Skip to main content

To help keep our visitors and staff safe, please book your spot before visiting.

Menu

The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

The Freak Show

We believe that the future tone of the drama among us depends very much upon the events of the next two or three months, and that if we do not support better than we have done hitherto, those ladies and gentlemen who are offering us a commodity well worth our money, we shall soon have to stay away from the theatres altogether, or go there with the risk of having our tastes and morals undermined. … It is better for the public to have a prima donna among them than a semi-nude gymnast or a Chinese giant or an American Dwarf.

Bell’s Life in Sydney and Sporting Chronicle, November 1870

The discovery of gold in New South Wales and Victoria in 1851 created rampant rates of population growth and transformed Sydney and Melbourne from colonial outposts to major capitals in the space of a decade. With people came commercial opportunities, and entertainers of all descriptions were among those who arrived in Australia seeking to profit by ventures other than prospecting.

During a period of 30 years, Melbourne accommodated the construction of seven large theatres, concentrated in the areas around the east end of Bourke Street, and Sydney experienced a similar boom. Local impresarios such as George Selth Coppin engaged famous names in drama, opera, pantomime, circus and music hall, and Australian cities and goldfields towns were added to the itineraries of touring international acts and artistes, including some whose performances were considered detrimental to the cultivation of taste and decency. Many of these performers availed themselves of the services of photographic studios, posing for carte de visite portraits that served as souvenirs and as instruments in the making of renown and notoriety.

4 portraits

1 At the Pantechnetheca, Exhibition, Eastern Arcade, Dominick Sonsee, the smallest man in the world, c. 1880 William Burman. 2 Chinese giant Chonkwicsee and companion, 1876 Arthur William Burman.

Related information

Ned Kelly death mask
Ned Kelly death mask
Ned Kelly death mask
Ned Kelly death mask

Sideshow Alley

Infamy, the macabre & the portrait

Previous exhibition, 2015

Death masks, post-mortem drawings and other spooky and disquieting portraits... Come and see how portraits of infamous Australians were used in the 19th century.

The National Portrait Gallery building front entrance
The National Portrait Gallery building front entrance
The National Portrait Gallery building front entrance
The National Portrait Gallery building front entrance

The Gallery

Visit us, learn with us, support us or work with us! Here’s a range of information about planning your visit, our history and more!

The National Portrait Gallery building at night
The National Portrait Gallery building at night
The National Portrait Gallery building at night
The National Portrait Gallery building at night

Support your Portrait Gallery

We depend on your support to keep creating our programs, exhibitions, publications and building the amazing portrait collection!

© National Portrait Gallery 2021
King Edward Terrace, Parkes
Canberra, ACT 2600, Australia

Phone +61 2 6102 7000
Fax +61 2 6102 7001
ABN: 54 74 277 1196

The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders past and present. We respectfully advise that this site includes works by, images of, names of, voices of and references to deceased people.

This website comprises and contains copyrighted materials and works. Copyright in all materials and/or works comprising or contained within this website remains with the National Portrait Gallery and other copyright owners as specified.

The National Portrait Gallery respects the artistic and intellectual property rights of others. The use of images of works of art reproduced on this website and all other content may be restricted under the Australian Copyright Act 1968 (Cth). Requests for a reproduction of a work of art or other content can be made through a Reproduction request. For further information please contact NPG Copyright.

The National Portrait Gallery is an Australian Government Agency