McInnes’s most famous public commission was for stage actress Nellie Stewart. The Nellie Stewart Portrait Fund was initiated in August 1929, with the aim to raise between 350 and 400 guineas. Subscribers from all over Australia, donated from a shilling upwards to commission an eminent painter to immortalise Stewart as ‘Sweet Nell’. Sweet Nell was a role that Stewart had played many times and was strong in the memory of the community. It was to be a tribute to her beauty and youthful appearance, which was a significant challenge for McInnes as the actress was now 72 years old, however her ‘ageless’ appearance was an often-marvelled feature of Stewart’s. The public wanted to remember her as their sweet young Nell, and this was McInnes’s task. It was keenly hoped that the portrait would be hung in a public gallery.
Nellie Stewart was possibly the most adored and loved actress of any time in Australian history. She was not only beautiful and vivacious, but she had incredible magnetism. She was called ‘Australia’s Idol’. Her celebrity cannot be overstated, with her celebrity status equivalent to Dame Nellie Melba’s but unlike Melba, there would be no recorded legacy of her performances. Once she stopped performing on stage, she would be forgotten.
Nellie Stewart worked on stage for more than fifty years, playing leading roles. There are many stories about her that reflect her colourful character and immense spirit. In 1883, she broke her arm while performing on stage and in true ‘the show must go on’ spirit, she had her arm set during the interval, then continued with the second half performance. Nellie was also a fashion icon whose dress style was copied by women all over Australia and New Zealand. She wore a particular bangle that was given to her by her devoted long-term partner and father of her daughter. The plain gold bangle was in lieu of a wedding ring as her partner was unable to obtain a divorce from his wife. This began a trend amongst young women – the ‘Nellie Stewart bangle’ as a symbol of romantic attachment.
In 1888 she played the role of Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne. On opening night, Federici, who played Mephistopheles, sang the final note of his aria and fell dead as he descended below the stage. (It is said that his ghost haunts the theatre.) For Stewart however, the unfortunate legacy from this production was that after singing for twenty-four consecutive nights, she damaged her vocal cords and was forced to confine her performances to predominantly speaking roles thereafter.
Throughout the 1920s there had been talk amongst her fans that a portrait should be painted of her for perpetuity. Art writer William Moore had suggested it as early as 1922. The idea gained momentum in the late 1920s as Nellie neared her seventies. At the initiative of some Sydney admirers, Nellie sat for artist Mary Edwards in 1929, however after several sittings, Nellie was unimpressed by the painting and refused to accept it. An incensed Mary Edwards took Stewart to court claiming £100 under an alleged agreement to purchase the portrait of herself in the costume of Nell Gwynne. Mary Edwards supported her argument by having the portrait ‘approved’ by Sir John Longstaff. This court case was heard around the time that McInnes began painting his portrait of Stewart. It had to be foremost in his mind and remind him of the necessity to adhere to the concept of ‘young’ Nell. As a result, although there is some fine brushwork in the costume, the painting is very much a flat record of the actress and the times, rather than a great painting.
Mary Edwards was awarded £75 on the basis that she should be paid for actual material costs and time and skill, regardless of whether the sitter was satisfied. Edwards auctioned the Nellie Stewart portrait off soon after. (Edwards painted and exhibited all her life but is now possibly most remembered for her involvement in taking legal action against the Sydney National Gallery trustees in an effort to revoke the award of the Archibald Prize for portrait painting in 1943 to William Dobell for his alleged ‘caricature’ of Joshua Smith.)
McInnes’s portrait was presented to Stewart during a special evening performance at the Tivoli Theatre in Melbourne in October 1930.As a special souvenir supplement, Table Talk reproduced a free presentation plate of McInnes’ portrait of Stewart as Sweet Nell, in the journal in full colour and ready for framing. In accordance with the subscribers’ wishes, Stewart gifted the painting to the National Gallery of Victoria. In February 1931 Bernard Hall hung the painting in the gallery, replacing a painting by Max Meldrum. This drew the wrath of Meldrum’s supporters who saw the act as a deliberate insult to Meldrum, who they believed to be one of the greatest painters of all time. The Meldrum painting The Peasant of Pace had been presented by Meldrum, under the terms of the National Gallery of Victoria Travelling Scholarship in 1912. It had been on view for nearly twenty years and Hall felt it had had a good innings. The Meldrum supporters agitated for its reinstatement through a barrage of letters to the press.
Disliking public conflict, McInnes expressed his regret to the press that the Meldrum painting had been removed. He said he would much rather his other painting Malcolm and Gyp, had been removed to make room for the Nellie Stewart picture. With his usual humility he said, ‘I would not like to see the work of any other artist removed to make way for my work." As an extra conciliation, he added that he would like to see more Meldrum works in the gallery. Writer Vance Palmer drafted a letter of protest against the removal of Meldrum’s painting and garnered as many significant signatures as possible. Several artists went to McInnes’s house and asked him to sign the letter. McInnes signed the letter but then later changed his mind and followed after them to remove his name from the letter. Perhaps it was out of consideration for Hall. It was an awkward position for him. Hall, as usual, appeared unmoved and explained that the decision was made simply on the basis of what had been hanging the longest and the Gallery trustees upheld this decision.
The controversy resulted in increased attendance at the gallery. Everyone wanted to see the Nellie Stewart portrait and what all the fuss was about. The only sufferer was the attendant at the McArthur Gallery, who was kept busy directing people to ‘the picture’. McInnes knew the painting was certainly not one of his great works. In fact, Bernard Hall had advised the trustees that McInnes had much better work that could be bought but allowance had to be made for public taste and sentiment and besides, Sweet Nell had been gifted to them.
Stewart died eight months after her portrait was completed. The whole nation went into mourning. Thousands of people lined the streets around the church for her funeral, with a further series of services held for the crowds of fans who wanted to pay their respects. In true character, Nellie requested no-one wear black or be gloomy.
Nellie Stewart (1858–1931) was a beloved Australian stage actress and singer. Her most famous role was as Nell Gwynne in the romantic comedy Sweet Nell of Old Drury. From this production, she became popularly known as ‘Sweet Nell’. Stewart first played the role in 1902 at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne. She played the role again nine years later, at the age of 52, touring nationally for many months. It was through this production of Sweet Nell of Old Drury, which comprised of one-night performances in most of Australia’s cities and large towns, that she endeared herself to the hearts of many Australians. Stewart was all charm, wit and vivacity, and the crowds adored her. Wherever she played, there was standing room only. This tour was followed by a film adaptation of the play in which Stewart starred, consolidating her name further. When Stewart was nearly 70, she played the role yet again in Sydney and was acclaimed for her lithe and graceful performance. Understandably it was her fame as Sweet Nell that was held in the hearts of Australians everywhere and this dictated McInnes’s depiction.
Margot Tasca, William Beckwith McInnes: An artist’s life, Thames & Hudson Australia Pty Ltd, Melbourne, 2022
For more information or to order your copy of the book visit, https://thamesandhudson.com.au/product/william-beckwith-mcinnes-an-artists-life/
On 31 October 2022, Woollahra Municipal Council in Sydney unveiled the latest addition to its historical Plaque Scheme, a marker commemorating the actor and singer Eleanor (Nellie) Stewart at 23 Wunulla Road, Point Piper, her former home. Nellie Stewart was a much-loved and highly accomplished artiste, and became synonymous with the role of Nell Gwynne in the play Sweet Nell of Old Drury, which she performed for nearly thirty years.
The plaque ceremony was presided over by Deputy Mayor of Woollahra, Councillor Isabelle Shapiro, with guest speaker Graham Shirley, an Australian filmmaker and author known for his work in Australian film history. The nomination for the plaque was made by Graham Humphrey, community member. All those in attendance listened to the highlights of Nellie’s life, career, and impact on Australian theatre with keen interest outside the Den-o-Gwynne property, named for Nellie’s most famous role.
Nellie was born in Woolloomooloo on 20 November 1858. Her father Richard Stewart (formerly Towzey), was an English actor, comedian, entrepreneur and theatre manager. Her Irish-born mother Theodosia (née Yates, formerly Guerin) was the daughter of Richard and Mary Ann Yates, famously known for their work at the Drury Lane Theatre in London. Nellie made her stage debut at the tender age of five, and it is no surprise that travel with her theatre-centric family provided her with a viable entry to the craft.
As a young woman, Nellie toured in productions with her family (and the upper echelon of Australia’s theatre elite) to New Zealand, England, and the United States. Upon their return to Australia, Nellie went out on her own, being cast in leading adult roles independent of her family’s successes. Still, her ties in the theatre continued to influence her life, and it was forever changed upon meeting the producer George Musgrove: Nellie would become his leading lady both on and off the stage.
Nellie and George's partnership was mutually beneficial—she graced the stage with poise and he managed her career and helped create opportunities for her talent. Their daughter, Nancye Doris Stewart, was born in 1892. Though the two never married, Nellie Stewart was given a bangle by George Musgrove which she wore on her upper arm for the rest of her life. This fashion statement became known as ‘Nellie Stewart bangle’ and was swiftly emulated by thousands of women all over Australia.
At the turn of the 20th century, Nellie had performed 35 different productions, including her role as the iconic ‘Sweet Nell’. She was best suited to light or comic operas and pantomimes, after a stint in grand opera caused her to strain her voice. One of the most photographed figures of the day, her national significance became most apparent when she performed the song ‘Australia’ at the opening of the first Federal Parliament in 1901.
After Nellie and George toured the theatre hubs of the world, both separately and together, they settled in Point Piper at Den-o-Gwynne in 1913, which George had built for Nellie and Nancye. He sadly fell ill and died of whooping cough in 1916, but Nellie carried on; she was nearly 70 when she resurrected her last performance of Sweet Nell. Writing her memoirs took much of her time in the later years, and she inspired a new generation of actors through the opening of the Nellie Stewart School of Acting. Her last public performance was with her daughter performing the balcony scene of Romeo & Juliet three days before her death on 20th of June 1931.
Nellie completed her memoir with the following words, which summarises her wishes and intentions in life: ‘I am still steadfast in my determination to do my utmost best always. Resolve will meet no rocks, but it can scale them. And so, friends of mine, au ’voir. Let me take my leave of you in the lasts words of “Sweet Nell”—“Memory will be my happiness—For you are enshrined there”.’ (1924)
She made a lasting impact on the Australian theatre community, and turn of the 20th century culture, and her plaque is the 39th unveiled by Woollahra Municipal Council. The plaque scheme relies on nominations from members of the community, so please contact Woollahra Libraries to make a nomination. You can learn more about Nellie’s life and achievements here:
Written by American playwright Paul Kester, Sweet Nell of Old Drury was first performed at the Haymarket Theatre in London in August 1900 with Julia Neilson in the title role. It was an instant success and Neilson revived the play many times during the following two decades. When it was produced in America for the first time in December 1900, Ada Rehan was the Nell. On Broadway, the play was also performed in 1923 with Laurette Taylor in the lead. But it was in Australia in 1902 with Nellie Stewart as Nell Gwynne that the play was to have its greatest popularity.
Kester’s play, which is in four acts, charts the major events in the life of Nell Gwynne. Act 1, set in London in 1667, shows Nell outside the King’s Theatre in Drury Lane, where working as an orange seller she encounters the pleasure-seeking King Charles II (in disguise) for the first time. In Act 2, now an established favourite of the King’s, Nell shelters Lady Olivia Vernon (ward of the villainous Chief Justice Lord Jeffreys), whose lover Sir Roger Fairfax has been falsely accused of treason. Fairfax is captured in Nell’s boudoir and imprisoned by Jeffreys who, wishing to undermine Nell’s position at Court, tells the King that Fairfax is her lover. Act 3 sees Nell outwitting Jeffreys by donning a wig and cape and entering his house where Lady Olivia has been held captive. By impersonating Jeffreys, Nell facilitates Lady Olivia’s escape. In the final act, Lord Jeffreys’ infamy is revealed and Nell is reconciled with the King.
At the heart of this play, Nell Gwynne, in spite of her humble beginnings, is shown to be a woman of spunk, true to her friends, and loyal to the King, and worth more as a person than the so called nobles of the Court whose motives are driven by jealousy, personal gain and duplicity.
Nell Gwynne has been the subject of numerous operas and dramas. Prior to 1900 there was The Peckham Frolic; or Nell Gwyn (1799), a three act comedy by Edward Jerningham; Douglas Jerrold’s comedy Nell Gwynne; or, The prologue (1833); John Walker’s drama Nell Gwynne, the Orange Girl (1833); Charles Reade and Tom Taylor’s drama The King’s Rival (1854); G.A. A’Beckett’s burlesque Charles II; or, Something like history (1872); a comic opera, Nell Gwynne (1876), with libretto by H.B. Farnie and music by Alfred Cellier; and a second comic opera by Farnie, also called Nell Gwynne (1884) but with music by Robert Planquette. During the twentieth century, she was the central character in Anthony Hope and Edward Rose’s comedy English Nell (1900); and in Ivor Novello and Harold Fraser-Simpson musical comedy Our Nell (1924). She also made an appearance in George Bernard Shaw’s In Good King Charles’s Golden Days (1939).
Nell has been seen on the silver screen many times. The first, shot in 1900, was a scene from Julia Neilson’s stage production.1 In 1911, in Australia, Nellie Stewart’s performance was also filmed. The silent era saw Nell portrayed by Mary Pickford (1915), Lois Sturt (1922) and Dorothy Gish (1926). With the advent of sound, came Gracie Fields (1934), Anna Neagle (1934) and Margaret Lockwood (1949).
Nellie Stewart introduced Sweet Nell to Australian audiences on 15 February 1902 at Melbourne’s Princess Theatre. The Haymarket script was used, which incorporated additional dialogue and a reworked final act by J. Hartley Manners.2 The original music written for the London production by Raymond Rôze was employed throughout, including Nell Gwynne’s song in Act 2, ‘How happy the lover’, with words by John Dryden.
A sumptuous production, the scenery for the first two acts was painted by W.R. Coleman, and the final two by Phil Goatcher, possibly based on the original London designs by Joseph Harker. A special feature was the period furniture made at the Princess Theatre by William Gardiner (the property manager) from ‘drawings from the British Museum’. A harpsicord was also commissioned from Allan & Co. music warehouse, based on ‘tracings obtained at the British Museum’. The opening night program also tells us that the ‘Correct Costumes of the Period’ were by A. & L. Nathan, London, after ‘reliable authorities’ and ‘Characteristic Wigs’ were by Gustave of Paris.3
Supported by members of George Musgrove’s New English Comedy and Dramatic Company, the principal roles were played by Harcourt Beatty (King Charles II), Albert Gran (Lord Jeffreys), Ernest Imeson (Sir Roger Fairfax) and Minnie Sadler (Lady Olivia Vernon).
With the staging of this play, Nellie Stewart was appearing in a straight play for the first time. A well-established star of the comic opera stage, she had taxed her singing voice too much and it was no longer possible for her to maintain a career as a singing actress. The opening night reviews applauded her transition to the dramatic stage.
It is not too much to say that this performance places her amid the very first of the comedy actresses who have been seen in Australia. The brilliant success which she achieved in work of such high calibre, and so different from that in which she has been seen hitherto, was cordially and almost tumultuously recognised by the audience, who recalled her again and again at the close of every act.4
The same reviewer noted:
From the beginning to end Miss Stewart never failed and never flagged … There were depths in her voice that really touched the heart in the emotional passages, and there was an unconquerable gaiety and joyousness in the livelier moments with which the piece abounds.
Yet despite the positive reviews, in her autobiography Nellie recalled that for the first two weeks of the season ‘business was indifferent’ on account that people ‘associated me with comic opera and the singing stage, and they were quite unwilling to believe that I could possibly make a success in the speaking part’. George Musgrove very nearly pulled the play, but on the recommendation of Harcourt Beatty, he ‘gave it a chance’.5
Following a five week season in Melbourne, the play was taken to Tasmania and onto Adelaide, before opening in Sydney in June, where it played a further five weeks. The Sweet Nell boom had begun.
A souvenir booklet was produced commemorating the first production in Melbourne, featuring photographs by Talma. Postcards depicting Nellie Stewart in various costumes from the play were also widely circulated.
Over the next thirty years, Sweet Nell remained a key feature of Nellie’s repertoire. In 1906 she took it to America. The company received encouraging reviews in San Francisco, but when the earthquake hit on 18 April, they lost heavily and their tour came to an abrupt end.
In 1911 Spencer’s Pictures arranged to make a film version of the play, inviting Nellie to recreate her role. She received a whopping £1000 for her participation, said to be half the total budget of the project! The film was shot at Spencer’s Wonderland City studio in Bondi, and in the grounds of various Sydney mansions over a six week period commencing in September 1911. The cast, which was drawn from the current touring company, included Augustus Neville as the King, Charles Lawrence as Lord Jeffreys, Leslie Woods as Sir Robert Fairfax, and Roslyn Vane as Lady Olivia Vernon. George Musgrove took on the role of director, though his inexperience soon became evident and he was replaced by Raymond Longford. The film was screened for the first time at the Lyceum Theatre in Sydney on 2 December 1911. Some 12,000 people reportedly saw the film during the first seven sessions.6
Over the coming months, Nellie was a tireless promoter of the film, making personal appearances at showings. This was to be her only foray into films. Despite screening regularly for the next six years, no copies of the film have survived.7
On 2 February 1931, to commemorate Nell Gwynne’s birthday, Nellie Stewart featured in a radio broadcast of the play Sweet Nell. Produced under the direction of Laurence Halbert, in association with Nellie Stewart, the program was aired on Sydney’s 2BL at 8.00pm (and on relay to Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and other cities). Other than Nellie Stewart as Nell and Arthur Greenaway as Charles II, the cast members are unknown.
Following the success of the radio broadcast, Nellie was approached by the Columbia Graphophone Company to recorded scenes from Sweet Nell of Old Drury at their studio in Homebush, Sydney on 24 March 1931. Issued on two 12 inch 78 rpm records (catalogue numbers DO346 and DOX165), the first record featured Nell Gwynne’s entrance, Act 1, and the Finale, Act 4, with Nellie Stewart as Nell, Nancye Stewart (Nellie’s daughter) as Lady Olivia, and Mayne Lynton (Nancye’s husband) as Charles II. The second record featured a comedy scene from Act 1 and Nellie Stewart ‘Addresses Her Public’.8
Extracts from these records were featured in Ladies, Please!, a CD compiled by THA in 2010.
Act 1 comedy scene (DOX165, side 1)
Nellie Stewart played Sweet Nell for the last time at a charity performance in 1931, just weeks before her death on 20 June at the age of 72. In August 1931, ‘in view of the high esteem in which Miss Nellie Stewart was held’, the Columbia Co. offered the original matrices of their recordings, ‘suitably framed and engraved’ to the Mitchell Library (State Library of New South Wales) in Sydney.9
Sweet Nell lives on in other ways too. In 1930, artist William B. McInnes painted a full-length portrait of Nellie in Sweet Nell as she appeared in the early 1900s. The portrait was commissioned via subscription and presented to Nellie by Sir Robert Best on behalf of her admirers at a function at Melbourne’s Tivoli Theatre on 19 October 1930. Nellie immediately offered the painting to the trustees of the National Gallery of Victoria so that it may be placed on public view.10
In June 1931, Table Talk magazine published a full colour plate of the McInnes painting ‘ready for framing’, urging people to place their orders early to avoid missing out.11
Another portrait by Mary Edwards, also painted in 1930, depicted Nellie as Sweet Nell. Like McInnes’ painting Edwards (apparently) entered her portrait in the Archibald Prize. In late years, the portrait hung in Nancye Stewart’s sitting room.12
Further artefacts connected with Nellie Stewart’s depiction of Sweet Nell reside in various public collections. The State Library Victoria, for example, holds a turquoise ring worn by Nellie in the play, and the Australian Performing Arts Collection has an apron that she wore as part of her Act 1 orange seller costume.
State Library Victoria, Melbourne
Nellie Stewart will long be identified with her namesake Sweet Nell through the many pictures that exist, but wouldn’t it be something if the film version of her performance were discovered, so we could see her in action!
1. Denis Gifford, British Film Catalogue: Fiction film, 1895–1970, p.15 . The same year, scenes from English Nell, which was performed at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London with Marie Tempest, were also released. See also Internet Movie Database, www.imdb.com/title/tt6687694/
2. The Daily Mail, 5 September 1900
3. Sweet Nell of Old Drury theatre program, Princess Theatre, Melbourne, 15 February 1902
4. The Argus, 17 February 1902, p.6
5. Nellie Stewart, My Life’s Story, p.138
6. Andrew Pike & Ross Cooper, Australian Film, 1900–1977, p.41
7. Graham Shirley, ‘The lost film of Nellie Stewart’, Openbook, Summer 2020
8. Sunday Mail (Brisbane), 26 April 1931, p.10
9. Daily Advertiser (Wagga Wagga), 26 August 1931, p.4
10. The Argus, 20 October 1930, p.12
11. The Herald, 23 June 1931, p.12
12. ABC Weekly, 14 February 1942, p.14
W. Davenport Adams, A Dictionary of the Drama, vol. 1, Chatto & Windus, 1904
Reginald Clarence, The Stage Cyclopaedia, Burt Franklin, 1909
Denis Gifford, British Film Catalogue: Fiction film, 1895–1970, 3rd edn, 2001
Barbara Korte & Doris Lechner (eds), History and Humour: British and American perspectives, Transcript, 2013
Andrew Pike & Ross Cooper, Australian Film, 1900–1977, Oxford University Press, 1980
Marjorie Skill, Sweet Nell of Old Sydney, Urania Publishing Company, 1974
Nellie Stewart, My Life’s Story, John Sands Ltd, 1923
Graham Shirley, ‘The lost film of Nellie Stewart’, Openbook, Summer 2020
Lewis C. Strang, Famous Actresses of the Day in America, second series, L.C. Page and Company, 1902
Sweet Nell of Old Drury [souvenir of first performance at Princess Theatre, Melbourne], Atlas Press, 1902
J.P. Wearing, The London Stage: A calendar of productions, performers, and personnel, 1900-1909, 2nd edn, Rowman & Littlefield, 2014
Judy Leech, Rob Morrison
Australian actress & vocalist. Née Eleanor Stewart Towzey. Born 20 November 1858, Sydney, NSW, Australia. Daughter of Richard Stewart Towzey (actor) and Theodosia Yates (actress). Married Richard Goldsbrough Rowe, 26 January 1884, Melbourne, VIC, Australia. Died 21 June 1931, Sydney, NSW, Australia.
On stage in Australia from age of five. By 1883 she was playing leading roles in musical comedy and opera for Williamson Garner and Musgrove. Also performed in London during late 1890s. Toured with George Musgrove's company from 1902 including a trip to USA in 1906 that was ended due to San Francisco earthquake. Following Musgrove's death in 1916 she continued to perform in Australia.
SIGN UP for our newsletter and get more great content like this delivered to your inbox. It's FREE!