How a crumbling roof in Dorset brought a Ballets Russes’ gallery to Australia

I first saw these Ballets Russes’ drawings at Martyn Cook’s antique showroom in Queen Street, Woollahra in 2009.

They’ve intrigued me ever since. Who was the artist, Cecil Waller? And how did they end up in Australia?

It’s taken three years to find out. The nine drawings (one is not shown here) were sold as part of a large collection owned by Thomas Hamel Interiors and Martyn Cook Antiques, auctioned by Mossgreen on May 20 in Sydney.

The drawings fetched $4636, about half the expected price of around $1000 each.

The English name of the artist, and the date on most of the drawings, 1933, meant they might have been done in London when Col. de Basil and Rene Blum’s Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo was performing at the Alhambra. In 1934, the company, then called Ballets Russes du Col. de Basil, performed at Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

Seven of the nine drawings are of dancers, another is a portrait of Nina Milkina, a Russian pianist who lived in London in the 1930s and another of Sir Charles Alexander Petrie, an English historian and journalist who was for a while the literary editor of New English Review.

Information on the artist was scarce but I discovered that he was born in 1908, which meant he was only 25 when he did the drawings.

I found online a copy of a painting by Cecil Waller of Cranborne Chase, in Dorset, a place that attracted many artists for the beauty its escarpments and woodlands. The landscape appealed to Augustus John and later, the artist John Craxton who painted in the district with his friend, the young Lucian Freud.

Craxton’s uncle was Cecil Waller who lived in London with his wife, Amy. In 1934, the Wallers moved to Dorset where they bought a cottage at Minchington. To supplement the small income from his art works, Cecil worked at the Eastbury Estate in Dorset, once one of the finest Georgian stately homes in England.

But how did the drawings make their way to Australia? The journey began when Pamela Jackson, an Australian who, with her husband, lived in London, met Waller and his wife at their Dorset cottage. Pamela was an avid ballet fan who often enjoyed performances at Covent Garden.

At the cottage, she saw the rolled up drawings of the dancers and thought how representative they were of the time and place, the ‘30s in London. Weller told Pamela that his female cousin, a dancer herself, introduced him to the Ballets Russes’ dancers in London.

In 1984, living once again in Australia, Pamela heard that Cecil wanted to sell some artworks in order to get the money to fix his cottage roof. She bought the set of nine and hung them in the family home in Sydney.

Waller died in England in 1993.

A few years ago, when the Jacksons downsized to a beach house on the New South Wales coast, Pamela sold the drawings to Martyn Cook.

I’m not sure yet which of three potential bidders bought the drawings – a London group, a former dancer who lives in Melbourne or a Melbourne foundation. (I’ll update soon.)