The online magazine of Theatre Heritage Australia
Bob Ferris

Bob Ferris

Bob Ferris is a member of the Australian Cartophilic Society of Australia and has collected cigarette and trade cards since the late 1970s. He has been a regular contributor to the Society Newsletter and Magazine—The Australian Card Collector—for over twenty years and has been Co-editor of the magazine since 2016.

Bob was awarded Life Membership of the Society in 2019.

BOB FERRIS concludes his appraisal of the career of musical comedy performer Clara Clifton.  Part 3 charts her appearances with J.C. Williamson's Royal Comic Opera Company, from her role as Mrs. Girdle in the 1906 production of The Spring Chicken through to her performance in The Lady Dandies and her retirement in late 1908.

The Melbourne racing season was well underway and on Victorian Derby Night, 3 November 1906, The Spring Chicken had its Australian premiere at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne, with later performances in Adelaide starting on 6 April and Sydney on 8 June 1907 and a revival in Melbourne for Show Week the following August.

The plot of this musical was simple, although some thought the storyline improper. Gustave Babori (Reginald Roberts) a staid lawyer and dutiful husband in winter is involved in flirtatious exploits and infidelity in the springtime, a practice which his dutiful wife, Dulcie (Olive Morell in her first appearance in Australia) wants to stop. There are endless complications—Babori falls in love with a client, Baroness Papouche (Alma Barber) who is seeking a divorce and he is also infatuated with Rosalie (Florence Young) a ‘playful’ French maid. He is aided in his amorous adventures by his father in-law, Mr. Girdle (George Lauri), who is similarly incline.

Clara played the part of Mrs. Girdle, the mother-in-law of Babori, a character role which suited her burlesque skill perfectly. Her performance was the subject of another cleverly drawn sketch.1

Mrs Girdle drew upon her experience of men and her female guile in dealing with her own flirtatious husband to benefit the ladies in their endeavours and to finally reconcile the parties. Clara’s rendition of ‘I Don’t Know, But I Can Guess (what I don’t know of Babori, or any other man, I can guess)’, a pointed reference to the philanders, was according to the Argus review one of the most lilting airs of the piece (and) the keynote of the whole production.2 And the Leader wrote that the song would have startled the moral purists out of their propriety.3

The Bulletin, however, in a biting comment, thought there was a lack of spice in the performance and that it was ‘not counteracted by the cloying sweetness of mother-in-law Clara Clifton … Charmingly chubby and coyly arch in her appeal to audiences, this ingratiating lady, regarded in the light of a pickle for devilled son-in-law, is sadly deficient in mustard, pepper and vinegar. ’4

While Clara’s comic skill was often acknowledged, little was said of her singing, although of her Mrs. Girdle performance in Sydney it was said that she sings very prettily and was also referred to as the ‘silver-voiced’ actress.5

According to the Leader there was a special feminine interest in the musical because the costumes were of the height of fashion—or what would be the fashion next week.6 Clara was fastidious with her stage wardrobe, which was splendid; she dressed as a fashionable society woman. Likewise, her off-stage attire was most elegant. The fashions seen on stage were often copied by stylish women and many in the social set attended the theatre merely to see what was in vogue.

Reviews of performances and ‘Ladies Pages’ in daily newspapers often devoted space to an actress’s wardrobe and the quality of her dress. Clara’s wardrobe was regularly singled out for comment including in her role as Mrs. Girdle in The Spring Chicken where it was noted that Clara’s handsome personality was more pronounced by two effective toilettes: ‘the second an exquisite gown of white brocade, the corsage draped with white chiffon and lace, a trail of bright crimson roses just giving the necessary touch of color, a couple of dark roses worn in the becoming grey hair.’7 The ensemble can be seen in the Talma postcard above.

Almost twelve months to the day when last in Melbourne, The Girl from Kay’s was again performed at Her Majesty’s, playing for a week in early December 1906. As a finale to the performance on 17 December, a number of popular selections from some of the Company’s previous musicals were performed, including a rendition of ‘Zo Zo’ from Kitty Grey by Clara, the song which first gave her prominence in Australia.

Two days later the company left on the Riverina for a tour of New Zealand with a repertoire of performances scheduled in major cities through to Easter 1907. The season opened at the Wellington Opera House on Boxing Day evening with a performance of The Orchid and Clara ‘easily stepped into the good graces of patrons, and she bids fair to become a warm favourite with New Zealand audiences ... If it were possible, the audience would have had her sing “In My Time” all night to them’.8

During the tour, the illness of George Lauri gave W.S. Percy the opportunity to play Meakin (the gardener) in performances of The Orchid at Christchurch and the press reported that his scenes with Miss Clifton were full of spontaneity and fun. 9

After a successful run at the London Apollo Theatre the previous year, The Dairymaids had its Australian premiere at Her Majesty’s Theatre on Saturday, 7 September 1907. The musical had been eagerly anticipated by Melbourne theatre patrons and the show attracted full houses throughout its season.

In this farcical musical, Clara played Lady Brudenell who had established a model dairy for the well-being of young ladies. Two of the dairymaids are her wards, Winifred and Peggy, played by Florence Young and Fanny Dango. It was Dango’s first performance in Australia and she also played the part of the chief Sandow girl.10 Emma Temple, in her first appearance with the Comic Opera Co., played Miss Penelope Pyechase the severe and pedantic schoolmistress. Besides the frolicsome dairymaids, there are naval officers, Brudenell’s flirtatious nephews and a gymnasium scene involving many young attractive ladies in clinging white gowns, doing various ‘Sandow’ exercises.11

The script, according to Punch, provided few opportunities for Clara to excel in what was described as a chanceless, thankless role. Moreover, as a capable vocalist Clara was not given the opportunity to sing, other than in chorus work, a shortcoming in the production which also applied to other well-known singers in the cast: Reginald Roberts, Alma Barber and Claude Bantock.12

The Melbourne Herald, however, considered Clara’s performance a great triumph, writing of ‘her wonderful skill in getting en rapport with her audience’ and that ‘she uses melodramatic phrases with almost perfect melodramatic enunciation and gesture’, concluding that ‘the part suits her to a nicety, and her style has improved since we first had the pleasure of seeing her in Melbourne.’13

Some four months later The Dairymaids played in Sydney for the first time on 1 February 1908 for a six-week season. As in the Melbourne production, Clara was said to be handsome and dignified as Lady Brudenell, with reference again being made to her singing—what little vocal work was attributed to the role was rendered with the artiste’s usual care.14

20230315 135958 1Clara Clifton as Lady Brudenell, with Alma Barber (Helene) and Arthur Crane (Captain Fred Leverton). Photo by Talma. Courtesy of Andrew Barrie.

Writing on the Sydney show for Punch, ‘The Don’ felt The Dairymaids had suffered in comparison with The Girls of Gottenberg, the previous production at the theatre. It was, he said clumsily constructed, the comedy was fifth rate and the music commonplace and monotonous. On the contrary the reviewer said it was unnecessary to write anything about Clara’s character as ‘whatever the piece or the part, she is always Clara Clifton. “Semper Eadem” [always the same] is her motto, and she never shifts from her moorings’.15

With her public popularity Clara’s private life often caught the attention of the press and any titbit, sometimes less than flattering, was newsworthy. For instance, the Critic wrote: ‘Miss Clara Clifton goes riding into the country on fine days. Being no light-weight, she has to use great judgement in selecting a trusty steed. She generally finds him.’16 And the Bulletin also weighed in with an invasive passage: ‘the latest footlighter to turn to the “d.f. villa …” is Miss Cara Clifton. That genial soul, what time she isn’t impersonating ladies of various qualities, is enthusiastically playing housewife in a nest at Albert Park. Nowadays the imported busker frequently shows an amiable leaning towards domesticity, and modestly avoids the unblinking observation of public tables-d’hote.’17

Clara wrote an indignant denial and demanded the statement contradicted. The Bulletin reluctantly agreed, but not without a final barb— ‘Miss Clifton doesn’t cook her own chop in her own domicile. She hangs out at the Old White Hart, Melbourne.’18

Due to ill health, Clara could not take her role as Mrs Privett when Alfred Celier’s popular pastoral comic opera, Dorothy opened at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Sydney on 20 July 1907 and was replaced by Pressy Preston. Clara returned to the role when the comic opera played for a week’s run in Melbourne the following October, Preston stayed on for the Melbourne production in the lesser role of Lady Betty.

Clara’s role of Mrs. Privett, the sister of Squire Bantam, was that of a comely, middle aged widow and reviews of her performance were mixed. The Age, for instance, commented that she ‘went through her appointed task on conventional lines, but never once looked as though she felt them to be either appropriate or convincing.’19 Whereas Table Talk wrote that she was a superb Mrs. Privett and was the perfect foil to George Lauri’s, Lurcher which enabled him to fully realise the humorous possibilities of the piece.20 This comment was echoed by the Bulletin which wrote: Lauri and Miss Clifton got full allowance of applause and delighted guffaw for their buffoonery as Lurcher and Mrs. Privett. 21 And the Gadfly said of her role that she loses more of the Clara than usual and assumes a good deal more of the character.22

The Royal Comic Opera Co’s next attraction was the military musical comedy The Girls of Gottenberg which had its first Australian performance at Her Majesty’s, Melbourne on 26 October 1907, in a season which coincided with the Cup racing carnival. There was a packed house on opening night and most numbers were encored by an enthusiastic audience, many who were no doubt buoyed by a successful day at the races. Following its very successful run in Melbourne the musical moved to Sydney as the Christmas holiday attraction.

The musical was an extravaganza of colour from the military uniforms to the costumes of the chorus girls and the dressing of the principals. A cast of some thirty characters included most of the Company’s principal players, with Clara in the role of Clementine, the Burgonmaster’s daughter. Of particular note was the appearance of the Comic Opera tenor Reginald Roberts after an absence of 18 months in America, as Otto Prince of Saxe-Hildesheim an officer in the Blue Hussars.

The storyline concerned two regiments, the Red and Blue Hussars, both which are languishing in Rottenberg where there is only one girl. Both groups want to be transferred to Gottenberg where there are plenty of beautiful, fun-loving girls at a military college. The Kaiser choses the Red Hussars but then enters Max Moddelkopf (George Lauri) a trickster who impersonates a special envoy, switches the orders to have the Blue troops transferred to Gottenberg. Throw into the mix a prince, the burgomaster and daughter, an innkeeper and daughter and a General and his daughter and plenty of romantic intrigue.

As Clementine, Clara’s was once more a buxom and attractive lady with her humorous persona at its best and her song ‘You Know How Shy I Am’ and her duet with George Lauri, ‘Birds in the Trees’ were redemanded by the audience. In one of Clara’s comic sketches the audience was ‘almost broken up when she bundled Adolf, the Town Clerk (W.S. Percy), almost onto the footlights for daring to interfere between father and daughter’.23

From about the 1907 season of the Opera Co., or possibly earlier, some theatrical scribes had noted a changing role for Clara and that despite her being a vast favourite with musical comedy audiences, she was being restricted to minor character roles. The reviewer for the Melbourne Leader for instance, in a backhanded compliment, thought that Clara as Clementine had been given more prominence than she has recently been afforded, 24 and the correspondent for the British Era magazine thought that ‘Miss Clara Clifton a veritable idol to both sexes of playgoers, had too little to do as the Burgermeister’s daughter, but it was good vocal and histrionic ballast in a ship freighted with frivolity’.25

The ‘too little to do’ comment was also noted by ‘The Don’ of Punch in his review of The Lady Dandies when he wrote that Clara as Egle (and Evelyn Scott as Liane ) have little or nothing to do, 26 a view echoed elsewhere—Miss Clara Clifton as Egle has nothing to do with the action of the piece (but does brighten the third act with her song).27 And as a throw-away line, Miss Clara Clifton as Egle and Miss Evelyn Scott as Liane, are also in the cast.28

The Lady Dandies, a comic opera of the French Revolutionary days during the infamous Directoire, began its season at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Sydney on 21 March 1908 and was later transferred to the Theatre Royal in early April before its final performance on 9 May. Clara played Egle the flirtatious young wife of her gout ridden old husband, Des Gouttieres (Arthur Hunter), secretary to the Directors.

Lady Dandies resizeFrom Melbourne Punch, 23 April 1908, p.18

Shortly after the season finished Clara was on board the RMS Britannia for a five-month holiday in England, leaving Sydney on 6 June 1908, with the stated intention to return to Australia in time for the Christmas production of The Duchess of Dantzic. When interviewed on her return on board the RMS Orotava in Perth, Clara reiterated her intention: ‘I am now travelling direct to Sydney for the purpose of joining the “Duchess of Dantzic” Co.’29

But her return to the stage did not eventuate. Clara’s role as Egle in The Lady Dandies was her last with the Royal Comic Opera Company.

Clara retired and soon after married George Cartwright on Monday, 15 February 1909 at Christ Church, South Yarra, Melbourne. 

George Cartwright was educated in England and had work experience at the Woolwich Arsenal before he came to Victoria in 1901, aged 21 to work at the Colonial Ammunition Company in Footscray. The following year he was appointed its Manager. The company played a prominent part in Australia’s World War 1 activities.30

The Cartwrights had two sons and a daughter and resided on Beaconsfield Parade, St. Kilda, with a rural property near Officer, Victoria.

Little was heard of Clara following her marriage. On one occasion Table Talk of March 1912 noted that Clara had emerged from retirement for one day to work at a Theatrical Carnival in East Melbourne in aid of the Theatrical Charities Fund31 and Punch, the following year, referred to Clara and her husband being among guests attending the opening of the new Auditorium concert hall in Collins Street with appearances by Madame Clara Bolt and Mr. Kennerly Rumford.32

Clara died on 13 March 1940, she was predeceased by her husband who died on 24 January 1937.

Silver box compositeSterling silver jewellery box presented to Clara Clifton by the Royal Comic Opera Company on her retirement in late 1908. Courtesy of Gavin Mould.

Clara Clifton the English stage actress was full of vivacity, humour and charm. She began her career as a teenager performing in pantomimes, graduating to plays and musical comedies on the English provincial theatre circuit and later in South Africa. In 1904, in a bold and courageous move she travelled, unaccompanied, to Australia, to ply her craft and soon found engagement with J.C. Williamson’s Royal Comic Opera Company. Over the next five years Clara performed in most of the company’s musical comedies: The Orchid (her role as Caroline Vokins arguably her finest), Florodora, Veronique, The Geisha, The Girl From Kay’s, The Shop Girl, The Little Michus, The Spring Chicken, The Dairymaids, Dorothy, The Girls of Gottenberg and The Lady Dandies, often as an outstanding low comedienne, and generally applauded for her clever, comic character sketches. 

At the time Clara was a huge favourite with musical comedy audiences throughout her relatively short career in Australia. But for an actress once cherished with warm affection, little is known about her today and she is worthy of better recognition. She deserves to be remembered.



1. Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 10 June 1907, p.7

2. Argus (Melbourne), 5 November 1906, p.5

3. Leader (Melbourne) 10 November 1906, p.22

4. Bulletin (Melbourne), 6 December 1906, p.11

5. Sunday Sun, 9 and 23 June 1907, pp. 2 and 3

6. Leader (Melbourne), 3 November 1906, p.22

7. Critic (Adelaide), 10 April 1907, p.4

8. Referee (Sydney), 9 January 1907, p.12 & 16 January 1907, p.12 and Manawatu Standard, 22 January 1907, p.4

9. Christchurch Press, 19 February—report in Port Melbourne Standard, 9 March 1907, p.4

10. Fanny Dango was specifically engaged by Williamson to take the part of Peggy and she quickly became a favourite of local audiences.

11. Eugen Sandow promoted physical culture through weight training, attracting many students including young women.

12. Punch (Melbourne), 12 September 12, 1907 p.36

13. Herald (Melbourne), 5 November 1906, p.4

14. Sydney Morning Herald, 3 February, 1908, p. 6

15. Punch (Melbourne), 6 February 1908, p.33

16. Critic (Adelaide), 19 September 1906, p.9

17. Bulletin (Melbourne), 19 September 1907, p.21

18. Bulletin (Melbourne), 3 October, 1907, p.21

19. Age (Melbourne), 21 October 1907, p.9

20. Table Talk (Melbourne), 24 October 1907, p.21

21. Bulletin (Melbourne), 24 October 1907, p.8

22. Gadfly (Adelaide), 23 October 1907, p.8

23. Herald (Melbourne), 28 October 1907, p.3

24. Leader (Melbourne), 3 November 1907, p.33

25. The Era (London), 1 February 1908, p.21—Amusements in Australia

26. Punch (Melbourne), 9 April, 1908, p.39

27. Australian Star (Sydney), 23 March 1908, p.2

28. Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 23 March 1908, p.4

29. Daily News (Perth), 17 December 1908, p.1

30. Punch (Melbourne), 3 August 1916, p.6

31. Table Talk (Melbourne), 28 March, 1912, p.10

32. Punch (Melbourne), 29 May 1913, p.37


Thanks to

Shirley & Stephen Rieger

Gavin Mould

In Part 1 BOB FERRIS traced the early theatrical career of Clara Clifton from the English provincial theatres to her first performance in Australia with the George Edwardes’ production of Kitty Grey. Part 2 continues the story from Clara’s engagement with Williamson’s Royal Comic Opera Company and her 1904 debut success in The Orchid through to The Little Michus in 1906.

Veronique 2Clara Clifton as Emerance in Veronique, 1905. Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.Following her successful and popular performance as ‘Brightie’ in the George Edwardes Gaiety Company’s production of Kitty Grey, Clara was engaged by J.C. Williamson for the 1904 season of the Royal Comic Opera Company.

Clara’s first appearance with the company was in The Orchid which had enjoyed enormous success at London’s Gaiety Theatre during 1903. Described as a spectacular attraction with brilliant scenery and costumes with gay and attractive music from the pens of Caryll, Monckton and Rubens and lyrics by Ross and Greenback, it played for the first time in Australia at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne on 29 October 1904. The show enjoyed  capacity audiences throughout its three month season which extended over the Christmas and New Year period.

Typical of musical comedies, the plot of The Orchid posed no challenge for the audience.1 Essentially, it involved the hunt and rivalry between British and French politicians to secure a ‘special’ orchid which had been cultivated by the gardener at a Horticultural College. Marital mix-ups, romantic attraction between the various characters, together with a bevy of young female college students, coloured the storyline. 

A notable feature of the production was the number of comedians in the cast, from old favourites, George Lauri (as Meakin the College gardener) and Claude Bantock (Aubrey Chesterton) to a new company member, W.S. Percy (Comte Raoul de Cassignat) who had been the lead comedian with Pollard’s Opera Company for many years.  Between them, and Clara, they provided numerous comic interludes. The cast also included Florence Young as Josephine Zaccary, a teacher at the College, and Evelyn Scott as Lady Violet Anstruther, the College principal pupil. Clara played the part of Caroline Vokins, and as the buoyant, amorous Vokins she was an unqualified success.

In several scenes Clara appeared alongside George Lauri and the matrimonial manoeuvring and the love scenes between the two were described as rich in comicality.2 Clifton and Lauri would go on to regularly perform together in J.C. Williamson’s musical comedies and they formed a successful partnership, often providing much of the humour.

Opening night reviews were full of praise for Clara’s performance. The opinion of the Age critic was typical: ‘Her methods are admirable. Her stage presence commanding, and her artless trick of tempting the audience to laugh with, not at, proved irresistibly infectious. She has two of the most “catchy” songs in the piece, “Advertisements” and “Fancy Dress”, for both of which she received the well-merited compliment of a double encore, and at all points she quickly established herself as a firm favourite.’3

With her jovial personality, sense of humour and infectious habit, if annoying to some, of laughing at the end of her lines, Clara quickly established a rapport with Melbourne theatre lovers, and the enthusiastic reception she received on her first performance with the Royal Comic Opera Comedy company was noted by Playgoer of Punch. As J.C. Williamson once remarked, while Australian audiences were in many ways the best in the world, they were most difficult to please, but ‘when an Australian audience likes you their applause is genuine’.4 And they certainly liked Clara!

After a three month season in Melbourne, The Orchid played in Sydney and Perth, where new songs, ‘In My Time’ and ‘Only Fancy Me’ were added to Clara’s repertoire. Two years later, in April 1907, when The Orchid was performed at the Theatre Royal, Adelaide and at Geelong and Ballarat, Clara was described as a clever and versatile actress, a perfect artiste, inimitable in the role of Caroline Vokins. Her two songs, ‘In my Time’ and ‘Fancy Dress’, were smart character sketches and deservedly encored.5

On 7 January 1905 an enthusiastic audience was at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne for the revival of the ever popular Florodora. It was a lavish stage spectacular with a new and capable cast, strong chorus and ballet, but it ran for only a short season and while there was a smattering of praise for some individual performances, the critics generally felt that the 1905 production was a disappointment.

Clara was cast in the role of Lady Holyrood, an announcement which was viewed with some misgivings in theatrical circles as she was to play a young widow, fashionable, cold and cynical, attributes thought foreign to a comedienne who was full of humour and a sense of fun. 

Also, when a musical was revived, audiences and critics invariably made comparisons of the performances of the cast and of the production itself with earlier shows. This was true of Florodora, and in particular, Clara’s role as Lady Holyrood, the part which Grace Palotta had been well-praised for in the earlier George Edwardes’ 1900 production. In applauding Palotta’s charm and graceful performance, the Age wrote: ‘… Florodora without a Lady Holyrood—and without a particularly good Lady Holyrood to boot—is unthinkable.’6

Against this backdrop how did Clara fare in 1905?

The magazine, Table Talk of 12 January left its readers in no doubt, writing that Clara Clifton was decidedly out of her element as Lady Holyrood and that she lacked the chic necessary for the part, and does not give the expression of the smart society woman. The review concluding that while she looks pretty and wears beautiful clothes, she was a pleasing Lady Holyrood, but not a representative of the ‘smart set’.7 Peter Quince writing for Punch was more gracious, noting that her performance, though lacking the grace that marks the ‘Caste of Vere de Vere’, is a decidedly meritorious performance, and her clear enunciation both in dialogue and singing is a treat to listen to.8

While there was a diversity of opinion from other critics, the tenor of their comments was generally prejudiced by comparisons to Palotta’s earlier performance, as opposed to judging Clara on her performance. The Critic, for instance, wrote that Miss Clara Clifton as Lady Holyrood:

seemed at the outset alarming, considering the proportions of the comedienne and the class of work in which she has excelled here.  She set about winning the audience in the first place by her frocking. It was sumptuous and sported with an idea of dignity. This is what Miss Clifton strove to maintain in her Lady Holyrood role all through the show. Where her fascinating predecessor shone for grace, this large, pleasant comedienne aimed at dignity … Where this Lady Holyrood fell short was in the spiced and often wicked wit which gives a relish to some of the dialogue. There is no acidity in Miss Clifton’s voice, and no vinegar in her expression. So the malicious worldling’s humour lost its sting. The big, kindly, good-tempered face of the player discounted the malice of the Holyrood remarks.9

Moreover, the Critic provides another example of how reviews of the time were happy to comment on Clara’s physical appearance.

Whether these critiques had an effect on Clara is unknown, but she would have taken some comfort from Peter Quince’s opinion that in comparing the two actresses he had no hesitation in saying that Miss Clifton was a better actress—measured upon points—than Miss Palotta.10

Indeed, when Florodora was performed at Her Majesty’s, Sydney for a six night season beginning on 12 May 1906, Clara was an undeniable success as Lady Holyrood. Reportedly, Sydney theatre patrons found her in fine voice and her saucy and snappy ‘When I Leave Town’ and her songs in the second Act—‘Tact’ and ‘I’ve an Inkling’ and ‘I Want to Marry a Man I Do’ which Clara sang with Tweedlepunch (George Lauri) and Cyrus Gilfain (Fred Leslie) were very popular and encored more than once.

Perhaps the ambivalent Melbourne reviews provided the challenge to Clara to rework the role of Lady Holyrood as her own because the Sydney season prompted excellent reviews, such as that in the The Australian Star (Sydney) of 14 May which wrote: ‘the honours of the evening were carried off by Lady Holyrood who broke away from the “traditions” of the part which had been left by Miss Grace Palotta … Those who had predicted that Miss Clifton would cut a poor figure as Lady Holyrood were very much out in their reckoning.’11

Following the Melbourne season of Florodora the charming musical comedy, The Geisha returned to Her Majesty’s Theatre in mid-January 1905 with Florence Young in the lead role of O Mimosa San the chief Geisha and with George Lauri as Wun-hi the Tea House proprietor. Clara was cast as the statuesque society dame, Lady Constance Wynne, a visitor to Japan, and it was said that her usual jovial humour gave some life to an otherwise colourless part. In particular, her by-play when George Lauri performed ‘Chin Chin Chinaman’ was roundly applauded.12

Clara’s growing stage popularity (often touted as the ‘Goddess of the Gods’) was acknowledged when the visiting American impersonator Alice Pierce, well known for her impersonations of leading actresses, included an imitation of Clara in her repertoire when appearing at the Tivoli Theatre in May 1905. According to reviews, Pierce’s mannerisms and voice of Clara (with her irritating drawl) were splendid and her recital of familiar lines from The Orchid, ‘Where’s My Rupert’ and ‘It isn’t the money I want, it’s the man’ were readily recognised by the audience.13

In late May of 1905 a Grand Matinee Performance by the Royal Comic Opera Company in aid of their Sick Fund14 was held at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Sydney with a performance of Florodora and a selection of items from The Orchid and The Cingalee. Several members of the company performed, including Clara who appeared as Lady Holyrood, and together with Claude Bantock and Margaret Thomas she contributed to other items on the program. Clara was also involved in a similar program at a special matinee in early June in aid of the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children.

Clara was not part of the cast which performed The Cingalee during April and October 1905 and some reviews noted this with regret and surprise after her strong showing in The Orchid. Was her absence because of the wealth of female talent available—Margaret Thomas, Ivy Scott, Evelyn Scott, Rose Musgrove and Alexia Bassian—and it was difficult to cast them all? Or perhaps, there was no suitable role for Clara—was she already being type-cast? There was also a suggestion that a planned return to London, which didn’t eventuate, was the reason for her omission.

Prior to staging Veronique in Melbourne there was a gap in the Opera Company’s programming schedule around late October 1905 and management decided to revive The Orchid for a short run; a choice possibly influenced by the availability of audience favourite, Clifton and her success in the role of Caroline Vokins. The show and Clara’s reappearance was enthusiastically welcomed by theatre patrons.

The Company performed Andre Messager’s  comic opera Veronique for the first time in Australia at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne on 11 November 1905 and in Sydney at Her Majesty’s the following January. Described as a modernised opera bouffe, the plot revolves around Helene de Solanges, a rich heiress, who in the guise of Veronique a flower girl working at the fashionable Parisian florists of Monsieur and Madame Coquenard, sets out to captivate Count Florestan de Valiancourt. Helene is assisted in her escapade by her aunt and chaperone, Emerance, Countess de Champ Azur, the role played by Clara.

Opinions were mixed on Clara’s performance as Emerance. For some, she acquitted herself capably, played the role with great spirit and read the character of a modern, wise, worldly woman with insight. Others thought she was somewhat disappointing, afraid to be too unrestrained, and did not present the lofty type of beauty needed for a Countess, although playing the character with composure.

The review in Table Talk on Clara’s performance in the Melbourne show was particularly pertinent.  It noted there was a sameness about Clara’s acting, and that the Countess was played to a certain extent as a second edition of Caroline Vokins.15

In early December 1905, The Girl From Kay’s replaced Veronique at Her Majesty’s, Melbourne to excellent reviews with the press generally agreeing that the present cast had out-sung, out-danced and outperformed the George Edwardes Gaiety Company’s production the previous year.

Clara had a small role in this production but presented as an imposing, handsome Mrs. Chalmers. In the Edwardes’ production, Maud Hobson played Mrs. Chalmers and Punch’s Peter Quince wrote that comparisons with previous productions, however odious were inevitable but noted that ‘Miss Clara Clifton, as Mrs. Chalmers, need no fear of comparison that may be instituted’.16

FL16157156Advertising postcard for The Girl from Kay’s. State Library Victoria, Melbourne.

The musical moved to Sydney, opening on Boxing Night, 1905, and the following July it was successfully staged at the Theatre Royal Adelaide where one reviewer wrote that Clara could not have been surpassed as the hysterical lachrymose Mrs. Chalmers.17

After an absence of some ten years, the musical farce The Shop Girl, almost burlesque to some, was again performed in Australian theatres. It opened in Sydney on 3 March 1906, playing for five weeks before moving to Adelaide’s Theatre Royal in July and later to Melbourne for a six-night run at Her Majesty’s Theatre, beginning on 27 October.

In The Shop Girl, Clara returned to one of her familiar roles as Ada Smith, a part in which she was well versed from her time on the English provincial theatre circuit.

As Ada it was said Clara acted with ‘archness and vivacity’ and presented as a youthful Mrs. Malaprop from the workhouse, comely to look upon, with a slow, amiable smile, and an innate sense of humour. Her rendition of the laughing song ‘Class’ was the hit of the show.18 19 In ‘Class’, Clara included several topical observations, with one in particular singled out for comment by the Sydney Daily Telegraph— it was a moral lecture about certain society peccadilloes, and even a dig at the man who goes to the theatre to study ‘the psychic effect of the high kick’.20 Perhaps Clara was alluding to the questionable tone of parts of the script.

When The Shop Girl played its short season in Melbourne, Clara’s humour was at its best, her innumerable faux pas, often played along with by fellow performers, had the house in fits of laughter.

Clara was back at Her Majesty’s, Sydney in the role of Madame Michu in Andre Messager’s comic opera The Little Michus which held its Australian premiere in early June 1906. It played for seven weeks before moving to Adelaide as the opening production for the season at the Theatre Royal and then to Melbourne. 

As with Veronique, the intent of The Little Michus was to educate theatre patrons away from farcical musical comedy towards opera bouffe. Unlike the usual plotless musicals, The Little Michus had a coherent storyline, introduced fewer features typical of comic musicals and a tighter script which allowed little latitude for the comedians to improvise. This ‘new direction’ drew comment from the Melbourne Argus which thought that the comic skills of Lauri, Bantock, Percy, Leslie and Clifton were sadly missed and that they were all but lost as far as singing and dancing was concerned.21

Little Michus spread smlCharacters in The Little Michus. Photos by Talma. (left) Andrew Barrie collection, (right) National Library of Australia, Canberra.  

The musical had Clara as Madame Michu with Claude Bantock as Monsieur Michu, the couple had been entrusted with looking after General Des Ifs daughter Blanch Marie in return for a sum of money which they used to open a shop. While bathing his own daughter Marie Blanch, Michu mixes the babies up and is unable to tell them apart. Difficulties arise when the girls grow up—the General wants the return of his long separated daughter, and romantic feelings between the girls, a young army officer and a shop assistant complicate matters, but after much toing and froing the relationships are satisfactorily resolved.

Although her part as Mme Michus was of minor interest Clara played the role in her usual effective style and together with Claude Bantock as the elderly Michus gave the audience many humorous moments. Clara also made a series of hits during the performance and her item, ‘If you happen to stop as you pass our shop’, received tremendous applause.22

The Little Michus finished its Melbourne season in early September with Punch noting that the principals in the production, which included Clara, ‘have added to their reputation as sterling artists.’23


To be continued



1. Plots in musical comedies were somewhat fanciful and existed to provide structure for the songs and to give each of the principals an opportunity to show off their comic and vocal skills. (‘Florodora’, Elisabeth Kumm, Theatre Heritage Australia, 25 June 2015)

2. Argus (Melbourne), 31 October 1904, p.6

3. Age (Melbourne), 31 October 1904, p.6

4. The Stage: What it Demands of the Actor, the Author, and the Manager: An Interview with J.C. Williamson—Part III, The Bookfellow, vol 1, no. 5, 31 January 1907, p.16

5. Ballarat Star, 30 April 1907, p.5

6. Age (Melbourne), 17 December 1900, p.6

7. Table Talk (Melbourne) 12 January 1905, p.17

8. Punch (Melbourne), 12 January 1905, p.26. The expression ‘Vere de Vere’ is found in Tennyson’s poem Lady Clara Vere de Vere. Quince uses the expression to imply that Clifton was lacking the class of an aristocratic person.

9. Critic (Adelaide), 11 January 1905, p.17

10. Punch (Melbourne), 12 January 1905, p.26

11. The Australian Star (Sydney), 14 May 1906, p.3

12. Table Talk (Melbourne), 26 January 1905, p.20

13. Evening News (Sydney), 1 May 1905, p.8 and The Australian Star,1 May 1905, p.2

14. The Fund was established by members of J.C. Williamson’s Comic Opera Company with members contributing 3d per week and when a member was ill a doctor was provided and £1 given to the sufferer. The Fund was supplemented with proceeds from an annual matinee performance by the company. The Fund Committee consisted of Messrs G. Lauri, Hugh J. Ward, F. Leslie, C. Kenningham, Coventry and Carroll.

15. Table Talk (Melbourne),16 November 1905, p.17

16. Punch (Melbourne), 14 December 1905, p.36

17. Register (Adelaide), 27 July 1906, p.7

18. Sydney Morning Herald, 5 March 1906, p.10

19. According to one source Clifton borrowed ‘Class’ from The Silver Slipper. See The Encyclopedia of Musical Theatre, Kurt Gänzl, Second Edition Vol 3, p.1851. Schirmer Books 2001. Connie Ediss performed ‘Class’ in the 1901 production of The Silver Slipper.

20. Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 5 March 1906, p.9

21. Argus (Melbourne), 13 August, 1906 p.6

22. Critic (Adelaide), 25 July 1906, p.1

23. Punch (Melbourne), 13 September 1906, p.36

With thanks to

Andrew Barrie, a grandson of Andrew Barrie of Talma fame; Claudia Funder, Research Coordinator, Collections Arts Centre Melbourne; Elisabeth Kumm

BOB FERRIS takes a look at the life and career of the musical comedy performer Clara Clifton who came out to Australia as a member of George Edwardes’ Gaiety Company in 1904 and chose to remain in this country.

Clara CliftonW D & H O Wills—Stage and Music Hall Celebrities—Clara Clifton No. 46 in set of 50A recent purchase of a Wills cigarette card featuring Clara Clifton prompted my interest in this relatively forgotten actress and comedienne of the Australian stage. Through a distance family connection—one of my wife’s cousins is married to a granddaughter of Clara Clifton—I was aware that she had been a prominent theatrical performer during the 1900s. To my surprise, however, when I started to look into Ms Clifton’s professional life, I discovered that much of the readily available history focuses not so much on her significant skills as a performer, but on her physical appearance. At the peak of her career Clara was variously described as: ‘a fat and buxom lady of uncertain age’;1 a ‘large pleasant comedienne’;2 and a ‘plump and pleasing person’.3

A deeper delve into Ms Clifton’s career reveals a woman with an impressive theatrical pedigree who enjoyed considerable success both in Australia and overseas, and her physique and humorous persona was a reminder that there was room for the character actress among the more glamorous figures.

In 1906, having been on the Australian stage for several years, she was described by one newspaper columnist as ‘one of the most ornamental figures on the Australian stage’.4

Early life

Clara Clifton was born Clara Louise Ruth Larkin on 8 August 1872 at Whitechapel, London, the daughter of Harriet Larkin and John James Larkin. Her father, also known as John James Clifton, died when Clara was 8 years old. John James is listed as a comedian in the 1871 English census, as is Harriet.

By 1891 the family was living at 6 Albion Terrace, Hackney, and the census of that year records Clara as Clara Larkin, 18 years old, with ‘occupation at home’. The occupation for her mother (now Harriet Yates) is listed as Comedienne Act and her stepfather George Yates is also listed as Comedian Act. While the 1891 census records her surname as Larkin, press reports of Clara’s theatrical work, later the same year, name her as Clifton. Precisely when Clara adopted Clifton as her surname is unknown, but it was certainly post 1880. Clifton was probably chosen because it was her father’s stage name and it was also her paternal grandmother’s maiden name (Mary Clifton).

In the 1901 census, Clara is listed as Clara Clifton, 28 years old, with her occupation now shown as Actress. She was living in a boarding house in Battersea with several other lodgers in a household of theatrical personnel.

Growing up in a family of stage performers, it was not surprising that Clara was attracted to the theatre, and blessed with a good singing voice and a determination to succeed, she was able to carve out a successful career as a pantomime and musical comedy performer.

HH MorellH.H. Morell and Frederick Mouillot


During the 1890s and early 1900s Clara Clifton was a regular performer on the English provincial theatre circuit, both in pantomimes and musical comedies, where she learnt her trade and honed her skills as a comedienne. She was also fortunate to be picked up by H.H. Morell and Frederick Mouillot, who had set up in partnership in 1885, By the late 1890s they operated eighteen provincial theatres, touring their numerous stock companies around their growing network of theatres and halls.

Pantomime played an important role in establishing Clara’s name and popularity and one of her earliest recorded performance was her role as Veribad in The Forty Thieves pantomime at the Crystal Palace on 26 December 1891 when she was 19 years of age.5 The following Christmas, December 1892, she played Kenelm in the Dick Whittington pantomime at the New Olympic Theatre.6

Clara was a regular performer in Dick Whittington pantomimes, playing the role of Bertie in Morell and Mouillot’s 1895 Christmas annual at the Theatre Royal in Exeter7 and in the New Year, in the same show, she played the role of principal boy, Dick, and took her benefit at the theatre. She also appeared as a dashing Lord Lollipop in Dick Whittington at the Grand Opera House, Belfast over the Christmas/New Year period of 1897/98, and at the opening of Dick Whittington at the New Queen’s Theatre, Leeds in December 1898 she again appeared as the vivacious and pleasing principal boy.

Other pantomime work followed. At Christmas 1900-01, she played the principal boy in Morell and Mouillot’s production of the comic pantomime Robinson Crusoe at the Queen’s Theatre, Leeds and Robin Hood in April/May the next year. The Stage magazine wrote:

Miss Clara Clifton was a dashing Robin Hood. Possessed of a handsome stage presence and well moderated voice … Her songs ‘Nancy’ and ‘John Bull’ were rapturously greeted.8

Reviewing the same pantomime, Ireland’s Saturday Night commented that Clara ‘makes a stalwart, dashing Robin Hood and can sing the coon song “Ma Curly Headed Babby”, to perfection’.9

She also appeared in Mouillot and Warden’s 1901 Easter Pantomime, The Babes in the Wood at the Theatre Royal Belfast.10

Musical comedy

However, Clara’s acting vitae was broader than pantomime and her early work was complemented with appearances in a number of other productions. She was a member of the cast in William Hogarth’s Comic Opera Co.’s Gaiety Theatre production of the opera-comique, Les cloches de Corneville11 and she performed in the burlesque show, Bonnie Boy Blue at the Theatre Metropole in late 1894. Of this last-named show, The Era noted:

Miss Clara Clifton is a promising young artiste, and her embodiment of Archie Lovell is spirited and graceful.12

Clara also performed as Sweeney Sal, a coster girl, in Morell and Mouillot’s production of The Little Duchess in 1898 and as Lady Constance Wynne in The Geisha in mid-1899. Clara was also one of a number of theatrical persons to entertain at a special Morell and Mouillot matinee at the London Opera House in mid-November 1899 in aid of the widows and orphans of soldiers killed in the Transvaal War.

Despite continued success in pantomime, it was her performances in three Morell and Mouillot musical comedies—The Shop Girl, The Circus Girl and The Runaway Girl—that marked her as an impressive, stand out theatrical artist.

The Shop Girl was an early success in which Clara played Ada Smith, one of the foundlings employed as a shop assistant at the Royal Stores. The Shop Girl had first opened in London in late 1894 under the direction of George Edwardes’ London Gaiety Company and subsequently by Morell and Mouillot who had acquired the provincial rights from Edwardes, touring the production around their network of theatres, opening at the Devonshire Park Theatre in Eastbourne in August 1895.

The Shop Girl became a perennial favourite with audiences and was staged throughout England and Scotland well into the late 1890s and early 1900s with Clara winning plaudits for her role as Ada Smith. At the opening of the Morell and Mouillot’s Grand Theatre, Margate in August 1898 Clara’s ‘foundling’ song was vociferously encored.13 and The Stage magazine—in an early reference to her physique which would remain constant throughout her stage career—said she was excellent as the massive Ada Smith.14 Almost a decade later Clifton again played Ada Smith when the musical farce was performed in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. According to the Leader, the part of Ada Smith suited Clara’s style of humour:

… her unconscious malapropisms, if smacking somewhat of prearrangement, raised a tribute of a laugh.15

Touring poster for A Runaway GirlTouring poster for A Runaway Girl, 1898,

In the latter part of 1899, Clara played the low comedy part of Mrs. Drivelli, the wife of the circus owner in The Circus Girl and as reported by The Era:

she proved the centre of attraction for her meritorious rendering of the part which she invested with much charm and piquancy. Two songs associated with the part, ‘When I used to ride a gee-gee in the circus’ and ‘That’s not a proper way to treat a lady’ were heartily encored.16

Clara was also praised for her role as Carmenita, a Corsican street musician, in A Runaway Girl when the musical toured the provincial theatre circuit. Playing in Oldham, one reviewer wrote:

Clara Clifton’s cockney dialect in her assumption of the part of Blackfriars Road Italian singing girl, Carmenita is irreproachable.17

The production continued to tour into early 1901 with reviews of Clara just as complimentary. One, following her performance in Exeter made special mention of her mezzo-soprano voice and its excellent effect in her song ‘I Love Society’ for which she was encored three times.18

With essentially a new cast, Morell and Mouillot staged the three most popular musical comedies of the day—The Circus Girl, The Shop Girl and The Gaiety Girl—at the Palace Theatre, Yeovil in early 1900. The roles of Mrs. Drivelli and Ada Smith, which Clara had ‘made her own’, were now played by Ada Clare with Clara in the role of a dignified Lady Diana Wemyss in The Circus Girl, and the handsome, stately and effective aristocratic Lady Appleby in The Shop Girl.19 In The Gaiety Girl she played Lady Grey. Why the change? Perhaps the producers thought it was time for her to take on more mature, character roles, and leave the ingenue roles to even younger actresses. Regardless of the change of cast on this occasion, Clara again assumed the role of Ada Smith and Mrs. Drivelli in performances through to 1902. Likewise, she continued to play Carmenita into the same year, receiving praise as the Cockney-Italian singer when A Runaway Girl played at the Norwich Theatre.20

South Africa

During 1902 and early 1903 Clara toured South Africa with Frederick Mouillot’s South African Repertoire Company, performing mainly at the Opera House in Capetown and the Standard Theatre in Johannesburg. It was the repertory company’s first visit to the Opera House where they performed the pantomime Sleeping Beauty. In part, a review said that Clara, who played Prince Peerless, possessed a commanding presence and much sprightliness.21 After a run of four weeks the pantomime was replaced by The Belle of New York with Clara as a lively and amusing Cora Angelique.22

From Capetown, the company had a short run at Kimberley in early June where they performed Sleeping Beauty in which Clara’s ‘songs, “I can’t tell why I love you”, “Oh Flo” and “Dolly Gray” were given with the finish of a true artist’.23 The following week, The Gaiety Girl was staged, where Clara, as Lady Virginia Forest, ‘acted and sang charmingly and the Bathing Machine scene with Mr. Brierley evoked much amusement with her droll acting’.24

After this short but successful tour the repertory company re-opened at the Opera House in August with Gentleman Joe, with Clara in the role of Mrs. Ralli-Carr.

In early October at the Standard Theatre the company presented The French Maid with Clara as Madame Camembert25 followed the next month with The Belle of New York and Bluebell in Fairyland with Clara as the Reigning Queen.

At the Standard Theatre on Boxing night 1902 Messrs Sass and Nelson presented Sleeping Beauty with Clara again playing the dashing Prince Peerless. The following January, Mouillot’s company performed The Thirty Thieves at the Standard with Clara as Mariana, and later staged The Topsy-Turvy Hotel with Clara as Mdlle Flora. This concluded her successful tour with Mouillot’s South African Repertoire Co.

Era 1903From early August to late October 1903, Clara placed this advertisement in The Era


On her return to England there appears to have been a paucity of work for Clara, and from early August 1903 to late October she resorted to placing advertisements in The Era magazine promoting her availability for shows: ‘At Liberty for Good Autumn Tour, and Principal Boy, Christmas’. Quite possibly during this hiatus Clara took up an engagement with George Edwardes’ London Gaiety Company to join his American touring party in Australia.

Around this time the Gaiety Company had just completed a very successful American season (from early September 1903 to the following April), with performances of Three Little Maids at Daly’s and later the Garden Theatre in New York, and also including shows in Boston, Philadelphia and Toronto.26

The company, which included many experienced West End performers such as comedian George Huntley, Madge Crichton, Maud Hobson, Delia Mason, Elsa Ryan and Maurice Farkoa arrived in Sydney from San Francisco on board the RMS Ventura on 7 May 1904. From Sydney the company travelled by train to Melbourne to open with Three Little Maids on 14 May at the Princess Theatre. The Girl from Kay’s and Kitty Grey followed as part of an 18 week season, half of which was spent in Melbourne.27

Several days after the Gaiety touring party arrived in Melbourne, Clara joined them, arriving on 18 May as a passenger on board the RMS Orotava from London. She had missed the staging of the first production and due to casting and rehearsal schedules it was not until later in the season that she was introduced to Australian audiences in the musical comedy Kitty Grey, an adaptation of the French comedy Les fétards with lyrics by Adrian Ross and music by Augustus Barratt, Howard Talbot and Paul Rubens.

Kitty Grey had been outstanding success in London, playing at the Apollo Theatre in 1901 for over a year and equally, it was the hit of the George Edwardes season in Melbourne which opened at the Princess Theatre on 25 June 1904. Madge Crichton played the title role and was supported by G.P. Huntley as the Earl of Plantagenet, Maurice Farkoa as Baron de Tregue, J. Edward Fraser as King Ernest of Illyria, Delia Mason as Baroness de Tregue, Eva Kelly as Saidie, sister of the Baroness, and Clara Clifton as Mrs. Bright, known as Brightie. Three of the cast, Kelly, Farkoa and Huntley had been members of the Apollo production, the others were newcomers to the musical.

FL21769375Program for Kitty Grey, Princess Theatre, Melbourne, 1904. State Library of Victoria, Melbourne.
View full program,
Like previous Gaiety Company musical comedies, Kitty Grey was short on storyline but long on amusement and full of laughable nonsense. The comedy concerns three men, Baron de Tregue, King Ernest of Illyria, and the Earl of Plantagenet and their infatuation with Kitty Grey an actress with London’s Frivolity Theatre. More particularly, the play centres on the marriage of Baron and Baroness de Tregue, where the pious Baroness Edith offers much marital advice but little love to her pleasure seeking husband who pursues a flirtation with Kitty. Anxious to win back her wayward husband, Edith turns to Kitty, an experienced temptress, for advice. More spice is added to the play as Kitty Grey’s dresser, Brightie was a former famous circus rider—Zo-Zo and a favourite of King Ernest.

While new to Australian audiences, Clara was a seasoned performer, reportedly with a style not unlike that of the buxom, good humoured Gaiety actress, Connie Ediss, who had successfully performed as Ada Smith, Mrs. Drivelli and Caroline Vokins, character rolls which also suited Clara. Kitty Grey gave Clara the opportunity to show her talent, which she successfully did in the role of Brightie. The audience warmed to her comely figure and unpretentious nature and the Melbourne press was generally impressed with her first appearance with the company, and typically The Argus wrote:

The newcomer, Miss Clifton was unrecognised on her first entry, but immediately after her song, “Zo-Zo”, her popularity was assured.  Endowed with humour, a genial presence, and a singing voice that has the power of making every word heard distinctly throughout the theatre, Miss Clifton is a valuable addition to the company.28

The Melbourne Punch was just as complimentary on Clifton’s performance:

Miss Clara Clifton’s rendering of the dresser who was once a queen of the arena is so good that it is a matter of regret that the actress had not been found a part in one of the previous productions. Her song ‘Little Zo-Zo’ is repeatedly encored, and is probably the best-remembered number in the piece.29

However, the Bulletin had reservations (and again referencing her physique):

Miss Clara Clifton, a new arrival, contributes a quite sonorous warble in a plain ordinary way. She is a large, genial-mannered lady, and a bit of a success as a humorous actress. But her personality looms larger than her success.30

After a short season in Melbourne the musical was performed at the Theatre Royal (Adelaide) and Her Majesty’s Theatre (Sydney) during July and August 1904, Clara again received favourable reviews, including:

Clara Clifton was a huge success as Brightie. She was so buxom and absolutely natural that all sections of the house fell in love with her. Her song Zo Zo was encored again and again.31


the strongest voice among the ladies is possessed by Miss Clifton, who has decided low comedy ability. Her impersonation of Kitty’s aunt and ‘dresser’, Brightie, a one-time star of the circus was extremely comical and full of ‘go’.32

After seeing Clifton’s performance in Kitty Grey, J.C. Williamson was attracted to her comedic ability and engaged her for the 1904 season of the Royal Comic Opera Company. His belief in Clara was vindicated as she would go on to appear in numerous productions for the company and be a popular comedienne with audiences and critics. She was the only member of the Edwardes Gaiety company who was enticed to join Williamsons’ company when the Gaiety company left Australia at the end of their season.

Clara’s first appearance with the Royal Comic Opera Company was in The Orchid which had enjoyed enormous success at London’s Gaiety Theatre. Described as a spectacular attraction with brilliant scenery and costumes with gay and attractive music from the pens of Caryll, Monckton and Rubens, it played for the first time in Australia at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne in late October, 1904. Clara as the buoyant, amorous Caroline Vokins was an unqualified success.


To be continued



1. The Evening News, 1 August 1904, p.6

2. Critic (Adelaide), 11 January 1905, p.17

3. Punch (Melbourne), 17 May 1906, p.33

4. Critic (Adelaide), 21 November 1906, p.25

5. The Era (London), 26 December 1891, p.11

6. See J.P. Wearing, The London Stage 18901899: A calendar of productions, performers and personnel, second editions, Rowman & Littlefield, 2014

7. The Era (London), 28 December, 1895, p.22

8. The Stage (London), 1 April 1901, p.16

9. Saturday Night, 15 April 1901, p.2

10. Irish News and Belfast Morning News, 9 April 1901, p.1

11. Freeman’s Journal (Dublin), 6 May 1892, p.4

12. The Era (London), 8 December 1894, p.8

13. The Era (London), 6 August 1898, p.9

14. The Stage (London), 4 August 1898, p.3

15. Leader (Melbourne), 3 November 1906, p.22

16. The Era (London), 7 October 1899, p. 10

17. The Era (London), 10 February 1900, p.8

18. Western Times Exeter, 12 February 1901, p.5

19. The Era (London), 9 June 1900, pp.18–20

20. Eastern Daily Press, 7 January 1902, p.2

21. The Stage (London), 22 May 1902, p.18

22. The Era (London), 14 June 1902, p.23

23. The Era (London), 5 July 1902 p.19

24. The Era (London), 12 July 1902 p. 17

25. The Stage (London), 6 November 1902, p.17

26. The New York Times, 2 September 1903, p.3 and The New York Dramatic Mirror, 12 September 1903, p.14

27. Sydney Morning Herald, 9 May 1904, p.3

28. Argus (Melbourne), 27 June 1904, p.6

29. Punch (Melbourne) 7 July1904 p.30

30. Bulletin (Sydney), 30 June 1904, p.10

31. Evening Journal (Adelaide), 18 July 1904, p.2

32. Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 3 August 1904, p.303

Theatrical caricaturesMontage by Judy Leech. Image on front page: Oscar Asche in Kismet by Alick P.F. Ritchie. National Library of Australia, Canberra.

In Part I of ‘Caught in the Act’, Elisabeth Kumm looked at the history of theatrical cartoons and caricatures following their progress from Britain to Australia in the nineteenth century. In Part 2 of the series, BOB FERRIS delves further into the evolution of this medium in Australia, exploring its popularity up to the late 1920s.


By the beginning of the twentieth century live theatre in Australia was at the height of its popularity and attendances at both ‘cultured’ and ‘popular’ theatre continued to expand. Both Sydney and Melbourne boasted several central city theatres as well as numerous vaudeville and variety halls. International theatre companies regularly performed in Australia and their principal stars added to the popularity of the productions.

World War I had an initial impact on theatre attendance, but numbers soon returned, perhaps as a distraction from the European conflict, and Australian audiences continued to enjoy a wide range of entertainment. More than 350 different plays were staged in Melbourne alone during the war years.1

Newspapers, leading magazines and journals responded to their readers’ passion for the theatre and gave it considerable coverage with reviews and commentary and most had dedicated ‘theatre critics’ on the payroll. Increasingly, and of present interest, this theatre copy was punctuated with illustrations by a raft of ‘black and white’ artists who plied their craft to portray theatrical personnel, often in unflattering, humorous caricatures and cartoons.

While a few of the artists had more or less regular arrangements with the press, for most their input to the theatrical theme was intermittent and only one aspect of their freelance work in a highly competitive profession. Without question, these artists were fortunate to be working in a time when cartooning and caricatures came of age and their output was prolific.

No newspaper or magazine in Australia in the early 1900s did more to encourage black and white artists than the Bulletin. It employed some of the finest artists of the time, including Will Dyson, Harry Julius, Hal Gye, Jim Bancks, D.H. Souter, Tom Glover and Mervyn Skipper. The Bulletin was where many cartoonists made their start. However, the Bulletin was not alone in nurturing the growing number of freelance black and white artists; Smith’s Weekly, Lone Hand, Sydney Sportsman, Bookfellow, Gadfly, Clarion, and Critic were some of the publications that regularly printed cartoons and caricatures.

Unlike other sections of a newspaper or magazine where illustrations were usually editorially driven, it is probably fair to say that as these artists were adding pictorial comment to written theatrical reviews—usually an actor or a scene—many of these theatrical caricatures and cartoons were included without editorial direction; the ‘black and whiters’ enjoyed a large degree of artistic independence.

There are too many artists in the black and white school of cartoonists and caricaturists to do them all justice, as such the following represent this writer’s personal favourites.

Many would agree that Australia’s greatest caricaturist was the exceptionally gifted Will Dyson (1880–1938). Arguable, some of Dyson’s best work were the numerous theatrical caricatures he drew for the Bulletin around 1904–10 as the magazine’s theatre cartoonist.

Dyson was acclaimed for the penetrating force of his cartoons and caricatures and saw the pretentious theatre personnel as a target for his acerbic penmanship; although it was once said that while he did not often attack the ladies with his pointed crow quill, he did the ‘wicked deed’ now and again.2

A ‘wicked deed’ perhaps, was Dyson’s 1908 sketch of Lady Dunscombe (Nellie Mortyne) in Jim the Penman at the Theatre Royal Melbourne, where the lady, a decorative titled visitor of some importance, is portrayed with a rather unflattering figure. More sensitive was Dyson’s portrayal of Arthur Greenaway as the hunched and doddery King Louis XI in the musical The Vagabond King, which was produced by J.C. Williamson Ltd. in spectacular style during 1928–1929.

Other Dyson works include that of actor Julius Knight playing Sir Percy Blakeney in The Scarlet Pimpernel, performed at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne—‘a hero whose tigerish nonchalance gives him the aspects of a drugged prig …’—a description which is perfectly captured by Dyson’s caricature.

Another notable caricature shows ‘Norman: The bold bad man of the Bland Holt Co.’ Albert Norman was a leading actor with the Bland Holt Co. for many years and was well known for playing sinister characters. In fact, one review described him thus: Norman ‘is such a villain as he has been many times before, and the sardonic smile of sin on his countenance is the same old smile’.3 Again, a description well captured by Dyson.

A rare survivor, the original artwork for Leave It to Jane, published in Table Talk, demonstrates the use of sepia wash to achieve the tonal contrasts in the published cartoon, and the application of white touch-up to conceal changes.

Harry Julius (1885–1938) was another fine caricaturist of the period as well as a most versatile artist—among many pursuits, he was a newspaper cartoonist, writer and illustrator, advertising executive and film animator. But it is his theatrical caricatures for which he is best known—stageland appealed to him as a splendid site for the caricaturist. Julius once remarked that for years he’d had opera glasses on actors with evil intent and it was melodrama and tragic grand opera, not placid modern plays, which moved him as a pictorial satirist.4

From around 1907, Julius consistently provided magazines, particularly the Bulletin, with humorous caricatures of performers from across the whole spectrum of the theatre from grand opera to vaudeville and pantomime; his output was prodigious. Julius had the skill of getting fine caricatures in a few lines with unmistakeable portraiture.5

There is a wonderful record of some 250 of Julius’ early theatrical caricatures (many of which had appeared in the Bulletin) of most of the prominent stars of the period presented in Theatrical Caricatures, published by the NSW Bookstall Co. in 1912. The book also includes stories on the theatre celebrities by Claude McKay. To view these pen and ink sketches in one collection gives an appreciation of how they would have ‘coloured’ the reviews of current and coming shows which the Bulletin ran in its ‘Sundry Shows’ pages.

One example of Julius’ caricatures includes Annette Kellerman in the glass tank from the Annette Kellerman Show at the Sydney Tivoli. Kellerman was an Australian long-distance swimmer, aquatic and vaudeville performer. Of her Tivoli show it was said: ‘the versatile mermaid has added submarine evolutions, toe dancing and wire walking to an endearing personality, and between them have captured the multitude.’6

Another cartoon that appears in the Bulletin illustrates a scene from the light musical comedy High Jinks, produced by J.C. Williamson at Her Majesty's in Sydney in 1915. The Bulletin review, on the same page as the cartoon, noted ‘the fair and willowy Gertrude Glyn as usual looms up in one or two gowns which stun the stalls ... C.H. Workman one of the comedians puts up a good plainclothes performance’.

In another, John Coates the English tenor appears as Radames in Aida which played at Her Majesty’s, Sydney. In this caricature, Julius shows ‘John Coates going nobly to his doom, escorted by four stalwart Egyptians. Amneris (Edna Thornton) is grief-stricken’. Of Coates’ performance, the review said, it shows ‘what the portly Yorkshireman can do—when he chooses to exert himself’.7

Another cartoon shows a scene from Hamlet at the Sydney Criterion, where Hamlet (Walter Bentley) asks Horatio (W.S. Titheradge) and an inoffensive solder to swear an oath. According to the accompanying review, ‘Walter Bentley has a way of “beefing out” his lines on occasion that compels enthusiasm regardless of the exact meaning of the phrases beefed’.

Another prominent black and white artist whose caricatures regularly appeared in the Bulletin during this period was Jim Bancks (1889–1952). His work also featured in Melbourne Punch, Sydney Sun and Sunday Sun. Bancks fame was ensured in particular, with his comic ‘Us Fellows’ which evolved into Ginger Meggs.

Bancks works include Mr Pim Passes By at Sydney Criterion: Ashton Jarry as Mr Pim, ‘only just a passer-by’. Ashton Jarry first came to Australia in 1917 with Ada Reeve and since then performed in several Australian productions. One of his notable performances was as Mr Pim. Jarry also played Count Dracula in J.C. Williamson’s production of Dracula performed at the Sydney Theatre in June 1929.

Other notable caricatures include Mischa Levitzki, the Russian born American based concert pianist who at the Sydney Town Hall was described as ‘the young man with the strong forearms and rubber fingers’ (Bulletin, 9 June 1921), and Scandal at the Sydney Criterion (Bulletin, 26 May 1921) with Kenneth Brampton as Malcolm Fraser, the rejected lover and Maude Hannaford as the heroine, Beatrix Vanderdyke. Hannaford, described as a possessor of good looks, young and ambitious, had quickly become a star of the American stage with successful roles in Redemption and as the leading lady in The Jest.

Oh, Lady, Lady! was one of a number of sensational J. C. Williamson’s musical comedies of the 1920s. The leading lady, Dorothy Brunton was a hit as ‘Faintin’ Fanny a Peel-street pick-pocket; one review said, ‘The New Dot is as impish as the old one was coy and curly’. Her performance is complimented by an outstanding cast, including William Green as Hale Underwood, a man about town.

Continuing with his depiction of stage actors, his 1921 portrait of George Gee in The Lilac Domino perfectly captures the gait of the rubber-legged dancer and comedian.

Of current ‘historical’ significance is Bancks’ cartoon ‘WHEN AT LAST SYDNEY THEATRE RESTRICTIONS ARE LIFTED: Montague Loveslush and his leading lady, Lulu De Vere, the stage’s smartest dressers, present themselves for re-employment’ (Bulletin, 15 May 1919).

This is Bancks’ take on the news on 15 May 1919 that Sydneysiders could go to the theatre again, with their masks off, after months of anti-influenza restrictions.

Hal Gye (1888–1967) was another brilliant black and white artist, principally working in the Bulletin stable, who provided the magazine with theatrical and sporting caricatures and in 1910 replaced Will Dyson as the Bulletin’s theatre cartoonist. Gye drew for numerous other papers and magazines; caricatures of politicians for Melbourne Punch and sporting identities for the Judge, cartoons for the Australian Worker, Vanguard, Referee, Smith’s Weekly, Table Talk and the Sydney Arrow.

Examples of Gye’s Bulletin caricatures include Oscar Asche and Caleb Porter in Count Hannibal at the Melbourne Royal in 1910; the popular Scottish singer and entertainer Harry Lauder on the occasion of his first Australia tour; J.P. O’Neill in the melodrama No Mother to Guide Her at the Princess, 1913; and comedian W.S. Percy as the gaoler in Nightbirds, an adaptation of Die Fledermaus that played at Her Majesty’s in Melbourne during 1912.

Mervyn Skipper (1886–1958) became more prominent in the mid to late 1920s with his work often printed in the Bulletin and at one time he was the Melbourne cartoon correspondent for the magazine. Skipper left the Bulletin in 1933 to start his own magazine, the Pandemonium, which ran for 12 issues. Skipper later returned to the Bulletin as the art and drama critic and wrote extensively for Australian magazines including Lone Hand.

Some of his works include The Masquerader at Sydney Royal and The Truth About Blayds, a comedy by A.A. Milne at the Criterion.

D.H. Souter (1862–1935) had a 40-year association with the Bulletin, with his first cartoon appearing on 23 February 1895. His cartoons were fanciful and loosely described as ‘art nouveau’. Two examples from the Lone Hand magazine are shown below—‘Contralto Dramatique’ and ‘Prima Donna Assoluta.

Somewhat different in style was Souter’s cartoon announcing the musical comedy, Betty. The musical was produced by J.C. Williamson Ltd. and opened at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Sydney on 22 November 1924. Souter’s sketch shows Edith Drayson (Betty), Field Fisher (Duke of Crowborough), Alfred Frith (Lord Playne), Harold Pearce (Earl of Beverley), Reita Nugent (David Playne) and Harry Wotton (Hillier).

His skill as a black and white artist is also demonstrated by his portrait of Elsie Prince in her role of Judy in the Gershwin musical Lady Be Good, which opened at the St. James Theatre in Sydney on 30 July 1927. The original artwork is in the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Souter, himself, was involved in the theatre and his operetta, The Grey Kimona was staged in Adelaide in 1907. He was also involved with Alfred Hill’s Sydney Repertory Theatre Society.

Tom Glover (1891–1938) was a New Zealand cartoonist who came to Australia in the 1920s and joined the Bulletin in 1922 where his cartoons and caricatures of personalities stamped him as a talented black and white artist.8 Prior to this he was cartoonist for the New Zealand Truth and also drew for the Free Lance under the name ‘Tom Ellis’. In around 1925, Glover joined the staff of the Associated Newspapers Ltd. and remained there until his sudden death in 1938.

A good example of his work is his portrait of the theatrical producer George A. Highland, drawn in 1925. Highland came to Australia in 1917 and worked with J.C. Williamson Ltd. He produced Maid of the Mountains in 1921 and many other productions.

Another portrait by Glover was of Tom Clare, the British music hall singer and pianist best known for singing humorous songs. Clare performed in a vaudeville show at the Melbourne Tivoli where it was said he ‘was better when he was less grandfatherly’.9

In 1925 he captured a good likeness of Allan Wilkie as Malvolio in Twelfth Night. Wilkie and his wife, Frediswyde Hunter-Watts, arrived in Australia in 1914 and worked with Nellie Stewart’s and J.C. Williamson’s touring companies. In 1920, Wilkie established the Wilkie Shakespearean Company, which debuted at Melbourne’s Princess Theatre in September 1920 with Macbeth. The previous year, Glover captured a fine image of showman and cartoonist Bert Levy.

Ambrose Dyson (1876–1913), another of the artistically talented Dyson family, was essentially a political cartoonist, but occasionally dabbled in theatrical cartoons.

In his cartoon ‘The Tempter’, Dyson combined political and theatrical commentary with a pointed reference on Ada Ward, a former actress who had returned to Australia after ‘finding God’. Ada Ward first performed in Melbourne in 1877 with some success, but after many years performing in London she sensationally left the stage in 1897 to train as a preacher. Ward returned to Australia in 1907 as an evangelist and addressed an audience at the Melbourne Wesley Church on ‘Can an Actress be a Christian’, where she denounced the immorality of the theatre and its ruination of young women.

True to the theatrical theme, another of Dyson’s cartoon was a New Year’s card for 1905 to his theatrical friend the actor manager Bland Holt.

One of the lesser known Australian black and white cartoonists of the early 1900s is George Dunstan (1876–1946) who drew under the pen name ‘Zif’. Besides the general run of publications, Zif also contributed cartoons to the Sydney Sportsman and the Australian Worker and was chief cartoonist for the International Socialist Magazine. As one of his many attributes, Zif also took to the stage, regularly performing across Australia as a lightning sketch artist, often billed as ‘Chats in Charcoal’.

Illustrative of his style, Zif created a series of cartoons on ‘Suburban Drama’ for the Bulletin in September 1909. One was captioned, ‘East Lynne in the Suburbs’.

Around 1910, Zif produced a series of coloured postcards for the New South Wales Bookstall Co., in their ‘Art Series’. One set of six cards, ‘Theatrical Travesties’ embodied caricatures of ‘theatre types’, a style which typified his work.

Mick Paul (1888–1945), a Sydney cartoonist of the early twentieth century, contributed to the Bulletin, Lone Hand, Comic Australia, Lilley’s Magazine (cover designs) and the Australian Worker. Paul was well-known for his bohemian lifestyle, his socialist views and anti-conscription cartoons and was a foundation member of the Society of Australian Black and White Artists.

Paul’s cartoon, ‘TOO HOT’, offered a social comment on the influenza which devastated Australia around 1919, while ‘NATURALLY’ presents a feminist view on the prevailing gender imbalance in theatre life.

Bert Levy (1871–1934) described as a clever black and white artist and showman, began his working life as an apprentice scenic artist at the Theatre Royal, Melbourne. A prolific creator, Levy was published in Melbourne Punch, the Mirror, Table Talk, drew cartoons and theatrical caricatures for the Bulletin, was the dramatic critic for the Bendigo Adventurer and cartoonist for the Age, Leader magazine. Levy travelled to America in the early 1900s where he worked for Weber and Fields Music Hall, then the Morning Telegraph while running vaudeville shows in New York.10

Examples of his work include ‘In a Vaudeville Green Room’, a cartoon which shows several performers waiting in a dedicated space—‘the green room’ before going on stage. Another is of Hugh Ward in The Emerald Isle. Ward was a major figure in Australian theatre as an actor and entrepreneur. He was one time managing director of J.C. Williamson Ltd. and after resigning from that position, formed Hugh J. Ward Theatres Ltd. in partnership with the Fuller brothers.

By the 1920s, Smith’s Weekly had become the premiere source of cartoons in Australia and unlike other publications their cartoonists were on the pay role, not freelancers. To emphasise this and introduce their staff to the public, the magazine often presented cartoons as composite drawings where all artists contributed; the cartoonists and their characters appeared side by side.11

A variation of the composite cartoon can be seen in the work of, Syd Miller (1901–1983), who joined Smith’s Weekly in 1919 and worked there for some 22 years as a cartoonist and film and stage reviewer.

Miller’s illustrations of ‘Sally in Our Majesty’s’ and ‘Six People Who Make The Flaw’ are examples of his style.

Lance Driffield (1898–1943) was a newspaper and magazine cartoonist and illustrator during the 1920s and 30s, drawing under the pen name ‘Driff’. Driffield started his career as a process engraver and went on to work for the Sunday Times, Truth and Smith’s Weekly.

Typical of his work is the cartoon of Mother Goose which stared Roy Rene and Nat Phillips (‘Stiffy and Mo’), two of the most significant comedians of the period.

Ray Whiting (1898–1975) contributed cartoons to Smith’s Weekly, Table Talk and the Bulletin in the 1920s and 30s and later sketched for the AIF ‘News’ when serving with the 9th Division Camouflage Training Unit in the Middle East during WW2. Arthur Streeton once said his cartoons display a fine decorative sense, good drawing and imagination. ‘Some of the works are weirdly grotesque, and yet they are wickedly like the objects caricatured.’12

These qualities are evident in his portrayal of Windsor, Edgar and Kellaway, a brilliant musical trio from the London Hippodrome, and Joe Brennan, Charles Heslop and particularly Oliver Peacock from Mother Goose. Peacock is an interesting figure. He had a long association with the Australian musical stage, playing support roles to Florence Young, Carrie Moore and Dorothy Brunton. Notably, in 1922, he was understudy to Oscar Asche when Asche took Cairo and Chu Chin Chow to New Zealand.

Alec Sass (Sass) (c.1870–1922) drew for Melbourne Punch and its humorous page between 1896-1912, where he introduced the Sass girl, Sass policeman and Sass johnnie. After working at the New York Journal, Sass joined Smith’s Weekly in around 1921 as an artist and art editor. As art editor he was responsible for teaching staff artists to draw for reproduction on newsprint. Like other Smith’s artists, Sass also drew composite cartoons, a style which is well-illustrated in his cartoon ‘Fooling Around at Fuller’s Panto on a Hot Night’. Another portrait shows an exceedingly stout Oscar Asche in Cairo, which was playing at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Sydney.

Will Donald (1883–1959) was a pioneering cartoonist of the period who contributed to mainstream and socialist newspapers and magazines, including the Bulletin, Quit, Gadfly and the Critic. Donald was one of Australia’s early comic artists.

Examples of his work include a caricature of the Late F.H. Pollock, Lessee Theatre Royal Adelaide. Pollock was an actor and theatre entrepreneur. He acquired the lease of the Royal in 1900 from Wybert Reeve (English actor and impresario) but, following illness, Pollock appointed a manager in his stead. Pollock died in 1908. Interestingly, George Coppin was the first lessee of the theatre.

Another of Donald’s caricatures, published in the Sydney Sun during 1910, depicts Julius Knight and Reynolds Denniston in the romantic drama Henry of Navarre, set in seventeenth century Europe.

His signature profile style is also evident in his caricatures of Victor Loydall and Rupert Darrell in the pantomime Jack and Jill from the Sydney Sun; while his portraits of Oscar Asche and Lily Brayton in The Taming of the Shrew are rare pieces of original artwork.

Tasmanian-born Alf Vincent (1874–1915) joined Melbourne Punch in 1895 and a year later he succeeded Tom Carrington as feature artist for the magazine. Vincent joined the Bulletin in 1898 and drew for the magazine until his death in 1915. His style of work was similar to that of Phil May (his mentor) for which he was often criticised by his contemporaries.

Outside the usual run of newspaper and magazine caricatures, Vincent did a fine piece of work in a theatrical souvenir, a pamphlet consisting of twelve sketches (some in colour) of performers in J.C. Williamson’s Comic Opera Co. production of San Toy which premiered on 21 December 1901 at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne. On the occasion of the fiftieth performance of the show on 8 February 1902, a portfolio of sketches was handed out to every lady visitor.

Donald MacDonald (Pas) (1862–1945) was one of the finest caricaturists of the early 20th century to freelance his work to several magazines and newspapers in Australia and New Zealand. The scope of his work was not restricted to a particular theme, but he was particularly noted for his caricatures of theatre personnel.

For Sydney Sportsman he contributed studies of well-known theatrical personalities Bland Holt and Julius Grant. Actor-manager Bland Holt, nicknamed the ‘King of Melodrama’, was known for his elaborate stagings of Drury Lane melodramas which he produced at the Lyceum Theatre in Sydney and Theatre Royal in Melbourne. Julius Grant established theatrical enterprises with Bert Bailey and was lessee of King’s Theatre for 15 years. He produced several shows including the record breaking On Our Selection. He also introduced Melbourne audiences to stars such as Oscar Asche and Lily Brayton.

In response to the composer and music teacher Signor Roberto Hazon receiving an address and testimonial from His Excellency the Governor on the occasion of his farewell performance in Sydney, Pas provided a likeness for Sydney Sportsman.

During the 1920s, for Everyone’s, he contributed a sketch of Miss Aylet, ‘Australia’s only trap drummer’ who was performing at Sydney’s Crystal Palace.

Tom Ferry (1891–1954) started his working life as an apprentice with John Sands Ltd. doing lithographic work and before qualifying, he was seconded to work for the Sun newspaper for two years, eventually joining Union Theatres Ltd., drawing and designing posters, advertisements and lobby cards. In the early 1920s Ferry had a casual arrangement with the Sydney Sunday Times to provide weekly cartoons and by 1925 he was the official artist to Fox Films in Sydney.13

Examples of his work that appeared in the Sunday Times includes the actors Cyril Gardiner, Frederick Lloyd, Frank Hatherley and Claude Dampier. A drawing he did of visiting English actor Seymour Hicks as Mr William Busby (Old Bill) in the play Old Bill, MP, was published on the programme cover.

Brodie Mack (1897–1965) combined his cartooning skills with his role as a theatrical business manager. A New Zealander, he initially worked for the Wellington Freelance as a cartoonist before becoming a theatre executive with positions as House Manager for Fullers at His Majesty’s Theatre in Wellington and then with Fullers Opera House in Auckland. Mack later moved to Sydney as Booking Manager for Fullers Vaudeville and Theatre Ltd. He was a founding member of the Society of Australian Black and White Artists in 1924 and did cartoons for Everyone’s, Fuller News, the Bulletin, Aussie, Smith’s Weekly and others.

Examples of his work from Everyone’s included Lee White, ‘the cheerful star of The Girl for the Boy’ at the Sydney Tivoli; and ‘Carter the Great’ (stage name of the American illusionist Charles Carter), who thrilled audiences with his disappearing lion act.

During 1924/24 Mack drew a series of 16 caricatures for Everyone’s titled ‘If Managers Were Artists’. Number 5 in the series depicts JCW theatre manager Tom Holt.

From the early 1900s to the late 1920s the profession of black and white artists was predominantly a male profession, and few women artists were actively involved. There were, however, a number of fine women artists well recognised for their black and white cartoons and caricatures, including Mahdi McCrae, Esther and Betty Paterson, Grace Burns and Ruby Lindsay who were regular but casual contributors to various publications. Later, Joan Morrison and Mollie Horseman were the first women to be employed on the pay roll of Smith’s Weekly.

Typically, the work of these artists, while stylish and amusing, was placed away from the theatrical section of the magazines and appeared randomly throughout, usually as page filler ‘gag’ cartoons or to illustrate ‘women’ stories.

An exception to how the cartoons of women were typically treated was the work of Esther Paterson (1892–1971) who was a student at the National Gallery of Victoria from 1907–1912. A talented artist of street scenes and landscapes, Paterson later applied her skill to commercial art, book illustrating and caricatures/cartoons. Her theatrical caricatures were regularly featured in the Melbourne Punch pre first World War and were prominently featured on the ‘Playgoer’ pages. Her caricatures often featured female performers and her artistic style of her caricatures is markedly different to that of her male contemporaries—her women are more feminine and sensual.


To be concluded in the next issue.



1. See Elisabeth Kumm, ‘Theatre in Melbourne 1914-18: the best, the brightest and the latest’, La Trobe Journal, No. 97, March 2016

2. Punch (Melbourne), 27 May 1909, p.730.

3. ‘A Life’s Romance’, Bulletin (Sydney), 25 August 1904, p.10.

4. See The Bookfellow (Sydney), 1 July 1913, p.xvii.

5. Lone Hand (Sydney), 1 August 1912, p. 352.

6. Bulletin (Sydney), 16 June 1921, p.42.

7. Bulletin, 1 August 1912, p.10.

8. Argus (Melbourne), 8 September 1938, p.9.

9. Bulletin (Sydney), 26 March 1925, p. 35.

10. See Bert Levy, ‘Bert Levy (by Himself)’, Lone Hand (Sydney), 1 February 1912.

11. Joan Kerr, Artists and Cartoonist in Black and White: The most public art.

12. Argus (Melbourne), 7 August 1934, p.5.

13. See ‘Knights of the Pencil and Brush, No. 3: Tom Ferry’, Everyone’s, 29 April 1925, p.30.


‘Black and Whiters IV: Alfred Vincent’, The Bookfellow (Sydney), 1 January 1913, pp. 20–21.

‘Black and Whiters VII: Harry Julius’, The Bookfellow (Sydney), 1 July 1913, p. xvii-xix.

David M. Dow, Melbourne Savages: A history of the first fifty years of the Melbourne Savage Club, Melbourne Savage Club, Melbourne, 1947.

W.E. Fitz Henry, ‘Stories of “Bulletin” Artists’, Bulletin (Sydney), 14 December 1955, pp. 26–28, 32.

Harry Julius, Theatrical Caricatures, with Marginal Anecdotes by Claude McKay, NSW Bookstall Co. Ltd., 1912.

Joan Kerr, Artists and Cartoonist in Black and White: The most public art, National Trust of Australia, Sydney, c.1999.

‘Knights of the Pencil and Brush, No. 3: Tom Ferry’, Everyone’s, 29 April 1925, p.30.

Elisabeth Kumm, ‘Theatre in Melbourne 1914–18: the best, the brightest and the latest’, La Trobe Journal, No. 97, March 2016, pp.6–23,

Bert Levy, ‘Bert Levy (by Himself)’, Lone Hand (Sydney), Vol. 10, No. 58, 1 February 1912, pp. 293–300.

Ross McMullin, Will Dyson: Australia’s radical genius, Scribe, North Carlton, Vic, 2006.

Carol Mills, ‘In Black and White: The little-known Lindsay: Ruby Lindsay’, This Australia, Winter 1984, pp.80-85, available from Women’s Museum of Australia,

Les Tanner, ‘The Black and White Maestros’, Bulletin (Sydney), 29 January 1980, pp.134–142.

M.G. Skipper, ‘The Art of the Bulletin’, Bulletin (Sydney), 29 January 1930, pp.40–42.


Special thanks to Elisabeth Kumm for her advice and comments.

In the early 1900s, cigarette cards, like postcards, featured everything from footy players to flowers. BOB FERRIS takes a closer look at the Actresses (Talma) series of cards that were distributed by Melbourne-based manufacturing tobacconists Sniders and Abrahams.

07032021085656 0001 Page 2 Copy 3Miss Tittell BruneThe photographic studio of Talma & co. was established in 1892 by Andrew Barrie and his business partner, Henry Weedon. Located in Swanston Street Melbourne, Talma was a leading portrait studio attracting clientele from ‘high society’, celebrities and visiting and local theatrical performers, especially women. As an astute businessman, Barrie saw a market beyond individual photographic portraits—establishing a product sideline of creating and selling black and white postcards of his famous female clients. For their part, actresses were keen to be involved in this new enterprise as it provided excellent exposure and the cards were also a way to attract new clients; for emerging young actresses to be seen on a Talma postcard was a boost to their careers. (see ‘Andrew Barrie and the Talma Studio’, Elisabeth Kumm, Theatre Heritage Australia, 7 December 2019—

Not content with black and white images only, Barrie soon expanded his line to include colour cards; cards with portraits in decorative framing; and cards stylised with adornments and glitter. These latter elements, such as ‘gold’ hair clips and pins, jewellery and other decorative accessories along with embossed gowns were innovative and attractive—and can be seen on his postcards.

In the early 1900s the Melbourne-based manufacturing tobacconists Sniders and Abrahams accessed these images from Barrie to produce a set of cigarette cards—‘Actresses (Talma)’.

Cigarette Cards and Sniders and Abrahams

From their original point of sale, cigarettes were sold in flimsy paper packaging which provided little protection to the actual cigarette. In order to protect the cigarettes from damage, a stiff piece of cardboard was inserted into the packet to provide it with some structure. Soon after, cigarette companies saw this piece of cardboard as a useful advertising vehicle and over time more and more images of general interest—such as sporting figures, wartime heroes, and building and places of significance were added to ‘the cigarette cards’ to encourage (the mostly male) consumers to buy a particular cigarette brand.

Sniders and Abrahams was one prominent company who from around 1905 actively used ‘cigarette cards’ as an important marketing platform, and cards were issued with their ‘Standard’, ‘Peter Pan’ and ‘Milo’ cigarette brands. Over its history, Sniders and Abrahams issued thirty-three card series—all of which are now highly collectable. One series was ‘Actresses (Talma)’ and on today’s values it is not unusual to pay up to $20 for a card in mint condition.

The company was established by partnership between Gershon Sniders and Lewis Abrahams and was originally located at 23 Lonsdale Street east, then 270 Lonsdale Street and with continued growth was later re-located to 7 Drewery Lane around 1910. In January 1885 the partnership was dissolved, however Abrahams continued the business and retained the name ‘Sniders and Abrahams’. Around 1889, Louis, son of Lewis, joined and managed the firm until his death in 1903.

Actresses (Talma)

‘Actresses (Talma)’ is generally agreed to be one of the finest cigarette card series issued by Sniders and Abrahams and as the title indicates, the cards are reproductions of Talma postcards and in some cases, Talma photographs which were never reproduced as postcards.

The ‘Actresses (Talma)’ cigarette cards were issued in two unnumbered series—one of 30 cards with a gold background (‘the 30 Card Set’) and one of 14 cards with a white border (‘the 14 Card Set’). On the front of each card the name of the actress is printed below the portrait at the base of the card. Interestingly, on some of the cards the names are incorrectly spelt, however for the purposes of this article they have been spelt correctly. 

The cards were included in the ‘Milo’ cigarette brand and were printed by the Melbourne firm, Osboldstone and Atkins (see back showing O&A) which would date the issue prior to 1908 (we know this date, as after 1908 Atkins was no longer involved and the firm became Osboldstone & Co). The cards measure 6.7 cm x 4.0 cm (compared to postcards 13.8 cm x 8.8 cm).

Of the 30 Card Set, four actresses appear twice—Miss Tittell Brune (with and without her dog), Miss Nellie Butler (head and shoulders and full length), Miss Pansy Montague (as a hussar and in evening gown) and Miss Pressy Preston (in fur coat and in summer dress). All of the 14 Card Set repeat an image from the 30 Card Set [including Brune (with dog), Butler (head and shoulders) and Preston (in summer dress)]—however the set includes a picture of the pianist Renee Lees which is not included in the 30 Card Set (for reasons unknown).

As cigarette card collectors would be aware, the ‘Actresses (Talma)’ series are an uncharacteristic issue for Sniders and Abrahams as their cards generally portrayed masculine imagery to appeal to their male based clientele; sporting and military cards were particularly favoured. By the early 1900s however, smoking by women was becoming more fashionable and less frowned upon in society and as such Sniders may have been responding to these changing social norms by producing a set which would also appeal to female smokers. Certainly, the mass production of theatrical postcards—mainly of actresses—in the early 1900s by Talma capitalised on the boom in postcard collecting as a hobby, particularly amongst women.  As such, the Sniders issue coincided with the postcard collecting craze - which was fortuitous. It is quite possible, however that the cards of ‘stage beauties’ were issued to appeal to the male ‘viewer’.

Of the many hundreds of actresses who appear on Talma postcards, what was so special about those who featured in the Sniders and Abrahams cigarette card sets? And, who made the selection? Was it Louis Abrahams, his wife Golda or his brother, Lawrence, all patrons of the arts and avid theatre goers or was the selection made by the photographer Barrie? And what were the commercial arrangement between Sniders and Abrahams and Barrie’s photographic studio? 

The Sniders sets feature both Australian and overseas performers and include the well-known English actress Ada Reeve who frequently performed in Australia; Maesmore Morris who was a much photographed beauty; the popular American Tittell Brune; Grace Palotta a regular visitor to Australia, together with the favourite local artists like the ageless Nellie Stewart, the audience favourite Florence Young, Pressy Preston and Pansy Montague to a handful of rising stars such as Carrie Moore and Daisy Holly.

It is interesting to suppose that while most of the subjects of the Cigarette Cards were included for their theatrical talent alone, it could be argued that some actresses were included for their ‘looks’ given the many contemporary media references to their ‘beauty’. Such subjects could include the likes of Eloise (Elise) Cook, Daisy Holly, Norah (Nora) Kerin, Renee Lees, Lillah McCarthy and Cerita.

The majority of the cards show head and shoulder portraits of the actresses, other than Pansy Montague, Billie Barlow, Elaine Ravensberg and one card of Nellie Butler who are shown in full length poses and in character costume. What also makes these four cards unique is that unlike the rest of the cards, there is no Talma Melbourne & Sydney logo in the bottom left or right-hand corner nor copyright on the opposite side. This is possibly because these four cards were either publicity photographs for a show or photographs for the press, and were not reproduced as postcards. Another oddity is the card of Miss Florence Young which is tagged ‘Talma Melbourne only’—as the Talma Studio in Sydney did not open until March 1899, Young’s portrait photograph would have been taken prior to this date.

A Brief Biographical Note on Selected Cards

One of the truly great overseas actresses included in the set is Ada Reeve, a British pantomime and vaudeville performer, and a star of numerous musical comedies and plays. Barrie would have taken the theatrical portrait of Reeve in costume in 1897 when Reeve appeared as Suzette in the Australian production of the French Maid at the Melbourne, Princess Theatre (Punch, 9 December 1897, p.10).

Another English actress is Mrs Maesmore Morris. She performed in Australia in numerous productions between 1897-1899, returned to the English stage until 1904, and back to Australia the same year. The card image was taken in late 1904 from her performance as George Anne Bellamy in Pretty Peggy, produced by Nellie Stewart’s comic opera company.

A youthful Australian actress is Carrie Moore who was Reeve’s understudy for Suzette. Later, Moore had the leading role in San Toy which opened at Her Majesty’s Theatre Melbourne on 21 December 1901. The card image is of Moore as San Toy. After four years with the Royal Comic Opera Co., Moore travelled to London in 1903 where she soon became a favourite, with successful roles in San Toy (this time playing Dudley, the maid), The Blue Moon, Dairy Maids and Tom Jones. She also appeared in several pantomimes and was voted the most popular ‘principal boy’ in 1904. After an absence of five years she returned to Australia in 1908 for the lead role in The Merry Widow.

Another Australian to feature is Daisy Holly, a talented dancer. She was a member of Williamson’s Juvenile Comic Opera Co. and in 1891 appeared in the opera La Mascotte as Frascello.  She was much in demand as a dancer and was the ‘premiere danseuse’ of the Macmahon Pantomime Company before travelling overseas. She received accolades as one of the Debutantes in the Orchid at the London Gaiety Theatre in 1903. The photograph of Holly which appears on the Sniders card was most likely taken in the late 1890s as it appears as a study piece in ‘Studies by Talma & Co.’, Melbourne and Sydney, published by Atlas Press, Melbourne in 1900.  Frequently described in the media as one of the ‘prettiest women’ on the Australian stage and the ‘little ballet beauty’.

May Beatty was the principal star with the George Stephenson’s Musical Comedy Co. The card image is of her as Rose of the Riviera in the production of the same name.  Performances were held at several venues, including Melbourne’s Princess Theatre in July 1904.

Norah (also known as Nora) Kerin made her name as a Shakespearean actress and toured Australia in 1903/04 as a member of George Musgrove’s English Shakespearean Company with leading roles in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It and Twelfth Night. She returned to England in early 1904 so her portrait photo, not in costume, most likely dates from 1903. Her inclusion in the Sniders set is odd, given her limited exposure to Australian audiences—but perhaps (as noted earlier) it was due to her beauty with Kerin described as ‘the youngest and most beautiful Shakespearean actress on stage’.

Another stage ‘beauty’ was Eloise (also known as Elise) Cook, a young English soprano on stage in Australia in 1900/01 under engagement to George Musgrove to play the principal girl role in the Cinderella pantomime at Melbourne’s Princess Theatre and the Theatre Royal in Sydney. The cigarette card image is Cook as Cinderella in her Fair Scene dress. She was variously described in press reviews as a ‘charming young actress’, ‘as pretty as a picture to look at…’, a winsome, pretty little lady’ and ‘of course there is always pretty little Cinderella herself; she is a very nice little girl’.

Delia Mason was a British musical comedy actress and vocalist who toured Australia in 1904 with the New London Gaiety Company and performed in Three Little Maids, Kitty Grey and The Girl from Kay’s. The card image shows her as Edna in The Three Little Maids.

A lesser known performer who appeared only in the 14 Card Set is Renee Lees, a gifted young Australian pianist. Lees performed at the Opera House in Wellington, New Zealand before she left Australia for Europe in late 1899 to continue her musical studies and while still a teenager made a successful London debut in May, 1900. After a short stint as a dancer with the John F. Sheridan’s musical comedy company, Lees returned to perform as a pianist and organist around mid-1903—at which time her Talma portrait may have been taken.

One the actresses in a full-length pose is Billie Barlow, a popular burlesque artiste, shown on the card as the Prince—the principal boy—in Rickard’s production of the pantomime Puss in Boots held at the Sydney Tivoli Theatre (see Punch, 27 December 1900, p.25). Her costume shown on the card was the subject of a famous theatrical libel action in April 1901, when Barlow sued the Bulletin for £5000 for alleged libel contained in a review of her appearance which suggested that she was ‘wandering about … clothed in her naked soul’, the insinuation being that she appeared in a costume that was indecent. The defence offered no evidence to refute this and after an hour’s deliberation the Jury found for the Bulletin.

Nellie Butler is also shown in a full-length pose. Butler was an American actress who performed in the Royal Comic Opera Co. production of A White Milk Flag at the Melbourne Princess Theatre in October 1896 where she played the role of the Captain (of the Corps). The Talma photo of Butler in costume for this role was published in the Melbourne Punch (15 October 1896, p.3), which is the image that appears on the cigarette card. Also, in a full-length pose is Elaine Ravensberg who arrived from England in December 1904 under engagement to William Anderson to play the principal boy, Sinbad in the pantomime Sinbad the Sailor and her card shows her in costume for this role (see Talma photo of same image in the Sunday Times (Sydney), 26 February 1905, p.3). Ravensberg had previously played the principal boy in several British pantomimes.

Less biographical success was met in sourcing the two cards of Pansy Montague—with no reference found for the image of her in an evening gown or for the card of her dressed as a Hungarian soldier (although there is a photo of her in the same costume in Table Talk of 13 August 1903, where the caption refers to the Princess Theatre but not the play or the role she played). In an earlier Table Talk (9 July 1903) there is a photo of Madame Slapoffski, dressed as a hussar in a like fashion for her leading role in The Fortune Teller. The article does mention that Montague appeared in this production as a servant to the Lord Mayor, but there is no explanation as to why she was dressed as a black hussar in the August edition photograph—perhaps she was the understudy to the lead role?

Lastly, described in the media as ‘the most beautiful woman on the English stage’, Lillah McCarthy visited Australia in 1901 as the leading lady of Wilson’s Barrett’s London Company. During the season she appeared in Man and His Makers, The Sign of the Cross, Virginius and The Manxman.  The card shows her as Kate Cregreen in The Manxman performed at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne in August 1901.

In researching this article, every attempt was made to match the card image to a particular theatrical performance and role played by the actress, or with a photograph taken by the Talma studio. This also allowed for a more precise issue date for the Sniders cigarette cards, rather than the 1904-08 range of years quoted in various references. The one card which appears to assist in clarifying the issue date is that of Cerita (Ada Cerito) a lesser known English actress who arrived in Australia in late 1905 and first appeared at Rickard’s Opera House in mid-December as a comedian, serio comique and character actress. It is unlikely that her portrait was taken at this time (see the Herald, advertisement, 19 December 1905, p.2) due to her hectic schedule. Her photograph by Talma, which became the postcard and cigarette card image, appeared in the Gadfly, 14 February 1906, p.10, which would date the Sniders issue at 1906 at the earliest.

The actresses shown on the Sniders and Abrahams cigarette cards were outstanding theatrical entertainers, performing at a time when live theatre was at the height of its popularity. A handful of the actresses have been singled out for comment, but they and the others in the set deserve much more than the few lines given to them in this article.

My thanks to Elisabeth Kumm, Theatre Heritage Australia for information on many of the actresses and for making time available for several conversations.

All cards are from the author's collection with the exception of Carrie Moore and Elaine Ravensberg.