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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.

Sideshow Alley

Infamy, the macabre & the portrait

Previous exhibition
from Saturday 5 December 2015 until Sunday 28 February 2016
Ned Kelly death mask
Ned Kelly death mask, date unknown an unknown artist after Maximilian Kreitmayer

Our Victorian forebears weren’t squeamish. And they weren’t all that prim, either. Sideshow Alley re-tells tales of criminal and institutional savagery in Australia’s colonial settlements and considers the tension between:

  • the idea of portraiture as a means to edify, refine and elevate the sensibility of the populace, and
  • the popular thirst for the lowbrow, the cheap, the tacky and the ghoulish in portraiture.

Sideshow Alley transports us to a time when crowds surged to see the laid-out bodies of outlaws, competing to tear out scraps of their hair and beards; and a photograph of a corseted matron, posed against a pillar no less rigid than she, might be stuck in the family album alongside a photograph of a defunct bushranger, propped up with gun in hand to menace the populace even in death. 

Sideshow Alley brings to life a time when lithographs, woodcuts and waxworks of men in their direst moments attracted just as much interest as the monumental representations of explorers and statesmen that set the official tone of the age.

49 portraits

1 William Baker Ashton, First Governor of Adelaide Gaol, c. 1849 Henry H. Glover. 2 The Bushranger Tragedy (from The Australasian Sketcher, 23 November 1878), 1878 an unknown artist. 3 At the Pantechnetheca, Exhibition, Eastern Arcade, Dominick Sonsee, the smallest man in the world, c. 1880 William Burman. 4 Chinese giant Chonkwicsee and companion, 1876 Arthur William Burman. 5 Master Molteno, c. 1866 Townsend Duryea. 6 William Francis King, 'The Flying Pieman', c. 1869 John Davis. 7 Thomas Muir of Huntershill, 1838 John Kay.

Related people

Joanna Gilmour (curator)

Related information

Prison and death in the 19th century

Two iBooks of authentic records

Learning resources

These books include sixteen inmates including Ned Kelly, Captain Moonlite and Frederick Deeming and twelve sketches of the deceased, including several children. For Year 7 – 9 students.

Self portrait
Self portrait
Self portrait
Self portrait

The Dissecting Room

Magazine article by Joanna Gilmour, 2015

Joanna Gilmour accounts for Australia’s deliciously ghoulish nineteenth century criminal portraiture. 

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

Getting a head

Magazine article by Alexandra Roginski, 2015

Alexandra Roginski gets a feel for phrenology’s fundamentals.

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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.

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