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 Bells and 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 Haruto to 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 King was 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.
Walking stick, wood/metal, maker unknown, Australia, used by Walter Bentley, 1892
Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, Sydney, object 2000/75/1
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’s Auckland 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 III and The Merchant of Venice and other popular offerings, such as Garrick, Richelieu, The Bells, Money, The Fool’s Revenge, The Lyons Mail and 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 Venice was 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.
(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 Venice in 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.