McInnes’s most famous public commission was for stage actress Nellie Stewart. The Nellie Stewart Portrait Fund was initiated in August 1929, with the aim to raise between 350 and 400 guineas. Subscribers from all over Australia, donated from a shilling upwards to commission an eminent painter to immortalise Stewart as ‘Sweet Nell’. Sweet Nell was a role that Stewart had played many times and was strong in the memory of the community. It was to be a tribute to her beauty and youthful appearance, which was a significant challenge for McInnes as the actress was now 72 years old, however her ‘ageless’ appearance was an often-marvelled feature of Stewart’s. The public wanted to remember her as their sweet young Nell, and this was McInnes’s task. It was keenly hoped that the portrait would be hung in a public gallery.
Nellie Stewart was possibly the most adored and loved actress of any time in Australian history. She was not only beautiful and vivacious, but she had incredible magnetism. She was called ‘Australia’s Idol’. Her celebrity cannot be overstated, with her celebrity status equivalent to Dame Nellie Melba’s but unlike Melba, there would be no recorded legacy of her performances. Once she stopped performing on stage, she would be forgotten.
Nellie Stewart worked on stage for more than fifty years, playing leading roles. There are many stories about her that reflect her colourful character and immense spirit. In 1883, she broke her arm while performing on stage and in true ‘the show must go on’ spirit, she had her arm set during the interval, then continued with the second half performance. Nellie was also a fashion icon whose dress style was copied by women all over Australia and New Zealand. She wore a particular bangle that was given to her by her devoted long-term partner and father of her daughter. The plain gold bangle was in lieu of a wedding ring as her partner was unable to obtain a divorce from his wife. This began a trend amongst young women – the ‘Nellie Stewart bangle’ as a symbol of romantic attachment.
In 1888 she played the role of Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne. On opening night, Federici, who played Mephistopheles, sang the final note of his aria and fell dead as he descended below the stage. (It is said that his ghost haunts the theatre.) For Stewart however, the unfortunate legacy from this production was that after singing for twenty-four consecutive nights, she damaged her vocal cords and was forced to confine her performances to predominantly speaking roles thereafter.
Throughout the 1920s there had been talk amongst her fans that a portrait should be painted of her for perpetuity. Art writer William Moore had suggested it as early as 1922. The idea gained momentum in the late 1920s as Nellie neared her seventies. At the initiative of some Sydney admirers, Nellie sat for artist Mary Edwards in 1929, however after several sittings, Nellie was unimpressed by the painting and refused to accept it. An incensed Mary Edwards took Stewart to court claiming £100 under an alleged agreement to purchase the portrait of herself in the costume of Nell Gwynne. Mary Edwards supported her argument by having the portrait ‘approved’ by Sir John Longstaff. This court case was heard around the time that McInnes began painting his portrait of Stewart. It had to be foremost in his mind and remind him of the necessity to adhere to the concept of ‘young’ Nell. As a result, although there is some fine brushwork in the costume, the painting is very much a flat record of the actress and the times, rather than a great painting.
Mary Edwards was awarded £75 on the basis that she should be paid for actual material costs and time and skill, regardless of whether the sitter was satisfied. Edwards auctioned the Nellie Stewart portrait off soon after. (Edwards painted and exhibited all her life but is now possibly most remembered for her involvement in taking legal action against the Sydney National Gallery trustees in an effort to revoke the award of the Archibald Prize for portrait painting in 1943 to William Dobell for his alleged ‘caricature’ of Joshua Smith.)
McInnes’s portrait was presented to Stewart during a special evening performance at the Tivoli Theatre in Melbourne in October 1930.As a special souvenir supplement, Table Talk reproduced a free presentation plate of McInnes’ portrait of Stewart as Sweet Nell, in the journal in full colour and ready for framing. In accordance with the subscribers’ wishes, Stewart gifted the painting to the National Gallery of Victoria. In February 1931 Bernard Hall hung the painting in the gallery, replacing a painting by Max Meldrum. This drew the wrath of Meldrum’s supporters who saw the act as a deliberate insult to Meldrum, who they believed to be one of the greatest painters of all time. The Meldrum painting The Peasant of Pace had been presented by Meldrum, under the terms of the National Gallery of Victoria Travelling Scholarship in 1912. It had been on view for nearly twenty years and Hall felt it had had a good innings. The Meldrum supporters agitated for its reinstatement through a barrage of letters to the press.
Disliking public conflict, McInnes expressed his regret to the press that the Meldrum painting had been removed. He said he would much rather his other painting Malcolm and Gyp, had been removed to make room for the Nellie Stewart picture. With his usual humility he said, ‘I would not like to see the work of any other artist removed to make way for my work." As an extra conciliation, he added that he would like to see more Meldrum works in the gallery. Writer Vance Palmer drafted a letter of protest against the removal of Meldrum’s painting and garnered as many significant signatures as possible. Several artists went to McInnes’s house and asked him to sign the letter. McInnes signed the letter but then later changed his mind and followed after them to remove his name from the letter. Perhaps it was out of consideration for Hall. It was an awkward position for him. Hall, as usual, appeared unmoved and explained that the decision was made simply on the basis of what had been hanging the longest and the Gallery trustees upheld this decision.
The controversy resulted in increased attendance at the gallery. Everyone wanted to see the Nellie Stewart portrait and what all the fuss was about. The only sufferer was the attendant at the McArthur Gallery, who was kept busy directing people to ‘the picture’. McInnes knew the painting was certainly not one of his great works. In fact, Bernard Hall had advised the trustees that McInnes had much better work that could be bought but allowance had to be made for public taste and sentiment and besides, Sweet Nell had been gifted to them.
Stewart died eight months after her portrait was completed. The whole nation went into mourning. Thousands of people lined the streets around the church for her funeral, with a further series of services held for the crowds of fans who wanted to pay their respects. In true character, Nellie requested no-one wear black or be gloomy.
Nellie Stewart (1858–1931) was a beloved Australian stage actress and singer. Her most famous role was as Nell Gwynne in the romantic comedy Sweet Nell of Old Drury. From this production, she became popularly known as ‘Sweet Nell’. Stewart first played the role in 1902 at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne. She played the role again nine years later, at the age of 52, touring nationally for many months. It was through this production of Sweet Nell of Old Drury, which comprised of one-night performances in most of Australia’s cities and large towns, that she endeared herself to the hearts of many Australians. Stewart was all charm, wit and vivacity, and the crowds adored her. Wherever she played, there was standing room only. This tour was followed by a film adaptation of the play in which Stewart starred, consolidating her name further. When Stewart was nearly 70, she played the role yet again in Sydney and was acclaimed for her lithe and graceful performance. Understandably it was her fame as Sweet Nell that was held in the hearts of Australians everywhere and this dictated McInnes’s depiction.
Margot Tasca, William Beckwith McInnes: An artist’s life, Thames & Hudson Australia Pty Ltd, Melbourne, 2022
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