Peggy van Praagh’s portrait with help from Noel Pelly

For years I’ve wondered who painted the portrait of Peggy van Praagh that’s hung in the main studio of the The Primrose Potter Australian Ballet Centre in Melbourne.

I’d like to think Van Praagh is looking down at the dancers in the studio. But with one hand at her forehead and the other draped gently over the back of the chair she is more contemplative than she is focused on a class or rehearsal. Perhaps, with those men at work behind her, she might be sitting backstage.

At last I’ve found the story behind the portrait that was unveiled in May 1991 by Ray Powell, the ballet master who worked with van Praagh from 1962 when the Australian Ballet was founded.

The portrait, commissioned by the Australian Ballet Foundation, was painted by the Melbourne artist, Lewis Miller.

But the man who made it all happen was Noel Pelly, the company’s director of publicity, then its deputy administrator and, from 1983, its administrator.

Pelly retired as administrator in 1991 but remained close to the company as a board member from 1995 to 2000.

He hoped to write his autobiography but he never did, instead writing a biography of Maina Gielgud’s mother.

A Pelly autobiography would have been fascinating as he was deeply involved with the company through the artistic directorships of van Praagh, Robert Helpmann, Anne Woolliams, Marilyn Jones and Maina Gielgud.

After van Praagh died in 1990 Pelly contacted James Mollison, then the director of the National Portrait Gallery. Who he asked, would be the best person to paint van Praagh’s portrait?

Mollison suggested Lewis Miller. When Pelly met Miller he asked if he could paint the portrait based on the many photographs of van Praagh.

He could and he did.

When they met Pelly gave Miller a shoe box of old black and white photos and a 1985 biography of van Praagh, written by Christopher Sexton.

Among the photos in the shoe box and in the biography was an image of van Praagh just before she left Sadlers Wells Ballet in London in 1955.

This black and white photo inspired Miller who painted van Praagh’s dress in crimson giving it light and vivid colour.

As Pelly said in a National Library of Australia interview in 1992, “You know it was good that the board commissioned a portrait of her, named a studio in her name and I think now everybody realises that great debt that is owed to her”.

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Peggy van Praagh portrait by Lewis Miller, 1991, photo © Lynette Wills

Noel Pelly, 1988, photo © Earl Carter

Ray Powell and Lewis Miller in the Peggy van Praagh studio, Australian Ballet Centre, 1991, photographer unknown