She was painted and photographed by some of the most famous artists of her day. But who was she? ROGER NEILL looks at the life of Australian actor and artists’ model Lena Brasch.

The photographic portrait of Lena Brasch by Walter Barnett from 1905—exuberantly inscribed by Brasch ‘To Smike’, her friend Arthur Streeton—was featured in the exhibition Legends: The Art of Walter Barnett mounted by the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra in 2000. Since that date, a copy has hung on my wall at home in England and, through my subsequent work, I have come to realise how little is really known about Lena Brasch, actor and artists’ model.  

1. The Brasch family, Curlew Camp and first portraits

Selina Venus Brasch was born in North Melbourne (Hotham Borough) on 9 November 18741. She was the youngest child of Wolfe and Esther (née Silberberg) Brasch, both Jewish. Wolfe (sometimes Wolf) was born near Posen, then in Prussia, now Posnan in Poland, he in 1824, Esther in 1838. They married in Melbourne in 18572 Selina Venus’s eight older siblings were Golda (b. 1858), Hyman (b. 1859), Reuben (b. 1861), Sarah (b. 1865), Alfred/Abraham (b. 1867), Rebecca (b. 18??), Tamer (b. 1869), David (b. 1870) and Henry (b. 1872).

Quite why her parents should have given Lena such fanciful Greco-Roman goddess names, when all their previous offspring were given customary Hebrew names, is intriguing.3

Wolfe Brasch had arrived (aged 28) at Port Philip in July 1852 and ran a pawnbroking business at 240 Swanston Street in central Melbourne. He had been preceded in Melbourne by his younger brother Marcus Brasch, who initially ran a tailoring business, then a general importing concern (amongst the regular items being pianos), and finally focussing on the importation of pianos. That business ran in Elizabeth Street in Melbourne (later run by his sons) for over a century.4

All offspring born, and Wolfe Brasch having liquidated his pawnshop, Wolfe and Esther’s family moved to Sydney around 1879, living initially at 48 Botany Road, Surry Hills. Wolfe opened a general store at 713 George Street in Sydney and clearly was sufficiently successful that in time he built an ‘Italianate mansion’ home for his family, ‘Athens’, at Penkivil Road in Bondi.

In March 1888, Wolfe and Esther’s eldest, their daughter Golda Figa Brasch, married Louis Abrahams. The wedding took place at the then Brasch family home in Moore Park, Sydney. Based in Melbourne, the groom Louis Abrahams’s life was poised between artist and businessman.

As an artist, Abrahams had attended the Artisans School of Design in Carlton, where he met and befriended the pioneering Australian impressionist Frederick McCubbin. Both of them then went to the National Gallery of Victoria Art School, where they fell in with Tom Roberts, the three of them establishing the artists’ camp at Box Hill.

As a businessman, Louis Abrahams assisted his father in running a cigar importing concern in Lonsdale Street, Melbourne, and Louis donated 183 cigar-box lids to the artists working at Eaglemont Camp which were to be used principally by Roberts, Arthur Streeton and Charles Conder in producing the paintings for the ground-breaking 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition of 1889 in Melbourne. The exhibition was stage-managed by Tom Roberts. Roberts had painted a portrait of Louis Abrahams in Melbourne in 1886, and he went on to paint a companion piece of his wife Golda in the year of their marriage, 1888.

This wedding was an important occasion in thirteen-year-old Lena Brasch’s life (as well as that of her big sister Golda)—as she will have met the artist Tom Roberts for the first time. He was a gentile witness and/or best man there and in due course Roberts was to use Lena as his model in half a dozen paintings. He will have been struck by her character and looks—her Selina Venus qualities—even as a young teenager.

There is little to suggest that the young Selina Venus Brasch excelled at school in Sydney—she features in no published prize lists—but she clearly had musical ability and appears aged fourteen in April 1889 (for the first time as ‘Lena Brasch’) playing piano solos at a mixed concert given by the Surry Hills Wesleyan Band of Hope at the school hall in Botany Street.

Around 1890, Lena’s four brothers—Reuben, David, Henry and Alfred—together decided to start up a new artists’ camp in Sydney, ‘Curlew’, at Little Sirius Cove in Mosman Bay on the North Shore of Sydney Harbour. The camp attracted the cream of Australian artists, including Tom Roberts (who arrived from Melbourne in September 1891), Arthur Streeton, G.P. Nerli (the Count), Percy Spence,5 Julian Ashton, A.H. Fullwood (Uncle Remus), B.E. Minns, A.J. Daplyn and Roberts’s photographer friend Walter Barnett, plus two outstanding musicians—conductor GWL Marshall-Hall and composer Alfred Hill—and the Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson, visiting Sydney from his home in Samoa. The camp housed only men, women being welcomed at the weekend—among them the Brasch brothers’ youngest sister, Lena.6

Curlew Camp may well have entailed sleeping in the bush in tents, but in reality, for camping in the 1890s, it was quite salubrious.7 Reuben Brasch was the manager-father of the camp, together with a staff of two—Old Jules who cooked, and young Luigi who was the general dogsbody. There was a nearby freshwater creek and a sandy beach. There was a bush oven, fences, wooden walkways, chairs and benches. And the bohemian residents made their tents comfortable, even stylish.

Neither Roberts nor Streeton were well-funded from their work by the time they moved into Curlew. But they could afford to live at the camp—just about. Streeton talked about living there ‘happily for 12/6 per week—in these days mutton chops sold for 2½d per lb’. Roberts arrived there after Streeton—in September 1891—and claimed to live on even less, ‘seven or eight shillings a week’.

Among Roberts’s earliest portraits from his Curlew period were Smike Streeton Age 24 and his friend SW Pring. But he was also to paint a curious scene at Sirius Cove, only recently re-discovered, which includes his first image of Lena Brasch.

It was painted on a tall, narrow strip of wood, a draper’s panel donated by Lena’s brother, clothing manufacturer/wholesaler Reuben Brasch, and was first exhibited as A Modern Andromeda at the Art Society of New South Wales exhibition which opened on 3 September 1892.8 Those wood strips were also used by Streeton to make paintings of Sirius Cove. Of the Andromeda/Brasch painting by Roberts, David Hansen has written:

… although modest in scale, [it is] a painting of considerable art historical significance … a fine example of the artist’s simultaneously crisp and fluent naturalistic style, completed at a high point in his career.9

It was purchased by the French pianist-conductor-composer, Henri Kowalski, then based in Sydney, who took it back to France, where it passed by descent though his family, but was lost until 2021.

What exactly the nature of the relationship between Lena Brasch and Tom Roberts was, we may never know. However, in a letter from Streeton to Roberts shortly after re-visiting Curlew in September 1891, he wrote joshingly about a ‘pretty sitter with abundant hair’ on the rocks, ‘fanned by the afternoon breeze at the point’, a sitter with grey eyes, ‘both of you have pretty full round eyes’. This is surely sixteen-years-old Lena.

With extended excursions—Tom Roberts was to live at Curlew for five years—he made trips to his studio in the city, to Newcastle, to Melbourne and elsewhere. Among these excursions, it has been suggested that Roberts painted four more of his portraits featuring Lena Brasch in 1893 at the Brasch’s home at Bondi. Two of those paintings of Lena Brasch from that year are counted among Tom Roberts’s finest works: An Eastern Princess and Plink-a-Plong (also titled Girl Playing a Banjo), the others being two studies: Lena Brasch and Portrait Study of Lena Brasch. Julie Cotter has written of the group:

During the early 1890s it was Lena Brasch who performed manifestations of her character in collaboration with Roberts and became one of his favourite subjects … she was part of the inner bohemian circle … Brasch was perfectly suited to, and complicit in, the testing of a modern approach to portraiture of young, intelligent and beautiful women.10

In An Eastern Princess, Lena is presented as a sultry oriental royal, her dark eyes directly fixing the viewer. Mary Eagle has commented:

An Eastern Princess may be thought of as the exotic opposite of the quiet domestic type of woman Roberts has portrayed in An Australian Native [1888]. Indeed the images represented complementary types in the nineteenth-century social mythology of women.11

Certainly, while An Australian Native represents a conventional, demure wifely loveliness, An Eastern Princess presents something quite different: a confident, assertive, untameable, seductive woman—perhaps a ‘femme fatale’.12

Tom Roberts’s portraits of women were also divided in another way: while some were of specific named women, others (including several of his portraits of Brasch) represented a particular, often theatrical idea, the woman playing a role. An Eastern Princess is one of these. A consequence of this category is that it makes the identification of the sitter less certain.13

In 1974, while An Eastern Princess was being catalogued at the National Gallery of Australia, the cataloguer noticed that beneath the canvas was another layer of canvas. The two were separated and there appeared another, quite different image of Lena by Tom Roberts—now entitled Portrait Study of Lena Brasch. Although both paintings are clearly of Lena, they could not be more different. In the Portrait Study, eyes closed and averted, Lena appears young and fashionable, but demure. Mary Eagle has suggested that it may have been painted by Roberts in late 1891 or 1892.

Of Lena Brasch, Julie Cotter observes: ‘The sketchy quality of Lena Brasch shows the casual nature of some portrait encounters, while it is also possible to observe the beginnings of Roberts’s attraction to her profile … The costume worn by Brasch … is clearly a roughly painted version of the delicate costume in Plink-a-Plong.’14

Plink-a Plong, also painted by Roberts in Sydney in 1893, features Lena Brasch playing the banjo, although actual playing of that particular instrument would be difficult as it has no strings. In contrast to An Eastern Princess, Lena is presented in profile, her eyes down, focussed on the banjo. Of Plink-a Plong, Emma Kindred has written:

A shallow backdrop, set out in rich golden hues, focuses our gaze on Roberts’s confident handling of costume and brief decorative flourishes … Lena Brasch … is engaged in the simple pleasure of music-making.15

Originally, the banjo was popularised in the nineteenth century in America, but its fame extended internationally in the 1890s, mostly driven by blacked-up white minstrel bands.

The next major painting by Tom Roberts involving Lena Brasch is Adagio, variously said to have been executed in 1893 and 1899. However, the current consensus (and my own judgement) seems to favour the latter date, so we will greet it then. Time now to turn to Lena Brasch’s theatrical career.

2. On stage with George Rignold and Mrs Brown-Potter

Lena’s on-stage debut was to come at Paddington Town Hall in February 1895—as Clara in an aged one-act farce by Alfred Wigan, A Model of a Wife. The actors were all pupils of an actor and drama teacher in Sydney, Harry Leston. Leston had had a long and varied career in Australia—in everything from burlesque to Shakespeare, at one stage appearing in music hall as the mesmerist ‘Professor Leston’.

In June, just four months later, Lena appeared in her first professional production, Sydney Grundy’s English version of Adolphe Belot’s melodrama Esther Sandraz (originally in French La femme de glace) at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Sydney, joining George Rignold’s company at that theatre. Rignold was an English-born Shakespearean actor who had been involved in building Her Maj’s in 1887, and 1895 was to be his last year of tenancy there. The lead roles were taken by Amy Roselle (‘the finest English actress we have had here’) and her husband Arthur Dacre,16 while Kate Bishop ‘provided the comic element’. Lena Brasch had an unremarked small role.

Lena appeared next in August, again in Rignold’s company at Her Majesty’s, in the Rev George Walters’s biblical play, Joseph of Canaan. While Rignold was the adult Joseph, Lena had two roles—as young Joseph in the Prologue and as Benjamin—and she was to receive her first pleasant review: ‘Miss Brasch, as Benjamin, repeated the pleasing impression she created as Joseph in the Prologue.’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 26 August 1895)

In October, the production moved on to the Theatre Royal in Melbourne, and Lena was again praised: ‘Miss Brasch takes the part of the Hebrew youth and plays it with naturalness and marked ability.’ (The Age, 7 October 1895) And this was followed at the same theatre by George Rignold’s production of the melodrama, Man to Man, with Rignold (as usual) in the lead male role. Lena played the boy convict, her performance liked, this time by Table Talk: ‘Miss Lena Brasch … plays in a sympathetic fashion rare amongst young actresses.’

In January 1896, Lena was featured in an article in The Australian Hebrew about her progress not only as an actor, but also as a musician:

This talented young lady is in her eighteenth year and, though a native of Melbourne, has been reared and educated in Sydney. She has always evinced a decided leaning for the stage but parental prejudice always stood in her way. An early and exceptional talent for music led to her friends hoping that she would devote herself to the pursuit of music. Young as she is, she has already composed quite a score of pieces. The Olga Waltz, published last year, was very popular as a bright and clever piece of dance music. It was dedicated to Miss Olga Nethersole. Professor Marshall Hall of Melbourne University tried her compositions, met her, and thought so highly of her talent that he offered to train her free of charge.

The feature went on to sing her praises as an actor. Clearly, Lena’s teenage theatrical and musical careers had taken off well. She made the choice not to continue with music, at least professionally. It seems likely that Lena’s experience of Olga Nethersole on stage provided a major motivation for this decision.17 How would Lena’s acting develop?

Parental opposition to a career in the theatre was widespread in the late nineteenth century for young women. The perceived problem for young women was exacerbated by a widespread belief that the acting life came along with what is now described under the general heading of ‘sex work’. This trope/cliché is vividly expressed in the life and relationships of Saint-Loup’s mistress, ‘Rachel-when-from-the-Lord’, in Proust’s ‘The Guermantes Way’ part of In Search of Lost Time.18 How Lena overcame the prejudices of her parents is not known.

In the fifteen months between May 1896 and July 1897, Lena Brasch travelled constantly from city to city with the theatre company of Cora Brown-Potter and Kyrle Bellew, taking a wide variety of (mostly small) roles. The company was supported by Williamson and Musgrove.

Brown-Potter and Bellew had previously toured Australia in 1890, returning in 1896–97. Born in New Orleans in 1857 to a wealthy family, Mrs Brown-Potter was initially a socialite and renowned beauty. She married (and divorced), had a brief relationship with the Prince of Wales, and turned to acting, making her debut at the Theatre Royal in Brighton in 1887. The heart of her career was the ten years she acted with Kyrle Bellew, touring in America, England, China, India and Australasia. Her renown as a dazzler outshone her acting ability, and she was constantly compared unfavourably with the great French actor Sarah Bernhardt, who had toured Australia in 1891.

Born in 1850 in Lancashire, the handsome Kyrle Bellew was briefly trained to be a naval officer before turning to acting. Aside from his theatrical work in Australia, he was also a goldminer there.

Lena Brasch’s first outing with the Brown-Potter and Bellew company was as Phoebe in As You Like It at the Princess’s Theatre in Melbourne in May 1896. Mrs B-P was Rosalind, while Bellew was Orlando. Reviews were dominated by the glamorous couple.

Briefly, Lena returned to George Rignold in August 1896 in a play that had run for eight months at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane—Cheer, Boys, Cheer.19 It ran in Melbourne at the Theatre Royal with Lena in a small role. Significantly however, in act 3 the performances included Lena’s composition, ‘The Olga Waltz’, mentioned above. And illustrations in Melbourne newspapers were of Lena Brasch by Talma of Melbourne—her first published photographic portraits.20

Brown-Potter and Bellew next took Lena with the company to tour New Zealand in January 1897 (Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin). It was an opportunity for the young Lena to gain a wide range of experience. She was Jessica in The Merchant of Venice, with Bellew as Shylock and Mrs B-P as Portia;21 also the Marquise de Beaulieu in Georges Ohnet’s The Ironmaster in which Brown-Potter was criticised for overacting (‘ultra-tragical’); a one-act farcical opener, Thomas Williams’s Turn Him Out, featured Lena (‘much vivacity’) for the first time in a lead role; in Dumas’s Francillon, Lena was Annette (‘Miss Brasch in particular giving a perfect delineation of the innocent French girl’ Lyttelton Times) with Mrs B-P in the title role; she was a ‘charming’ Maria in Sheridan’s The School for Scandal with Mrs B-P as Lady Teazle; and Lena reprised her Phoebe (‘very good’) in As You Like It.

In March the Potter-Bellew company left New Zealand for Tasmania, opening at the Theatre Royal in Hobart in La Tosca. Lena appeared in many of the roles she had given in New Zealand, her Jessica noted as ‘worth flying with’; then on to the Theatre Royal in Adelaide, where (among several other roles) Lena was Constance Neville in Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer. In Adelaide she received her first seriously negative criticism: ‘Miss Lena Brasch has a bad habit of talking into the wings’ (Quiz and the Lantern). Was this a portent?

Adelaide was followed by Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo, then Sydney and Brisbane, the company adding Dumas’s Camille with Lena as Nichette. The Potter-Bellew tour ended in July 1897. What would come next for Lena Brasch?

In the event, the fact that she was already involved with the Williamson and Musgrove company, through their support for the Potter-Bellew tour, meant that Lena was immediately taken on board by the Paulton-Stanley company in the Feydeau farce, A Night Out and De Bouchet’s My Friend from India, both at Her Majesty’s in Sydney (then touring New South Wales). The plays were produced by Dion Boucicault jnr and the casts included the English actor Harry Paulton, George Lauri, Alma Stanley, a young Albert Whelan, Carrie Moore and Lena Brasch (‘quite captivating’).

Lena had two more productions to perform in before taking a two-years break from the theatre, again with Paulton and Stanley in the lead roles for the Williamson and Musgrove company: the first was to be William Gillette’s, Too Much Johnson—‘a farrago of nonsense and feast of fun’—an American adaptation of a French farce.  Lena Brasch played the wife of the lead male. It opened in late August 1897 at the Theatre Royal in Adelaide, to be followed by immediate transfer to the Princess’s Theatre in Melbourne. ‘Miss Lena Brasch plays prettily as Mrs Billings,’ said Melbourne Punch.

The second was Niobe, a farce written by the company’s principal male actor, Harry Paulton. It had its premiere in 1892 at the Royal Strand Theatre in London and ran for 500 performances. And in the five succeeding years it was a hit in Australia. As usual, Paulton and Stanley took the lead roles in Adelaide, then Melbourne, but ‘Miss Lena Brasch was somewhat colourless as Florence’ (The Chronicle).

‘Prettily’ and ‘somewhat colourless’: these responses to Lena’s last two roles were not the sort of reports to launch a thousand theatrical ships. Perhaps a break to re-assess was Lena’s best option.

brasch lena talma adagioAdagio by Tom Roberts, 1899. Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.

3. Taking a break and more portraits

During that break, two of Australia’s most important artists were on hand in Sydney to create new works with Lena, artists who were close friends for some fifty years in Melbourne, Sydney and London: the painter Tom Roberts and the portrait photographer H. Walter Barnett.

By 1898–99, as noted the former had already made important portraits involving Lena when he was living in a tent in the bush at Curlew Camp, while Barnett was around in Sydney intermittently in those years, going to and from London setting up his photographic business there.

While Roberts has been continuously well-known and highly regarded from his early days in Melbourne in the 1870s, Barnett, having been celebrated as a leading portrait photographer, first in Sydney in the 1880s/90s as Falk Studios, then under his own name in London in the early decades of the new century, sank from view until the major exhibition of his work mounted by the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra in 2000. He may have known Lena Brasch from her early childhood in Melbourne—Lena’s oldest brother Reuben and ‘Henry’ Barnett (both fifteen-years-old) were prize-winners together at the Melbourne Hebrew School in 1876.

Part of Walter Barnett’s success as a photographer came from his skills in marketing his products. Having captured the brightest stars in Sydney—Sarah Bernhardt, Mrs Brown-Potter, Janet Achurch, Irene Vanbrugh etc—he made their images available in a manner not unlike the movie and recording stars of today: theatregoers bought prints (and postcards) of their favourite performers by the thousand. Sadly, although Barnett made some superb portraits of her, Lena Brasch was never to be numbered among them.

Barnett’s friendship with Roberts started in 1877, when they both worked in lowly positions at the leading photographic studio in Melbourne, Stewart and Co. Barnett was thirteen, Roberts twenty-one.  A wide range of people—from the arts, from high society, politics (and in Roberts’s case indigenous people)—sat for both Barnett and Roberts in Australia and Britain. By 1898 Tom Roberts was married to Lillie Williamson, their son Caleb being born in in February.

In her two years’ furlough from the theatre, Lena Brasch retreated principally into private life, living with her family in Sydney, the period interrupted from time to time by society balls—including the major St Vincent’s Hospital Ball in April 1898, the Sydney Jewish Education Ball in June, and two Society of Artists Balls in September 1898 and September 1899. Other members of her family were frequently there too, her brother Reuben being a steward in June 1898.

Photo portraits of Lena Brasch by Falk, Walter Barnett’s studio in Sydney, first appeared in Australian magazines in 1898. The one that appeared in The Critic in Adelaide on 12 March 1898 shows ‘Lena Brasch—a rising Australian actress’ in a glamorous but reflective pose, her eyes slightly raised and to one side. She wears a dark, probably blue or black, off-the-shoulder evening gown (perhaps the one she was to wear at the St Vincent’s Hospital Ball in April), together with a long string of pearls, a corsage and a floral arrangement in her hair. The portrait is typical of Barnett’s finest Australian work, with skilful use of light and shade, comparable with his best portraits of other actresses there, including Mrs Brown-Potter and Sarah Bernhardt.

In August 1898, Tom Roberts gave an ‘at home’ at his studio in Vickery’s Buildings, 76 Pitt Street, the event partly organised in order to help prepare a concert in aid of the soprano (and Roberts’ sitter) Florence Schmidt.22 Schmidt and Lena Brasch were the ‘charming tea-bearers’.

So Brasch and Roberts were very much ‘in touch’ with each other in Sydney and he painted Lena again, two works featuring her being exhibited at the Society of Arts exhibition on 19 August 1899—Adagio and Study for Jephthah’s Daughter.23

Adagio shows a young female violinist, close up, face turned away from the viewer, intent on her task. Her dark hair merges into a dark evening landscape, a solitary tree on the horizon. Julie Cotter has written:

In Adagio, Brasch replaces the banjo [in Plink-a Plong] with a violin and artificial light is cast upon her face while, in the background, the setting sun heralds the time of day when shadows move fluidly and signify possibilities for spirituality. Roberts uses the beauty and strength of Brasch’s face to catch the resonances of a darkening landscape.24

Among scholars, there has long been a debate as to whether Adagio was painted in 1893 or 1899. I prefer the latter date, not least because it was first exhibited in that year, but also because of the work’s resonances with Study for Jephthah’s Daughter.

Roberts’s Study for Jephthah’s Daughter would have had more meaning for viewers of the painting in the late 1890s than in the lesser bible-reading era of the 2020s: Jephthah made a vow to God that, if he prevailed with his Israelite army in their forthcoming battle with the Ammonites, he would sacrifice as a burnt offering ‘whoever comes out of my house to meet me’, when he returns in triumph.

Really, Jephthah might well have foreseen that this was likely to be his only child, his (unnamed) daughter. When it happened, the daughter acknowledges the debt, but asks for two months ‘to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry.’ She does this and dies a virgin.

Why did this story have such strong meaning for the artist, leading to his enigmatic painting? Most likely, Roberts will have attended a concert of tableaux at the Royal Hall in Moore Park, Sydney in June 1897, one of these tableaux being of Jephthah’s Daughter. In the painting, Jephthah’s daughter is half turned away from the viewer, her solemn face in shadow, her hands crossed on her breast in sorrow. Virginia Spate wrote of the work:

… the figure has a refined grace which is typical of the fin-de-siècle. Roberts placed the figure in front of sumptuous hangings but gave no hint as to the further surroundings of the figure … Paradoxically the simple image becomes complex in our minds.25

Australian academics have spent much time and energy explaining the role of various prevalent isms on Tom Roberts and his work—aestheticism, symbolism, Japonisme etc—especially in these last years of the century. My own view is that Roberts (and his friend Streeton) were not so much interested in theory, simply in responding to art as they experienced it.

brasch symphony whiteSymphony in White No 3 by James McNeill Whistler, 1867. The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham.

Among artists based in Britain, one key influencer was the articulate and prolific James McNeill Whistler—Roberts’s biographer Humphrey McQueen explaining how the artist had adapted Whistler’s characteristics to Australian circumstances. Another was G.F. Watts, then very prominent, now rather faded from view, whose portraits were particularly admired by Roberts in Melbourne in 1889.

Roberts was also influenced by artists in continental Europe, among them particularly Jules Bastien-Lepage. But dominant among his influences was the seventeenth-century Spanish painter, Diego Velasquez.

Lena returned to the stage in 1900, initially in February at Her Majesty’s in Sydney with her old employer George Rignold, who was reverting to his signature lead role in Henry V. Sadly, Lena had a small but touching part in the play—the Boy (Pistol’s servant, who had previously been page to Sir John Falstaff).26 Together with Lena, Rignold took his Henry the following year to Perth.

However, Lena was shortly to move on to working with the newly arrived American actor, Nance O’Neil. O’Neil had been born at Oakland, California, in October 1874—so she was just two months older than Lena—and had made her stage debut at nineteen (1893) in San Francisco. By 1898 she was already a star. She then embarked on a tour around the world, performing in many countries. Managed in Australia by J.C. Williamson, she opened in Sydney at the Theatre Royal in March 1900 in Suderman’s Magda. This was followed in April by Camille—a return by Lena as Nichette to the play. The Sydney newspapers seemed more interested in her dress: ‘The most picturesque Frenchy apparition on the stage was Lena Brasch in a brilliant daring frock of bright green with red roses,’ said Truth. The company moved on to play a season at Her Majesty’s in Melbourne. Nance O’Neil was to return to Lena’s performing career …

However, Lena appeared next in Richard Ganthony’s comedy, A Message from Mars, which had had a major success on the London stage with Charles Hawtrey in the lead role. Hawtrey’s brother W.F. Hawtrey came to Australia to repeat the triumph and it opened at the Palace Theatre in Sydney in December 1900 with Lena as a mere ‘flower girl’.

At some point in 1900-01, while Lena was ‘resting’, another portrait of Lena was painted, this time by John Longstaff. Although his reputation is no longer as elevated as Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton, at that time Longstaff was widely thought to be Australia’s finest portrait painter. He was about to depart with his family for the coming decades to London. In Sydney, Longstaff took a studio at Vickery’s Buildings, where Tom Roberts also had rooms, and it was perhaps there that Roberts first saw Longstaff’s new portrait of Lena. In a long letter from Arthur Streeton in London to Roberts in Australia of 7 August 1902, Streeton wrote:

I’ll tell Lord Longstaff (I always address him as Lord Longstaff & chaff him a bit & he doesn’t mind) – how you liked his picture of Lena. I feel sure he will be pretty pleased to hear.27

Previously unnoticed, it seems to me that a strong candidate for this portrait of Lena is this one, currently known as Portrait of a Young Woman, signed and dated 1901.28

By June 1901, Lena had rejoined Nance O’Neil’s company, this time at the Theatre Royal in Perth with Magda—Lena as Theresa—then as Nichette in Camille, as Fleance in Macbeth, as Maria in The School for Scandal and as Dimitri in Sardou’s Fedora. At the end of the season in Perth, the company moved on to the gold fields at Kalgoorlie.

In August, the company sailed on from Perth to Cape Town, aiming to open there in September. O’Neil’s company gave a full season in Cape Town, moving on to Kimberley, then Port Elizabeth, with plans to go on to Cairo, Alexandria, Malta, Algiers and Gibraltar before returning to London to play a season at the Lyceum.

In February 1902 Lena Brasch left the company in Port Elizabeth. The specific reason for this is not clear, but it was said to be ‘owing to an alleged breach of one of the company’s rules’, and Lena was suing the company for unfair dismissal. She was said to be joining another troupe in South Africa, which turned out to be Herbert Flemming’s company in Cape Town and Johannesburg—taking fifteen different roles with them.

brasch barnett studio carrie moore violet elliottH Walter Barnett’s Studio at 1 Park Side, Knightsbridge by H. Walter Barnett, c.1899 & Carrie Moore by Bassano, c.1905. National Portrait Gallery, London. Violet Elliott by Gainsborough Studio, from The Sketch, 2 November 1904.

4. London, Beerbohm-Tree and last portraits

By August 1903 Lena had arrived in London. Initially, she lived in a flat at Hyde Park Mansions in Knightsbridge with two other young Australian actors—Violet Elliott and Carrie Moore—the flat belonging to the photographer of Lena Brasch in Sydney, Walter Barnett.

Barnett had opened his business in Knightsbridge late in 1898 and was immediately successful, charging top prices to his clientele— ‘dukes and duchesses galore,’ wrote his protégé Jack Cato. Nevertheless, Walter Barnett kept in close contact with his artistic Australian friends in London—including Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton and Charles Conder, the singers Nellie Melba and Ada Crossley, and soon including Auguste Rodin, Sarah Bernhardt (again), Thomas Hardy, plus the Prince and Princess of Wales (later King George V and Queen Mary).

Born in 1879, Violet Elliott performed in Australia in pantomime and vaudeville (with Harry Rickards at the Tivoli and elsewhere). She toured New Zealand and India. She came to London in 1902 and became celebrated as ‘the wonderful Australian lady bass’. In reality, she was a deep contralto, her range extending down to low D. She performed for George Edwardes in the hit musical comedy, The Duchess of Dantzic, at the Lyric in 1903, and at the Alhambra in Leicester Square in 1904-05. In 1909, having divorced her first husband, she married Cecil Hare Duke, a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Garrison Artillery and retired from the stage.

Carrie Moore was born at Geelong in 1882. At thirteen in 1895, she was in J.C. Williamson’s Djin Djin, followed by Floradora in 1900 and San Toy in 1901. She went to London in 1903 (aged twenty-one, arriving around the same time as Lena. She quickly established herself in musical comedy, taking five leading roles over the next five years before returning to Australia. There is no doubt that, of the three young women, Carrie Moore had substantially the most successful stage career, but nevertheless she died in poverty in Sydney in 1956.

Barnett himself wrote in 1904 of his artistic goals in London:

I have long been conscious of the deficiencies of portrait-photography.  Being an enthusiastic admirer of English Mezzotint—that beautiful process which has so perfectly expressed the works of the great English portrait-painters in terms of light and shade—it seemed to me that it might not be impossible to make photography a humble follower in the footsteps of the nobler Art.29

Arthur Streeton said of Walter Barnett: ‘He made better portraits than any living painter in his age’.30 Jack Cato wrote of Barnett:

Walter Barnett was tall and distinguished-looking … [with] a high sense of dignity. A sense of humour was not his strong point, but he was a warm and generous friend to many of our Australian artists in London … He was absolutely irresistible to women.

We can only speculate as to why Barnett should make his Knightsbridge flat available in 1903 to those three delightful young women, aspiring actors all.

Would Lena Brasch make her acting breakthrough in London? At twenty-nine, she was no longer the ingenue. Her London career, such as it was, was principally with the great actor-manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who had started out in the 1870s and from 1887 managed the Haymarket Theatre, producing and acting in a series of important plays from Shakespeare to Ibsen. From 1897 he owned and managed Her/His Majesty’s Theatre in the Haymarket.

Lena’s first task for Tree (in December 1903) was to understudy Maud Hildyard as Rosy Sky in Belasco and Long’s The Darling of the Gods at His Majesty’s. It ran for 167 performances, so presumably she got on stage from time to time. Next for Tree came Clyde Fitch’s The Last of the Dandies, with Lena in the main cast as Lady Carollby, but that only ran for eight performances. The Australasian press reported that Lena in London was ‘making her name in roles such as Letty Lind takes’. She wished!31

Israel Zangwill’s Merely Mary Ann at the Duke of York’s in September 1904 had a starry cast including Henry Ainley and Gerald du Maurier. It ran for 109 performances in London and Lena joined the cast on tour. In April 1906 Lena was reported as touring with an unnamed repertory company (in unnamed plays) in Scotland.

That really concludes Lena Brasch’s stage career. In March 1905 she performed with others in Cecil Clay’s A Pantomime Rehearsal at the Walshingham Club; in January 1906 she entertained with others (including Violet Elliott) at the Green Park Club in Mayfair; that same month she was reported to be doing musical monologues in ‘At Homes’, and she sang at a concert for the unemployed; in June she performed at a theatrical Garden Party at the Botanical Gardens at Kew.

Lena’s attempt to make good on the London stage was no more successful than it had been in Australia. And, starting with auditions, there may well have been an additional barrier—her Australian accent. As Angela Woollacott writes in her To Try her Fortune in London:

Accent could be a significant issue for [Australian] women hoping to have theatrical or singing careers in London.32

In August 1906 it was announced that Lena had retired from the stage and had undertaken an ‘advantageous marriage’ in London. To whom was not disclosed.

However, in these last months of her acting life, new portraits, painted and photographic, appeared. A new photo portrait by Lizzie Caswall Smith was in The Sketch in July 1904, and another by Walter Barnett was in The Tatler in February 1905. Presumably the Barnett print inscribed by Lena ‘To Smike’ (Arthur Streeton) was taken at the same sitting. Smith was to be closely associated with the suffrage movement, photographing many leading suffragettes.

And in February 1905 it was announced that the Australian artist Tom Roberts had completed a new portrait of Lena. The Hebrew Standard of Australasia reported:

The figure is standing in what may be called the modern antique garb, so much in vogue for certain occasions of late—a hat much swathed in lace and a décolleté gown.

This portrait by Roberts, his last of Lena, seems to have been lost.

Perhaps this is a good moment to summarise Lena Brasch’s artistic legacy: she acted in relatively small roles in many productions between 1895 and 1905, rarely receiving critical accolades above ‘pleasing’, ‘charming’, ‘prettily’—so her career never broke through to larger, more challenging parts; however, her role in portraits, especially those by Tom Roberts and Walter Barnett, reveal a much stronger, more vivid personality, one frequently present in art historical publications.

5. Marriage and the private life

What happened in the remainder of Lena Brasch’s life? Whom had she married? Did they have offspring? What did she do with her life?

It is clear, starting with the marriage itself, that Lena Brasch had decided to switch from a rather public life to a strictly private one. Even the identity of her husband was not easy to discover. There were no announcements, so who was he?

Lena Brasch married James Wyatt in the area of St Giles in the West End of London in April 1906. She was thirty-one and James, born at Cheltenham in 1862, was twelve years older at forty-three. It appears that he had been previously married, his wife Alma dying in 1903 at thirty-two. At that time James was living in the Gloucester Road, Kensington in London.

Where (and when) did they meet? At the stage door? A son was born on 14 December 1907, Roderick Guy Maynard Wyatt. No obvious connections to Lena Brasch’s family there. And Roderick was baptised.

Over the following years, the Wyatts were to live in various houses, usually around South Kensington. We hear of them in 1908 when it was reported that their car ran over a man in Lewisham High Road, who later died from his injuries. Their address, not at this time in Kensington, was 5 Beaulieu Gardens at Enfield in North London.

The census of 1911 reveals that the three Wyatts were living at 5 Bina Gardens, which runs off the Old Brompton Road in South Kensington. They had four living-in servants. James was said to be a poultry merchant—his shop on the nearby Gloucester Road at number 105.

By 1913 James Wyatt appears also as managing director of a motor/garage business in the Gloucester Road. It also dealt in horses, the one mode of transport gradually taking over from the other. And, in the following year, in a letter to his friend Frederick McCubbin in Melbourne, Roberts reported that he had seen ‘Mrs Abrahams [Golda] and of the old Don’s [Louis Abraham] children at Mrs Wyatt’s’.33

Over the years since her marriage, Lena had maintained a consistently low profile. But this was shattered briefly in June of 1918, when Selina Venus Wyatt was summoned for travelling by train to Bexhill-on-Sea (on the south coast between Eastbourne and Hastings in Sussex) together with her maid, but without tickets. It came out in court that the Wyatts often went there for weekends. Also that, during the war (now drawing to a close), she had been engaged in war work of some kind in France. Mr Wyatt was in court to support his wife, who was fined forty shillings plus costs. The Wyatts were reported as living at 6 Gledhow Gardens (which runs parallel to Bina Gardens off the Old Brompton Road).34

In April 1924 the boot was on the other foot as Selina Venus Wyatt took action in court against a Miss Marriott, who had not paid rent for her flat in Roland Gardens. Miss Marriott claimed that she was not paying because of the racket emanating from the adjacent flat, which was used by the celebrated cellist Mme Suggia for teaching her pupils. The British press thought this all highly amusing.

After another long period of silence, Lena/Selina re-emerged in the press in May 1933 as the result of another car crash, this time at Streatham in South London. Injured in the vehicle together with the Wyatts were Mr and Mrs Henry Brasch, who were on a trip to London from Sydney. Perhaps they were all travelling to Bexhill.

brasch hyde park shopReuben Brasch shop, corner of Hyde Park and Oxford Street, c.1914. City of Sydney Archives.

Henry Moss Brasch, Lena’s youngest brother, had recently taken over running the substantial Brasch retail business at the corner of Hyde Park and Oxford Street in Sydney, his brother Reuben having died in 1932. This seems significant, as it was not clear up to this point that Lena and the Brasch family in Sydney were still in friendly concord, she having married ‘out’ and living twelve thousand miles away.

The next we hear of Lena is the sixty-five-year-old attending a ball for the 400+ staff of the Brasch business in Sydney in 1939. She had returned home to Australia at some point in her 60s, her husband presumably having died in London in his 80s.  

At seventy-nine, Lena, Selina Venus Brasch/Wyatt, died on 12 May 1954 at a private hospital in Mosman. She had been living at the Brasch family home on Penkival Street, Bondi. In the notices of her death, mention was made of her son, ‘Rodney’ and his wife Rita, of Henry, and of two nieces—Gladys (Mrs P. Greenhill) and Violet (Miss H. Ballin).

No mention was made of her theatrical past, nor of the many fine portraits of her.


1. Previous references to Lena Brasch assert that she was born in 1875, but her birth certificate is quite clear—it was in 1874; there also seemed to be consensus that the date of her death was unknown … in fact it was in 1954

2. Wolfe and Esther Brasch were married six years after the first Jewish marriage in the newly founded state of Victoria, that of Walter Barnett’s parents, Lewis and Alice Barnett, in 1861

3. Selina is the goddess of the moon in Greek mythology; Venus is the goddess of love, beauty, desire, fertility, sex and prosperity in Roman mythology, the equivalent of the Greek Aphrodite

4. In deference to anti-German feeling in the Great War, Brasch’s in Melbourne became Brash’s

5. The cartoon, A Morning at the Baths, North Shore, of Nerli and Spence in their swimmers/bathers is usually credited to G.P. Nerli, but is clearly signed bottom right by Percy Spence, who was a regular cartoonist (which Nerli was not)

6. Later, led by Reuben, the Brasch brothers started up a wholesale clothing business on the corner of Hyde Park and Oxford Street in Sydney, which was to become both substantial and a landmark in the city; the management of it was taken over by youngest brother Henry Brasch on the death of Reuben in 1932

7. Nevertheless, Tom Roberts caught a bush tick quite early after he moved into the camp (Ann Galbally & Anne Gray, Letters from Smike, p.93)

8. The beautiful Andromeda has been chained to a rock as a sacrifice, but is rescued by Perseus, who marries her, taking her to Greece as his queen

9. Essay by Dr David Hansen for Deutscher and Hackett auction catalogue, November 2021

10. Julie Cotter, Tom Roberts and the Art of Portraiture, pp.250–51

11. Mary Eagle, The Oil Paintings of Tom Roberts, pp.63–64

12. There have been a number of suggestions for who might have been the Australian Native, among them contralto Ada Crossley and Lillie Williamson, soon to be married to Tom Roberts

13. Fantastical (or fantasy) portraits were popularised by Fragonard, Reynolds and others in the eighteenth century

14. Julie Cotter, p.251

15. Emma Kindred in Tom Roberts (ed. Anna Gray), pp.202–03

16. Just months later, in November 1895, the Dacres died in a murder-suicide pact in Sydney, resulting from depression and financial problems

17. Born in London in 1866, Olga Nethersole toured Australia together with Charles Cartwright in the first six months of 1891, opening at the Garrick in Sydney; among their repertoire was Haddon Chambers’s The Idler

18. Marcel Proust, The Guermantes Way, p.172 etc; ‘Rachel when from the Lord’ is an aria in Halévy’s La Juive

19. Cheer, Boys, Cheer appears to have had three authors—Augustus Harris (manager at Drury Lane), Cecil Raleigh and Henry Hamilton

20. Melbourne Punch, 6 August 1896

21. Since Lena was not a singer, as Jessica in the last act of The Merchant of Venice in Adelaide (and perhaps elsewhere), she was surreptitiously replaced from the wings by the young soprano, Francie Adler (later to become Frances Alda)

22. Born at Rockhampton in Queensland in 1873, soprano Florence Schmidt left Sydney for Paris with her teacher Arthur Steffani in September 1898; she was much admired in London by Henry Wood and others, but gradually retired after marrying the sculptor Derwent Wood in 1903

23. Dr Hansen has suggested that the sitter is violinist Bessie Doyle (an Australian pupil of Ysaÿe and Ševčík); if Adagio was painted in 1899, the year of its first exhibition, Miss Doyle was then getting married (on a yacht near Kinloch Castle) in Scotland; it is perhaps worth noting that, in the absence of a right arm and bow, a professional violinist model would not be required

24. Julie Cotter, 251

25. Virginia Spate, Tom Roberts, pp.99–101

26. ‘Mine host Pistol, you must come to my master, and you, hostess: he is very sick, and would to bed … Faith, he's very ill.’ Boy, Henry V, Act 2, Scene 1

27. Ann Galbally and Anne Gray, Letters from Smike, pp.92–93

28. Longstaff expert Sue Gillberg has proposed the artist’s cousin Mercy as the subject here; she now seems less sure of that attribution; Longstaff’s portrait of Ella Barnett, wife of Walter Barnett, is in the Art Gallery of South Australia in Adelaide, donated by Barnett in 1932, two years before his death at Nice

29. Introduction to H. Walter Barnett’s first published list of society sitters, 1904

30. Jack Cato, The Story of the Camera in Australia, p.91

31. Letty Lind worked in burlesque at the Gaiety Theatre in London and at Daly’s in musical comedy; she had retired from performing in 1902; in 1888 she had toured Australia with the Gaiety company—and a thirteen-year-old Lena Brasch will probably have seen her on stage then 

32. Angela Woollacott, To Try her Fortune in London, p.155

33. Louis Abrahams had committed suicide in Melbourne in 1903

34. The writer lived with various reprobates at several addresses close to the Gloucester Road in South Kensington in the 1960s, including Gledhow Gardens


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――, I can Take it: The Autobiography of a Photographer, Georgian House, Melbourne, 1947

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――, The Oil Paintings of Tom Roberts in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1997

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With grateful thanks for help of various sorts from Julie Cotter, Clare Freestone (NPG London), Sue Gillberg, Emma Kindred (NPG Canberra), Elisabeth Kumm, Tony Locantro, Rob Morrison and Sophie Wilson. Also, research behind this essay was facilitated by various newspaper archives, including: British Newspaper Archive, (USA), Papers Past (New Zealand), Trove (Australia).