citizens and notable visitors, and was a fellow of the Royal Photographic Society. He is survived by his widow and two daughters. The funeral will leave Sleight’s funeral parlours, St Kilda Rd, at 1.45pm tomorrow, for Springvale Crematorium, after a short service.” (The Argus, 16 May, 1946).

Among the ‘notable visitors’ were the dancers in the Ballets Russes tours to Australia, particularly those in the second and third tours. Shier’s photos shown here, taken in 1938 and 1940, are three hidden treasures within the State Library of New South Wales and have not been shown online before.

The image of the dancer with the jug (in a pose from Symphonie Fantastique) was identified for the first time last week, thanks to Anna Volkova who danced with her in the third Ballets Russes tour to Australia.

She is Tatiana Stepanova, who was 16 when Shier took the photograph in 1938. Volkova herself was photographed in Melbourne by Shier in 1938.

The third dancer is Olga Morosova posing as the Street Dancer in Le Danube bleu. The photo, taken in 1940, appears to be the inspiration for Elinor Harry’s artwork of the Street Dancer, which is part of the collection of the Victorian Arts Centre’s Performing Arts Museum.

The nationality of all three dancers was Russian although each arrived in Australia on Nansen papers, issued in Europe for stateless people.

Morosova, whose real name was Olga Verchinina, was the oldest of the three – 27 when she came to Australia at the end of 1939. The previous year she had married Colonel W. de Basil in Nice.

Volkova came to Australia for the first time in the second Ballets Russes tour in 1938, when she was 21. Born in Moscow, her real surname was Wolkoff.

The youngest of the three, Stepanova, was born to Russian parents in Marseilles in 1924. She danced until 1947 when she retired and married George Peabody Gardner of Boston. Stepanova died in 2009.

Anna Volkova has lived in Australia since 1945, when she returned to marry the Australian, Jim Barnes, and she is very much with us, living in Sydney and regularly attending Australian Ballet performances, sometimes two nights in a row, at both the dress rehearsal and opening night, as she did last week.

I like to think of the ballet tours as a sweet respite for Shier among all his everyday commissions – society weddings, politicians, matrons of Melbourne in their drawing rooms, and the businessmen of the day in their three piece suits.

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Tatiana Stepanova

Tatiana Stepanova, photograph by Spencer Shier, Melbourne 1940, State Library of NSW, PXD 1063, box 5

Anna Volkova

Anna Volkova, photograph by Spencer Shier, Melbourne, 1938, State Library of NSW, PXD 1063/ Box 5

Olga Morosova

Olga Morosova, Le Danube bleu, photograph by Spencer Shier, Melbourne 1940, State Library of NSW, PXD 1063/ Box 5

Le Danube bleu, artwork by Elinor Harry

Le Danube bleu, artwork by Elinor Harry, Victorian Arts Centre, performing arts museum collection