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Wednesday, 03 March 2021

The Falk Studios: Book Review

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Theatre Heritage Australia’s latest publication, The Falk Studios, celebrates the work of Sydney-based photographer H. Walter Barnett. Eminent photo-historian and researcher GAEL NEWTON takes a look at the book and discovers more about the original owners of the Falk album which formed the impetus for the publication.

Pages from Falk Catalogue 8 spreadsThe Falk Studio: The Theatrical Portrait Photography of H. Walter Barnett

The Album’s Tale …

Worldwide the commercial re-sale of portraits of performing arts stars was a major source of income and profile for late 19th century studios with the right ambience to lure such sitters to their premises.

The Falk Studios: The Theatrical Portrait Photography of H. Walter Barnett celebrates the survival over one hundred and twenty four years of a mammoth album of 1600 photographs of theatre stars and celebrities. While no logo is present, the bulk of portraits in the album can be securely identified as from H. Walter Barnett’s ‘Falk’ Studio in Sydney circa 1890-95.

The Falk album’s major content arises from one very successful Australian portrait studio entrepreneur. It gives a wonderful cache for study of Barnett’s work prior to his departure for London in 1897 and the zeitgeist of the theatrical world portrait style of the time.

Photographs dated to the 1910s -1920s on the last fifteen pages are believed to have been added by a well-known Sydney actor and stage manager, J.W. Hazlitt.

The period covered by the initial compilation of the Falk album concludes in 1895 at the time of the launch of a second Falk studio in Melbourne. It would have been a hugely expensive and time-consuming production to compile an album of such size unless made in-house by Falk studio. The layout with sitters in alphabetical order in grids of nine prints to a page, matches various series of Falk studio celebrity portraits series copyrighted by Falk studios Melbourne in 1896.1

When ordered by customers the images would have been mounted on attractive cards with the studio logo, mostly at the prevailing popular cabinet card size 10.8 by 16.5 cm.

The Falk album’s survival long past the time when the subjects and style of the images had any topical currency, is a bit of a miracle. It has been a sleeping beauty whose reawakening has come via the energetic commitment of Theatre Heritage Australia and supporters to honour the owner’s wish that the material be accessible.

The Falk album comes to life again through the lively image reproduction quality and sensitive design treatment in the 2021 Theatre Heritage Australia Falk Studios publication. Sample pages from the original album can be seen in the end papers of the book and online as The Falk Album is fully digitized on Theatre Heritage Australia website with helpful indexes to the sitters. Well worth a visit.

The pitch and level of information suits both photography or theatre enthusiasts as well as readers who stumble upon this attractive book in a shop.

The group of essays and select sitters biographies in The Falk Studios provide a fine introduction to album’s sitters as well as a profile of the photographer and context for both theatre and photographic arts trends;

  • a summarised biography of Barnett by British biographer and Barnett champion Roger Neill;
  • the genre of celebrity photography by former Assistant Director of the NGV and Senior Curator of Photography Dr Isobel Crombie who stresses the emotional impact of his use of close up; and
  • writer and curator Simon Plant alternating modes of portraying performers in character and in repose to tease out the force of character that made them successful.

The foreword by Elisabeth Kumm is a ripping yarn in itself as it tells of the research and sleuthing done to elucidate the album’s maker, compiler, dating and provenance to the present day.

The Melbourne born professional photographer Henry Walter Barnett (1862-1934) opened his elegant Falk studio premises in George Street, Sydney in 1887 and built a clientele among the social elite and stage stars.

Barnett’s contemporaries frequently remark on his charismatic personality and cultured interests. There are scant portraits of Barnett but he was a handsome, dapper dresser with a rather theatrical moustache.2

The Sydney Falk studio was directly managed by Barnett until 1897, when encouraged by success in exhibiting his portraiture in London photographic salons, he relocated to London with wife Ella. The following year the ‘H. Walter Barnett’ portrait studio opened at fashionable Hyde Park corner.3

The Melbourne Falk studio was managed by Barnett’s younger siblings Charles and Phoebe who were supplied and supported by Walter, but appears to have passed to the firm of Johnstone, O’Shannessy, Falk by 1905.4

By 1910 the London studio was a resounding success and Barnett very active in professional and amateur art photography circles. He and Ella were comfortable in the London vice-regal, high society and arts milieu. Walter maintained links with Australian artists and assisted them in London over many years.

The pre WWI years were the height of Barnett’s personal and professional success and it is possible he planned expansion into America having made a tour there in 1911. The war saw his activity directed to military officer portraits but both the high society and live theatre world he catered to, were never the same after 1918. Barnett retired to France in 1920 taking some photographs but developing his art collecting interests. His death in Nice in 1934 was noted in the photographic press in London and Australia.

Upon his 1920’s retirement, Barnett’s London studio negatives were left with the new owner and a large group of these miraculously survived to be acquired by the National Portrait Gallery in London in the 1990s. The Portrait Gallery now holds over 500 Barnett photographs mostly British but a sprinkling of expatriate Australians and several portraits of Barnett and sister Phoebe.5

We may never know the original impetus and funding of the album. The first known custodian is James Woods Hazlitt [(Hanna, 1861-1943) was an Irish-born actor and stage manager working since the late 1880s. Hazlitt was associated in particular with theatre entrepreneurs George Rignold and J.C. Williamson [JCW]. He worked for the latter from 1903, lastly as house manager of the JCW flagship Her Majesty’s Theatre in Sydney from 1926 until 1930 when pensioned off due to ill health. Known as Jimmy, Hazlitt was very well liked and respected and frequently featured in newspaper columns.6 In his last years, Hazlitt still had the album which charted his own era, knowing every face and many as personal friends. Her Majesty’s and the Criterion had closed in the 1930s as movies and Talkies brought an era of live theatre to a close.7

The album is next known in the custody of Frank S. Tait (1883–1965) the Melbourne-based general manager of JCW’s. By the time of Tait’s ownership many of the sitters were deceased or forgotten as was Barnett the photographer. Tait fittingly affixed a label on the cover ‘Theatrical and other Celebrities of Bygone Days’. Sir Frank—as he became, had the album most likely into the 1950s and probably up to his death in 1965. It may have remained with his firm the amalgamated JCW/Tait theatre until operations ceased in 1976. The Falk album slumbered in Melbourne private collections until given as a gift to the current owner Nick Henderson in 2014. Henderson appreciated its immense historical and aesthetic interest and made the album available to Theatre Heritage Australia for digitization.

To dip into the album today is to glimpse another era in which photographs of performers were the currency of an intimate new relationship with their admirers. The photographer and performer faced considerable technological and psychological challenges in trying to re-enact the magic of performance in the cold daylight of a studio with no company and no audience. Yet in the still images we can still sense the transformative power of the live performance. For example, the pathos of Charles Cartwright in the series of poses from his role as artist-potter Cyrus Blenkarn in the 1891 production The Middleman.

A purview of the collective imagery suggests men were masterful and the women for a large part appear as pale faced, medieval damsels with tumbling locks dressed in lots of frills and feathers. Feisty new women lurk as well.

There is an engagement in many Barnett portraits perhaps from his known habit of taking many ‘situations’ as he called the large number of poses he took of his most famous sitters. Perhaps these multiple takes  which are almost cinematic (and he was for a moment in the 1890s involved with early cinema) brought out just that bit more from the sitter. Barnett research in the Theatre Heritage Australia publication as elsewhere still relies heavily on the account and reminiscences of Australian photographer and author Jack Cato a one time assistant of Barnett’s.

The hope now is that a large monograph on Barnett who remains a bit elusive as well as further studies of the intertwined history of theatre and photography are prompted by this publication.



1. See State Library Victoria holdings from Victorian Patents Office Copyright Collection (VPOCC), 7 August 1896 of Falk Sydney ‘new Series’ proofs of Kyrle Bellew, H96.160/504 and Falk Melbourne of ‘Mrs Potter Melbourne Series “Rosalind” evening dress private’, H96.160/491 : H96.160/494

A newspaper report on the new Melbourne Falk studio opening commented on the luxurious facilities for stars including mirrors with pseudo footlights and that each guest at the opening ‘was presented with a souvenir of the occasion—a pamphlet being a resume of the work done at the Sydney studio’. ‘The Falk Studios’, Table Talk, 22 March 1895, p.3.

2. An interview in 1903 on a return visit gives a flavour of Barnett’s personality;  ‘A chat with Mr. Walter Barnett. A world-famous photographer’, Critic, 8 March 1903, p.6. ‘“Photography is no longer a matter of technique, but psychology,” and so saying, this ardent, forceful speaker sits down and settles to talk art, science, literature, and more things in heaven and on earth ever dreamt of in my philosophy. In a word, Mr. Barnett is no ordinary man. The indomitable will and a bold courage of the youthful Australian who took London by storm at the age of 26 with the most perfect process of photography in the world, prepare one in a measure for the impetuous and dominant character he reveals in personal contact.’

3. Walter Barnett cut his ties with the Sydney Falk studio around 1900. The studio had been run since 1897 by the British chemist turned photographer from Melbourne John H.S. Brooks-Thornley (1868-1936) firstly in partnership with Barnett’s financiers Aaron and G. Louis Blashki, then as owner from 1901 until circa 1920.

4. See ‘A chat with Mr. Walter Barnett. A world-famous photographer’, Critic, 8 March 1903, p.6. for a first person commentary by Barnett and interesting references to his personal use of Kodak snapshots.

Walter’s brother Charles had received an earlier write up when interviewed in the same paper, ‘“The Man Behind the Camera.” BARNETT OF FALK’S. ARTIST AND PHOTOGRAPHER’, Critic, 16 December 1899, p.47. In the interview Charles reports on a letter from Walter, from Antwerp, where he went for a flying visit to the Vandyke Exhibition. ‘“I want to get the effect of the old masters.” There it is in a nutshell. You know those marvellous old portraits, the light delicately suffused on to the canvas, throwing up every characteristic—of the man, while subordinating every valueless detail. In short, doing everything that makes the perfect portrait. We get this tone value by the use of the back-light, instead of the old-fashioned light from the front. In this, as in other of our methods, we have been widely imitated.” “Falk creates: the rest copy.”’

5. A substantial H. Walter Barnett archive passed from his assistant of twenty years, Margaret Bentley to the Gernsheim Humanities Research Centre in Texas in October 1954, but is not digitized,

6. For example; referred to as a handsome man caricatures of a portly Jimmy appear in ‘PERSONAL PARS’, Murchison Advocate , 18 March 1905, p.3 and Sunday Times, 19 June 1927, p.2. A portrait is in Punch, 24 April 1913, p.693, in connection with role as producer of ‘Faust’ at the King’s Theatre, Melbourne.

7. See, ‘To retire J.W. Hazlitt’s decision theatical identity’, The Sun, 9 January 1930, p.17 and interview at his home in Wollstonecraft in 1933, as Hazlitt reminiscences on the last night of Her Majesty’s and mentions his possession of old programmes and an album; ‘First curtain actor will see the last’, Daily Telegraph, 10 June, 1933, p.8. Hazlitt was not wealthy and died intestate with a modest probate. He separated from his wife and children in early life. His siblings or his surviving son may have arranged the sale of the album. See interview by Robin Hughes with WWI veterans 27 February 1992, with Jack Hazlitt,


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Gael Newton

Gael Newton AM is former senior curator photography at the National Gallery of Australia and author of a number of books and monographs on Australian photography past and present. She specialises in early Southeast Asia photography and has contributed to a number of publications and exhibitions in Singapore.