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.