Oscar Asche

  • BRAYTON, Lily (1876-1953)

    English actress. Born 23 June 1876, Hindley, Lancashire, England. Married (1) Oscar Asche (actor), June 1898 (div.), (2) Dr Douglas Chalmers Watson, 1936. Died 30 April 1953, Bisham, Berkshire, England, aged 76.

    On stage in England and Australia. Performing in London from 1900-1908, and in Australia 1909-1910, and 1911-1913, notably with husband Oscar Asche.

    Riley/Hailes Scrapbook, page 267.

  • The Memoirs of J. Alan Kenyon or Behind the Velvet Curtain (Part 12)


    In Part 12 of his memoirs, J. ALAN KENYON recalls amusing episodes working on sets for Nellie Melba’s grand opera season in 1924 to Joan Sutherland’s in 1965, plus a few local and international stars of musicals and dramas in between.

    Ready, Set, Go!

    It was the Grand Opera Season of 1924 (I had been with JCW for just one year). The cast was headed by Nellie Melba and included quite a galaxy of talent: Toti dal Monte, Dion Borgioli, Apollo Granforte and Lina Scavizzi. It was tremendous fun watching, and trying, without understanding the language, to interpret the arguments, the actions and the antics which were constantly waged between the producer, the chorus master, the prompter, and the musical director. It was a battle which never seemed to end. In the ‘Nile scene’ in Aida with Franco Paolantonio, the chief maestro of the orchestra conducting, there were three notes on the timpani the drummer just could not get right.

    To you and me, ‘da-da-da’ just means ‘da-da-da’ and nothing else. To Paul Antonio’s super-sensitive ear, they were either off beat or out of tune—which, I never did discover. After three attempts and three failures to satisfy him, and after holding up the orchestra three times, Paul’s rage and frustration reached the point of explosion. With arms stretched above his head, he broke his baton in halves, tore at his hair, and burst into loud sobs. Astonishment kept everybody silent.

    It always came to my mind along with memories of Hamlet ‘It then draws the season—Wherein the spirit held his want to walk’ whenever I crossed the darkened stage of the Princess Theatre. It was necessary to put out all the lights before leaving the paint room, the switch being at the top of the stairs. In total darkness, with a loose board creaking eerily, one watched one’s step, particularly if one had once crashed over a chair in the line of travel. It is quite an experience crossing one hundred feet in total darkness, recalling the ghost of the Princess. During one Grand Opera performance of Faustat Melbourne’s Princess in 1888 Federici (Federick Baker) as Mephistopheles, in a puff of smoke, falls through a trap from the stage to the cellar. Nothing seemed amiss during the performance, everything had gone according to plan, except that when he reached the cellar he was later found to be dead.

    Again about Grand Opera, and now in 1965, the Joan Sutherland Season will always be memorable for the repercussions on my department. There was a terrific amount of unnecessary work and worry which were all the result of inexperience. A very charming girl (Tonina Dorati, daughter of the great Antal Dorati) did the designs for all that season’s operas and although her charm was undeniable, alas, so was her inexperience. The first batch of designs came from London and they were for the first opera to be presented, which was Lucia di Lammermoor. The heads of departments were all called up to the Director’s office and were shown the sketches. As inevitably happens with such drawings, they had not been done to scale. This in itself was a frightful mistake and caused no end of complications.

    The sketches showed sets of such gigantic dimensions that I remarked, somewhat sardonically I’m afraid, ‘If the curtain goes up at eight o’clock, the house will come out at two am.’ This sally received only a disdainful look. The design for the ‘mad scene’ was of such huge proportions that it swept from Opposite Prompt (OP) to Prompt Side (PS) and nearly touched the stage’s back wall. Everybody who knew the theatre (Her Majesty’s) and stage agreed that the set-up was completely and utterly impossible. However, some semblance had to be kept to the original in any of the alterations which we made.

    The only yardstick for measurement was the recognized height of a step, which was about six or seven inches. Then, by counting the number of steps at these increases, it was possible to arrive at the height of the rostrum where the steps finished. From memory, I think I made this height to be seventeen feet—utterly impossible at the distance at which the back of the set was placed. Only the first rows of stall seats would see any action up there. All these sketches had been passed by the powers that be, so we had to get out of it as tactfully and safely as was possible. It was quite out of the question to use the drawings for construction and after a bit of anxious consultation, we eventually agreed on a ten-foot-high platform. This set, along with the others, was then constructed.

    At one rehearsal, the Prima Donna made her entrance onto the platform from the OP side (left from the audience’s point of view). She was singing in full voice—the Mad Scene—and Joan Sutherland was at her truly magnificent best. The cast was standing gaping in amazed admiration. At the balcony, before descending the steps, Sutherland bent her knees and made the long descent in the same attitude. Arriving at the bottom, she waved her hand and asked ‘Can you see me at the back of the stalls?’

    Each scene was rehearsed for setting and striking. Then the day arrived for a full rehearsal of all scenes and with the entire company. After cutting down the wall surrounding the platform of the first scene three times, both it and the platform were scrapped. The platform in the second scene was also thrown out—there simply was not time to set and strike it. Following that, one whole scene was thrown onto the scrap heap. Two thousand pounds worth of work and material careered merrily down the drain.

    There was the incident concerning a designer, with an extremely lofty and quite unjustified idea of his own importance, being especially imported from England to do an opera. He came with his sketches prepared and announced importantly to the quite mystified carpenters that his style was ‘free’! In spite of this blithe explanation, they continued to regard his drawings of bent columns and falling-over walls—doubtfully. He would come up to the paint room, pick up his sketch and insist that every brush stroke and variation of colour be faithfully copied. Incidentally, while he was in the paint room one night, putting some artistic touches to a cloak which needed to look old and rain-sodden, he had practically flooded the floor. I’m afraid I told him a few home truths.

    It was inevitable that a man of his tyrannical type would wait his opportunity to catch me out. One day he decided that the time was right for getting his own back. Joyfully, he picked out a blob in the corner of a design, saying triumphantly, ‘This very nice piece of variation has been left out. Why?’ His triumph was short-lived. I explained to him very happily that that particular piece of decoration was simply a smear of colour we had put on ourselves when matching the hue. One hoped that his ego was at least a little dinted.

    Wildflower Acts 1 3 1Wildflower (1924),Acts 1 & 3 set. JCW Scene Books, Book 07-0016, Theatre Heritage Australia.

    We were taught never to try and get self-publicity by the design of our sets. If the sets are meant to produce atmosphere, they should take their place, do their job perfectly, and be forgotten. If they are so blatant that the audience is attracted to them, they are not serving their purpose. But sometimes the show opens with an empty scene, and it is then the scenic artist may let himself go, and maybe receive a round of applause. The opening scene of Wildflower(1924) with Marie Burke reproduced a village square at the foot of a range of mountains. As the lamplighter makes his rounds, putting out the lamps, the sun is rising. The effect achieved by Mr. Coleman was really spectacular. As the sun rose it hit the top of a mountain, then slowly illuminated the whole side of it, the lighting slowly fading in on the scene at the same time until the sun was fully up and the scene fully lit. Of course, in those days the scenic artist lit his scenery—today there are lighting experts who use, I think, dozens of spots in a less effective way than that of the old floods and light battens. Also, there is too much building of architraves, cornice moulds, etc. There are very few designers who have had paint room experience and served a theatre apprenticeship. The audience is of course aware that the background is only painted canvas on a wooden frame and accept it as such. This supposes always that the painting of the scenery is up to a standard. In my experience, not one person in a thousand cares two hoots about art in the theatre—they want entertainment, good acting and good music. (Editor’s note: I hate to think this is still true to this day!)

    One of the best sets I ever painted was the result of a disagreement between a team consisting of a husband and wife. The husband, John McCallum, was the producer, and he talked to me about the set for the show, its locale Scotland. It was decided that the timber interior should be painted a honey colour to represent Scotch Fir. This was done, and a lot of careful, very nice work went into the painting. When the scenery was set up on stage, the following dialogue took place:

    Googie Withers: It should be grey.

    John McCallum: But it’s a Scotch interior of pine wood.

    GW: (Very decidedly) It should be grey.

    JMcC: But it’s such a lovely set.

    GW: (More decidedly) It should be grey.

    JMcC: (Resignedly) Okay. But it will have to be repainted.

    So it was repainted although there was scarcely any time to have it back on the frame, as it was wanted for rehearsal. So, I had it laid out flat on the trestles, one piece at a time. We mixed a bucket of grey glazed colour and hurriedly slopped it over the flats. Before they were dry, they were taken off the trestles and stood up. The colour settled in puddles in some places, then it ran off here and there, occasionally missing some areas. By accident and without design, the set was wonderful. If we had spent weeks on the painting, the result would never have been half so effective.  Such lucky accidents do sometimes happen.

    Perhaps the most outstanding, and the best of all the producers, was Oscar Asche (1871-1936). As well as being a superb actor and producer, he was a master of lighting. He disliked giving what he considered to be ‘unnecessary explanations’. For example, he would say to an electrician, ‘Put a row of lamps up here on the fly rails, and don’t ask me if I need any on the other side. The sun only shines one way.’

    He was a big man in every way. His completely authentic thoroughness in production was evidenced at its best in The Skin Game (1925). In this play the script called for him to be drowned in a canal. The dour North Country man was drowned, and he stayed drowned—he never took a curtain call at the end of the show. This piece of realism added considerably to the play’s impact on the audience. He produced Chu Chin Chow (early 1920s) magnificently. Then there was Cairo (1922) and Julius Caesar (also 1920s) in which he was an unforgettable Marc Antony. Julius Caesar was presented in black drapery. I remember him coming up to the paint room to consult Mr. Coleman about the black velvet for the surround and he was shown three or four samples of velvet. Then he enquired, ‘Which is the most expensive?’ He was told and he said, ‘Well, that’s the one I want.’ He was indeed a perfectionist.

    nla.obj 148804720 1 2Gladys Moncrieff, centre, and full cast onstage in A Southern Maid, 1924. Photo by Talma, Melbourne. National Library of Australia, Canberra.

    When he produced Southern Maid (1923) starring Gladys Moncrieff the rehearsal was not up to his standard of perfection. It was a rehearsal of the orange-groves scene and had been painted by Coleman. Oscar Asche ordered all the cast into the stalls and when he had them all there, he pronounced, ‘Take a look at that scene. Now, go back and act up to it.’ He never asked—he ordered. He was even known to use his not-inconsiderable weight to emphasize his meaning. He stood no nonsense from anyone.

    Another producer who was a character in his own right was George A. Highland (1870-1954). He was another man who really knew his job, and how to get the best out of everyone. He himself was an arrant exhibitionist and invariably on a first night when he took his curtain call, he would partially undress and appear in a state of collapse. Though on one occasion his roughed-up appearance for his curtain call had been acquired the hard way. There was a platform which moved up and down the stage, pulled by a wire. In his haste to take his call, George forgot about the wire and tripped, falling headlong onto the stage. The boys rushed to pick him up and help him to take his call, but he was very shaken and had no need to simulate distress that night.

    The stage staff who see all the shows, watching with the closest attention a tremendous variety of performers and performances, get a real education in the theatre, and they are never at a loss for an answer. Their repartee is usually terse and very much to the point. They develop over the years a very particular sense of humour, typical of and peculiar to, the stage. With a sprinkling of profanity, their descriptions are usually both trenchant and apt—they pounce on the funny side of any development and are always quick to turn any situation into a joke.

    The Russian Osipov Balalaika Orchestra was rehearsing on stage for the first time (1937) and I stayed to listen for a few minutes. Going back to the paint room I was followed by one of the stage staff. He asked if I had heard the Russians playing, and was I there at the end of the number which happened to be the finale of the show...? I told him I had come away before the end. He grinned, then said that they had begun very softly, making only a faint sound and then worked up to a great crashing crescendo, only to stop abruptly. The conductor cut them off suddenly with a lightning fall of his baton. Then he turned around dramatically to the audience and roared ‘Ooos-a pop!’ A small voice from the back squeaked ‘I am.’ This bit of typical humour was apparently conceived on the spot.

    An imported producer was rehearsing a show which contained a children’s ballet within its production. The kids had jacked up for some reason only known to themselves and were making no progress whatever. They seemed too dumb-struck and listless to try and get anything right. The producer made them go over and over the same thing with no appreciable results and, driven desperate by their non-co-operation, he made them an offer of two shillings each if they only got somewhere near the effect he wanted. He said, ‘Now let’s try it again.’ This time it was nearly perfect. The producer was heard to mutter, ‘I’ve come 12,000 miles to be taken in by a lot of bloody Australian kids...’

    One very satisfactory painting job (in films) was the reproduction of an all-black marble hotel foyer—the St. Francis—in, I think, Los Angeles. On a sheet of glass, with various tones, from black to white, of plaster, we turned out slabs of very creditable and credible imitation marble. Pouring on the black, cracking the glass, we then poured on the grey and white mixtures. Viewing the job by a mirror under the sheet of glass, we were able to control the effect. The large round columns were more difficult, but we made them on a form quite successfully. Whilst on technique, practically anything from brick walls to palm trees can be replicated using plaster moulds, made from casts of the job.

    As an example of the futility of building features of interiors I give the opening scene of Lady of the Rose (1925) as a classic. This set was completely fabricated by Wunderlich in pressed metal. All the columns’ bases and caps, cornices, friezes and architraves were in this pressed metal and it was an utter failure as the lighting flattened it all. Mr. Coleman gave me the job of climbing all over the set, painting in the darks and the highlights, on this reproduction of the entrance to the Royal Academy in London’s Burlington Arcade. This meant I had to paint between the acanthus leaves and volutes of the capitals, the ornamentation of the friezes and the flutes of the columns. Then I had to add the highlights for the lot—it involved my going up and down a ladder all day long, until the work was finished. This building of separate parts in set construction never works out successfully, because always, and I emphasize always, it becomes necessary to paint in the darks and lights afterwards. If this is not done, it all appears to be completely flat. Painted moulding is unquestionably the best way for stage presentation.

    From my workroom I had a clear view of the hiring department, when I once spied someone handling a lion’s head—which brings me in on cue. One of the important people I had with me in the Production Studio was a man called Max Krumbach. He was the modeller and plaster expert, and a complete master of his job. He could extricate a plaster mould from a cast, nearly as thin as cardboard. His father was a sculptor mason, and Max related to me the following story. Incidentally, I later had the opportunity to verify every word he uttered. His father and another man were the sculptors who modelled the lion’s heads which adorn the base corners on each side of the Sydney Town Hall. The foreman builder on the job was an irascible old Scot and when he was making his rounds it was his habit to contort his face into a leering mask of disapproval as he observed the progress. 

    Eventually the building was completed and ready for the opening ceremony. The last job was of course the cleaning up. At the end of the building, against the last corner, had been stacked a huge heap of timber. This was the last thing to be removed and when the workmen pulling the leaning boards away, there was the lion’s head. No-one seeing it could doubt that it was a clever caricature—there was the characteristic leer and grimace of the old Scot, carved into the lion’s visage.

    The same Max Krumbach had modelled a huge whale for one of the floats in Sydney’s Sesquicentenary Celebrations. He had finished the wire netting and the plaster-work on the whale, and it was ready for painting. The man whom I deputized to paint the job was a rather bumptious type who had managed to get under Krumbach’s skin. Every time this chap attempted to commence painting, a stentorian voice would boom out ‘Keep off that bloody whale!’ In the interests of peace and progress, I had to replace this painter with someone more acceptable to Krumbach, the master.

    To be continued


  • Theatrical Portraits of Walter Bentley

    SUE-ANNE WALLACE continues her exploration of the life of her grandfather, the actor Walter Bentley. Taking the Falk Album as a starting point, she looks at Bentley’s choice of photographer and how his image was used throughout his career.

    The impetus for writing this paper was the discovery of a suite of theatrical portraits of Walter Bentley in the Falk Album (Falk Album, Nick Henderson Collection, Digitised by Theatre Heritage Australia, 2019, hereafter referred to as the Falk Album), which came into the hands of Theatre Heritage Australia in 2019. [See The Falk Studios. The Theatrical Portrait Photography of H. Walter Barnett,Theatre Heritage Australia, Bambra Press, Melbourne, 2021.] Like many celebrated actors, Bentley had commissioned Walter Barnett to take his portrait, in costume. I was interested to see how he used the pictures as devices for the promotion of his career. My findings were contrary to my expectations.

    Walter Bentley (1849-1927), a Scottish tragedian, arrived in Australia in 1891 with Danish actress Laura Hansen, under contract to George Coppin’s Australian Theatrical Management Company. Melbourne had been anticipating Bentley’s visit for some years, with newspaper articles predicting his arrival as early as 1887. Ironically he was employed by George Coppin, who, in 1873, had rejected the fledgling actor’s entreaties to join his company, saying that Bentley, with only six months touring in New Zealand under his belt, was an amateur. With this assessment and no clear trajectory to the stage in Australia, Bentley left and headed back to Britain, where he took on the role of juvenile lead to Henry Irving at the Lyceum, before forming his own company and touring the country. From 1883–1886 he toured America to great acclaim, returning to Britain a more polished and accomplished actor. Coppin’s agents in London spotted Bentley and persuaded him to return to Australia. He was billed as a great tragedian, with a reputation for ‘legitimate art’.

    Needing promotional photographs, Bentley sought the services of the Vandyck Studios, on Bourke Street, which ‘took some very fine pictures of the Scottish tragedian in private garb’ (Melbourne Punch,26 November 1891). These pictures were readily translated into wood engravings which could be reasonably easily reproduced in newspapers.

    Bentley’s season at Melbourne’s Theatre Royal was short in order to accommodate plans for an extensive tour of New Zealand. He opened with Rob Roy,an historical piece, based on the novel by Walter Scott, playing the outlaw, while James Faucitt Cathcart took the role of Baillie. Bentley was ‘fortunate to have chosen the right role’ claimed The Australasian (Melbourne, 21 November 1891). Vandyck’s image of Walter Bentley is not unlike others images taken by the studio in Sydney, working from 41 Market Street, showing the sitter from chest height, in profile, with a gradual fading into a background devoid of identifying features.

    The Coppin season in Melbourne continued with Hamlet, which suffered mixed reviews, from disappointing to a brilliant success, followed by The Bellsand Othello. More interest was shown by newspapers across the country when this newly-arrived actor was assaulted on his way home from the theatre:

    Mr Walter Bentley, the actor at present playing at the Theatre Royal, had an unpleasant experience whilst proceeding home from the theatre at an early hour this morning. About a quarter to 1 o’clock, Mr Bentley and Mr Charles Bradley, who is to act as his agent through New Zealand, were conversing at the corner of Nicholson and Gertrude Streets. Walter Bentley who resides in Nicholson Street, opposite the Exhibition Buildings, had just left Mr Bradley when three men came towards him, one of whom asked him the time. He replied indefinitely without looking at his watch, whereupon two of the men seized him simultaneously. However, Mr Bentley, probably freshly remembering the effects of his Herculean feats in ‘Rob Roy’ was not prepared to submit without a struggle, and he dealt one of his assailants a severe blow, and swinging round, disengaged himself from the other. Mr Bentley’s calls brought his companion to the scene, and on seeing him approach, the miscreants ran away. In the scuffle, however, they succeeded in tearing away a scarf in which was a gold pin, valued at about £3 10s. The only return which Mr Bentley secured was to obtain possession of the hair of one of his assailants, which he brought to Russell-street, where he reported the matter.(The Argus,Melbourne, 9 December 1891)

    This story hit the newspapers across Melbourne, out to Broken Hill and even to South Australia! What was not readily known, was that Bentley was an amateur boxing champion when he was resident in Dunedin, New Zealand, an attribute which he employed to distinct advantage on this occasion. It seemed Bentley was indifferent as to whether the press pitched a good yarn or reviewed his work on stage; publicity was publicity, particularly when his name was relatively unknown.

    With their season concluding on 22 December 1891, Bentley and his company went aboard the ss Talune, for the four-day voyage to Dunedin, where Bentley was welcomed as an ‘eminent star’ returning to the town of his youth. Here he was known, and had a good reputation. But still there were no images to accompany the glowing reviews of his performances up and down the country.

    Plans for a lengthy tour throughout New Zealand were abruptly cut short when Coppin’s Company collapsed in debt, causing Bentley to close in Auckland on 23 April 1892 and forcing the company to disband. The local press reported sadly that the company ‘dissolved and have gone their several ways in peace’ (Auckland Star, 30 April 1892). Bentley stayed a few weeks longer, giving recitals and lectures as he made his way to Wellington, where he pitched an idea to create a stock company for the Wellington Opera House. His concept of developing shares to support the proposal attracted some interest but insufficient for the idea to take hold. In defeat, on 16 May 1892, Bentley boarded the ss Harutoto Auckland, thence to Sydney on the ss Wakatipu.

    By the time of Bentley’s arrival in Sydney, his name was now familiar, his successes on the New Zealand stage having been regularly reported by the Australian press. He was greeted warmly and with much anticipation. With Laura Hansen, he opened with Hamlet on 4 June 1892 in the Garrick Theatre and gained good reviews for this and his following performances in David Garrick, Cramond Brig, The Bells, Richelieu, The Lady of Lyons, The Merchant of Venice,closing with Othello.Bentley ‘has become a favourite during his all too short season here. It is a pity he is not supported by a more powerful company’, opined Referee(Sydney, 6 July 1892), as Bentley and his company headed to Newcastle and Brisbane. Laura Hansen was praised for speaking her lines clearly with evident understanding, while the rest of the cast was largely dismissed, without comment. Miss Hansen was lucky to survive the season without injury, as following the final curtain of Cramond Brig, the stagehands moved in to change the scenery for a short afterpiece, and a large piece fell on the stage. Bentley sprang forward, receiving the full weight of the scenery on his shoulder, saving Miss Hansen from injury. He apparently said, ‘That was a close shave Miss Hansen’ and repaired to his dressing room to nurse his bruises (Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate,Newcastle, 14 July 1892). Another anecdotal story, and still no supporting images.

    Bentley would have seen the studio portraits of other actors and actresses while he was in Sydney, as Falk Studios, under the direction of Walter Barnett, had been operating there since 1887 (Roger Neill, ‘H. Walter Barnett and Falk Studios’, The Falk Studios The Theatrical Portrait Photography of H. Walter Barnett,Theatre Heritage Australia, 2021, pp.4-19). He probably sensed he too would benefit from a suite of Barnett’s images.

    In June 1892, Bentley visited the Falk Studios to create a portfolio of theatrical studio portraits. Such portraits were posed in costume, as if performing on the stage (Isobel Crombie, ‘H. Walter Barnett and the Evolution of Theatrical and Celebrity Portraiture’, The Falk Studios The Theatrical Portrait Photography of H. Walter Barnett,Theatre Heritage Australia, 2021, pp. 21-32). Isobel Crombie identifies Barnett’s two styles, documentary pictures with even, bright lighting and chiaroscuro moody intimate images, both styles being apparent in the images of Walter Bentley.

    These so-called cabinet cards were often bought by theatregoers as mementoes of their favourite performers. Furthermore, actors and actresses shared their cabinet cards. Bentley carried a photo of Adelaide Ristori with whom he performed in Britain in 1882; he commented a number of times about how precious the photo was to him. When she performed in Sydney in 1914, Ellen Terry, who knew Bentley from their time together with Henry Irving in Britain in the 1870s, gave him a signed photo, in addition to a mantlepiece clock which she inscribed to her former colleague. Van Diemen’s Land politician and Colonial Treasurer, John Henry, became very friendly with Bentley when he was performing in Hobart. In May 1893, even Henry presented Bentley with a photograph as a remembrance. The attraction between the gentlemen must have been mutual, as Henry’s letter is found in one of Bentley’s scrapbooks in the State Library of NSW (hereafter SLNSW) (Green scrapbook, SLNSW ML MSS 8395 Box 1X). Henry and Bentley were to remain in touch for some years, particularly during one of the Federal Conventions when Henry telegrammed Bentley, commenting on the absence of the Queensland delegates, questioning whether ‘the presence of the delegates, though desirable, would materially alter the [constitutional] bill’ (Brisbane Courier, 3 September 1897). Bentley duly reported the communication to the press, comments which would not have delighted Queenslanders!

    Barnett’s theatrical celebrity portraits were in contrast to his social portraits, which largely dispensed with scene setting, showing the figure against a neutral background with a minimum of props, enough to imbue the sitter with certain qualities of elegance, refinement and wealth.

    The portrait above advertises the Falk Studios’ ‘Instantaneous Portraits’ at 496 George Street, Sydney. Fashionable ladies and gentlemen could apparently satisfy their need for cabinet cards without delay.

    The Falk Studio images of Bentley were intended to provide dynamic illustrative evidence of his theatrical abilities. Of the nine images, five are standing portraits and four show him in a seated position. He is throughout regally garbed as Hamlet, with the accoutrements of his role, including dagger and sword. Two portraits (Falk 066/2 and 066/3) are posed with billowing curtains framing the actor; in the next three images (Falk 066/4-6) Bentley appears self-assured and contemplative; the final three images of this sequence (Falk 066/7-9), where background and chiaroscuro lighting have been dispensed with, are attempting to portray the actor in action. However, in these last images in particular, Bentley appears somewhat ill at ease, especially in the last image of the sequence where his stiff and unresponsive stance is in complete contrast to his more dynamic, but nevertheless mannered, pose in Falk 066/7.

    The only profile photograph is in a separate sequence (Falk/067/1), an image of the actor standing, arms crossed, staring into the distance. The sheen of his long, curly hair, the velvety folds of his cloak and the glistening handle of his dagger, render this a quiet, pensive image, which could translate well, almost no matter what role Bentley took to the stage.

    Presumably actors chose the role they wanted to portray for the photographer. Bentley chose Hamlet. It is likely that he thought this would suit most occasions, but then J.C. Williamson called him back to Melbourne for a season of The Silver King. Laura Hansen had moved on and his new leading lady was to be Henrietta Watson. And the Falk pictures were not going to be appropriate!

    Publicity the night before opening included an image of Walter Bentley, after the earlier Vandyck photograph.

    Opening on 20 August 1892 in the Princess Theatre [called in this article Princess’s Theatre], Bentley was presented a few days later with an ebony walking stick, with a silver-plated handle inscribed: ‘Presented by J.C. Williamson To Walter Bentley The Silver King Princess Theatre Melbourne August 20th 1892’ (now in the collection of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, Sydney). It was, he is reported to have said, one of his treasured possessions, which he continued to use throughout his career.

    Naturally, the leading man in The Silver Kingwas the focus,and another sketch appeared, showing Bentley dressed as Wilfred Denver, looking very much the dapper man about town, carrying Williamson’s walking stick.

    Some months after Bentley’s Falk images were taken, finally, the first of the Falk pictures was published in September 1892 in the Illustrated Sydney News, accompanying an almost full-page article about Walter Bentley by an Old Stager. And the image chosen was the static, mannered, standing portrait of Bentley confronting his adversary, sword ready for battle.

    The Old Stager had met Bentley in Edinburgh, when he was a child, then known by his birth name, William Begg. At the invitation of Bentley’s father, the Reverend Dr James Begg, one of the feisty moderators of the Free Church of Scotland, he stayed in the Begg house and breakfasted with the family the following morning. Ten years later, in 1874, Bentley turned up on the doorstep of the Old Stager’s editorial office in The Strand in London, with a letter of introduction from his aunt, Miss Emily Faithfull, well known as a philanthropist, journalist and avid campaigner for women’s rights from the 1860s. Their next encounter was in Sydney, when Bentley was playing Hamlet in the Garrick Theatre, his success due to ‘determined perseverance and unremitting study’ according to the Old Stager, who concluded ‘his great success has yet to come, and this will be when he possesses the opportunity of creating a new part in a new play’.

    Travelling across the Tasman Sea, Bentley and his new leading lady, Katherine Hardy, opened in Invercargill on 3 October 1892, before heading to Dunedin for a lengthy season at the Princess Theatre. His manager, Mr J.H. Lohr, was a master publicist and he would surely have generously supplied the Falk pictures along with information about Walter Bentley.

    New Zealand’s press seemed more interested in caricatures, like the caustic comparison between Walter Bentley’s packed audiences and those sparsely-filled seats in Pastor Blaikie’s church. There must have been some realisation at the Observer’sAuckland offices that Bentley provided good copy, especially concerning the opposing positions of the church and the stage, on morality and education. For two consecutive weeks Bentley was featured as the successful advocate for the stage in face of the declining popularity of the church in the late-nineteenth century.

    The scandal of the actor dining with the Bishop, with phantoms of Bentley’s father, Reverend James Begg DD Edinburgh, and grandfather, Reverend James Begg DD New Monkland, bearing down over both gentlemen, had great traction in New Zealand, and undoubtedly Bentley stirred the pot with letters to the editor about the educational and moral values of the stage. Afterall, it was publicity and it kept Bentley’s name in the press, for one reason or another. And he was enamoured enough with the cartoons to keep them in his scrapbooks.

    One of the first uses that I can find of a theatrical portrait from the Falk Studio in New Zealand newspapers was in November 1893. Primarily the article was about the church and stage issue, suggesting it should be put to bed: ‘the question is whether the time has not arrived when enough has been said concerning the elevation of the stage, the superior moral structure of the player, and the refining and beneficial influence of the play. … The fact that an actor—Mr Bentley, to wit—dines with a Bishop affords matter for comment and cartoon in New Zealand, but this is probably the last occasion on which any notice will be taken of a by no means singular though not insignificant occurrence’ (‘Acting as Art. In Praise of the Player’, The New Zealand Graphic and Ladies’ Journal,National, 21 January 1893). It was entirely irrelevant whether Bentley was playing Hamlet or Wilfred Denver. He was merely an example of an actor, but his pedigree made him the exceptional actor to choose to illustrate such an article.

    As suggested above, one of the limitations of the Falk pictures for reviews of performances during a season was Bentley’s extensive repertoire. If not playing Hamlet, the Falk images were largely irrelevant and although Bentley frequently opened with Hamlet, his programs ranged much wider across a number of Shakespeare’s plays – Macbeth, Richard IIIand The Merchant of Venice and other popular offerings, such as Garrick, Richelieu, The Bells, Money, The Fool’s Revenge, The Lyons Mailand The Lady of Lyons.

    On his return to Australia in February 1893, Bentley headed to Adelaide with a new leading lady, Marie Fraser. Kate Bishop who had played with Bentley for some years continued on the road with the company, which included a couple of other old colleagues, Lachlan McGowan and H.R. Roberts.

    One image became predominant in the publicity and stories about Walter Bentley; it was the wood engraving based on one of Barnett’s photographs. For some years, this image was the headline to introduce Bentley to audiences in the various states in which he toured.

    Other images still had currency, including the engraving based on the earlier Vandyck photograph. The press rolled out the articles, including potted histories of Bentley and his family—father, Reverend Dr James Begg, aunt Miss Emily Faithfull, Robert Burns’ house because Bentley’s family claimed lineage from Robert Burns (although it was distant and through marriage), Adelaide Ristori and Henry Irving. The page below is found somewhat tattered in one of Bentley’s scrapbooks. He must have enjoyed the esteemed profile that was created by such articles.

    Finally, rather than an engraving or sketch, a photograph was in the press in Adelaide’s The Standard, but it wasn’t Barnett’s. It was again the Vandyck image which Bentley had taken in Melbourne in late 1891.

    Between 1895 and 1899, Bentley resided in Brisbane, teaching dramatic arts at the Central Technical College (now part of Queensland University of Technology), and running his own classes in elocution at his Queensland School of Oratory and Dramatic Art, a remarkably successful venture which saw him take to the stage at regular intervals with his students. To promote the performances, Bentley had a new suite of photographs taken by Wiley. Perhaps Merchant of Venicewas more appropriate for his students than Hamlet. Bentley now needed images reflecting his role as Shylock. The Falk Studio pictures of Hamlet had almost seen their day.

    The efforts of his teaching were always appreciated. He was apparently a demanding but skilful teacher. ‘The labour bringing a bank of amateurs to such a state of histrionic discipline that they may be trusted to play Shakespeare must be very great’ said the Queenslander(Brisbane, 2 April 1898). Not everyone was as confident about the success or otherwise of the performance. ‘A Girl’s Letter’, signed Dot Dashaway, took the Brisbane Amateurs to task, suggesting it was ‘altogether too severe a test on the budding abilities of the students, nevertheless a few of them gave very creditable interpretations of the different characters, the most praiseworthy being the Nerissa of Miss Sheehan, and the Bassanio of Mr N. Townley’ (Worker,Brisbane 2 April 1898). Bentley’s Shylock did not come out covered in glory either, as the reviewer thought his Jew ‘far too exaggerated, and altogether too bloodthirsty’. This reviewer preferred [Kyrle] Bellew’s Shylock, ‘a more refined and possible interpretation’.

    Bentley abruptly left Brisbane in 1899 and headed to Sydney where he established an elocution college. The venture was short-lived, as he was soon reviewed appearing in Tasmania. By April he was back in New Zealand, at the start of a seven-month tour of the islands. His role, as John Storm in The Christian, praised for its ‘metaphysical excellence and significance’ (Wanganui Chronicle,10 July 1900), clearly needed new and different images. It is likely these were taken in New Zealand as they were not reproduced in Australian papers when Bentley took the role.

    Here we have a pensive Walter Bentley, garbed in clerical collar, with his head turned just enough to enable us to see his distant gaze. The chiaroscuro mood is sombre, the scene devoid of props and stage scenery.

    In Wellington, Bentley reprised the role of Wilfred Denver in The Silver King.The earlier images from his Australian performances of the play must have been considered dated, both for the actor and for photographic techniques, as a completely new picture accompanied the publicity for the Wellington season of the Douglas Ancelon Dramatic Company (Free Lance,Wellington 7 July 1900). Shown in contemporary dress, the actors sit under dramatic lighting which models face and hair, directing the viewer to the intensity of the gaze. These are moody, evocative portrait busts, as far as possible from the narrative, performative sequences taken by Barnett. Playing opposite Bentley was Ada Woodhill, who took the role of Gloria Quayle. This suite of images shows the actors and actresses in their costumes. Publicity in other papers renamed the company as the Walter Bentley Dramatic Company, and used different style of theatrical portraits, such as the highly theatrical pose of Ada Woodhill in Free Lance, and Douglas Ancelon in the New Zealand Mail,which also published a more generalised pose of the actress.

                                                        Picture24Picture25  Picture26

    (L) ‘Miss Ada Woodhill as Glory [sic] Quayle’, Free Lance (Wellington) 7 July 1900; (centre) ‘Miss Ada Woodhill and (R ) Mr Douglas Ancelon,
    of the Walter Bentley Dramatic Company’, New Zealand Mail (Wellington), 28 June 1900

    Then, after almost ten years in Australasia, Bentley left for America, playing in San Francisco and New York, with Ada Woodhill, Ethel Hunt and Douglas Ancelon. From New York, he sailed to Britain and resumed his career in London and on the touring circuit in Britain. 

    By the time Bentley returned definitively to Australia, in 1909, aged 60, the Falk images were almost twenty years old and relevant only to articles which reviewed his career on the stage. ‘Old Stager’, who we met back in 1892, recounting his meeting with Bentley’s father and the young William Begg, was back in print in 1909, in a recapitulation of the history with a few additional lines (‘Theatrical Memories. 5. Walter Bentley’, The Theatre, 1 December 1909). This article, signed by John Plummer, suggests that Bentley appeared at his London Figaro office a few years after that first meeting, seeking assistance to go on stage, after which he went to New Zealand in 1870. He would have been about fourteen years old, which was not unheard of in the 1860s. Henry Irving, for example, with whom Bentley was to work in the Lyceum Theatre in the 1870s, was working in a law firm when aged only 13, and on the stage professionally at 18. It is more likely, however, that Bentley, who showed little interest in the theatre when he was young—which is not surprising given his father’s vehement opposition to the stage—developed his commitment while he was in New Zealand, and that he appeared at Mr Plummer’s office when he returned to London in 1874, determined to make his career in the theatre.

    Accompanying Plummer’s article was the Falk image of Bentley as Hamlet, an image that had appeared as a caricature in the same magazine a few months prior.

    At times newspapers printed images that were entirely inappropriate for his performances, such as the swashbuckling image which accompanied news of his Passion Play recital in Adelaide in December 1912.

    A previously unseen photograph appeared in a Sydney paper in 1913. Given the similarities with the Vandyck image of 1891, it is obvious that this was taken on the same day as the more widely publicised picture!—the clothes are the same, the pose slightly different. As Bentley was playing Hamlet at the Royal, the Falk Studio photographs would have been more appropriate, than his town attire, looking more like Wilfred Denver of The Silver King.

    Under the headline ‘Walter Bentley. A Romantic Career’ The Theatre Magazine(1 October 1915) had a five-page spread on the actor, accompanied by three images, a large contemporary photograph by May Moore, a roundel titled ‘At the age of thirty-five’, and one of the Falk images of Bentley as Hamlet. Bentley kept a copy of the magazine, which is now found with his scrapbooks (SLNSW ML MSS 8395 Box 3X).

    Interestingly enough, the picture described as the actor at the age of thirty-five, is the Vandyck image of 1891 when he was forty-two years old. Was it Bentley’s lapse in memory that caused the image to be described as the actor at age thirty-five, when in fact he was not in Australia, but in the midst of a three-year tour of America?

    Of the other two photographs, one was a Falk image from 1892, the other a new photograph by May Moore, in all likelihood taken in 1915. Bentley was to patronise Moore’s studio for the rest of his life.

    In complete contrast, Bentley’s picture kept popping up in various advertisements, such as this one for Hean’s Essence, a remedy for coughs and colds. May Moore’s photograph became the dominant image in future articles.

    Bentley retired from the professional stage in 1915, turning his focus to running his elocution college, which went by a number of different names including the College of Voice Culture and the Austral College of Music and Dramatic Art. His role as co-founder of the Actors’ Association of Australia occupied considerable time, as an advocate for the arts, entrepreneurial organiser of charitable benefits, and host of many social occasions. (For Bentley’s role with the Actors’ Association of Australia see ‘Walter Bentley and the Actors’ Association of Australia, Theatre Heritage Australia - Walter Bentley and the Actors’ Association of Australia (Part 1) December 2020 and Theatre Heritage Australia - Walter Bentley and the Actors’ Association of Australia (Part 2) March 2021)

    At monthly intervals, Bentley appeared with the Walter Bentley Players, most frequently in St James’s Hall, Sydney, taking the lead role in support of his amateur students, a number of whom went on to the professional stage.

    Newspapers were focused on the developing war in Europe and yet among a page of photographs commemorating the dead and depicting wounded soldiers was a tribute to Bentley’s birthday. Obviously, fond memories remained of his stage career. The accompanying photo was by May Moore.

    The final performative photos for Walter Bentley were for the Shakespeare Tercentenary Committee, which produced a benefit performance of The Merchant of Venicein 1921.

    Illness progressively denied Bentley the opportunity to remain on stage. He spent the last months of his life confined to bed in his flat in Phillip Street, Sydney, occasionally holding forth with his old colleagues, but even that became too tiring. He knew the end was near and allowed one last interview, accompanied by pictures by May Moore. It was a poignant interview in which he passed the baton of his college to his wife, Mildred, a former student herself.

    Less than a month later, Bentley died by his own hand, a tragedy which was broadcast across the nation, in newspapers in major cities and regional towns, but given the circumstances, images were not considered appropriate.

    It remains to question why the Falk Studio portraits, which so many actors and actresses commissioned, were, at least during Walter Bentley’s career, if not the careers of others, so infrequently used in publicity pieces or reviews. In the 1890s, we could suppose that the inclusion of photographs added to publication costs and complicated printing processes. We could assume that their currency was limited because they were tied to particular roles. Or we might suggest that the images were primarily cabinet cards for adoring audiences, other actors and actresses and close friends, and that any reproduction by the press was an unexpected, additional bonus.



    I would like to thank Clay Djubal for sharing his research on Walter Bentley with me and Elisabeth Kumm for her comments on a draft of this paper.