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Dupain detective

by Johanna McMahon, 21 January 2019

Sydney Ure Smith
Sydney Ure Smith, 1948 Max Dupain OBE

Nestled safely in the basement stores of the National Portrait Gallery lies a box containing 30 photographs by Max Dupain. They form part of a larger private collection of vintage prints by the iconic Australian photographer from which the Gallery has judiciously been acquiring works. (As of December 2018, the Portrait Gallery Collection features some 85 Dupain photographs.) The portraits in the box are diverse. Some are formal commercial headshots, such as that of an avuncular, bespectacled man in a suit who confidently leans into a closely cropped frame; Dupain has captured the man’s amiable expression with refreshing frankness. Others are more unusual – in one, a bearded man stares directly at the camera as he sits in front of an astrological dial; his right hand emerges from a foreground shadow, clutching what appears to be a hypnotist’s pendant. The group forms a disparate group of photographs, bonded in the first instance by one stark fact: the sitters were all unknown. In order to determine the identities of these mystery portraits, I embarked on a research journey that led me into the heart of Dupain’s portraiture oeuvre, and revealed fascinating stories of life in twentieth century Australia.

One of the largest groups of portraits by Dupain appears in periodicals from the late 1930s and early 1940s. Patronised by the stylish publisher Sydney Ure Smith – whose 1948 portrait by the photographer (captured with grave countenance and pipe clasped tight) is part of the Gallery’s collection – Dupain gained widespread recognition for his published work, especially his photographs in The Home magazine. I began my search by looking through 55 issues of The Home, six years of Australia National Journal, four years of Australia Beautiful and 37 issues of Art in Australia. Remarkably, The Home alone featured 186 pages of Dupain’s photographs.

Within the pages of these journals, the full scope of Dupain’s stylistic experiments with portraiture can be found, from bold Surrealist-inspired montages using mirrors and glasses to faces revealed through striking interplays of sunlight and shadows. Despite stylistic variation, each photograph is enlivened by a sense of decisiveness and simplicity. In a 1940 edition of Australia National Journal, Dupain characterises studio effects in dismissive fashion – ‘fake sophistication, false effects and general dishonesty’ – preferring a less posed approach to portraiture. He declares, ‘my will must not be imposed upon the sitter … seizing upon the split second when personality, form and construction assume their climax and the greatest degree of unity is manifest, the exposure is made instantaneously’.

While journals demonstrate the breadth of Dupain’s style, the sheer number and variety of the sitters he photographed is revealed in his commissioned portraiture. After establishing his first studio in Bond Street Sydney in 1934 with little commissioned portraiture experience, it was only two years later that Dupain found himself in need of larger premises to accommodate the burgeoning demand for his work. In 1941 he moved again, this time to Clarence Street where his studio occupied a whole floor of the building. Dupain became increasingly well-known and influential amongst Sydney-siders; my own grandmother recalled regularly passing Dupain’s popular studio in the late 1940s.

Many of the negatives from Dupain’s commercial practice are now held at the State Library of New South Wales. One ongoing project involves the archiving and digitising of a collection of over 150,000 negatives from Dupain and Associates. To assist in the identification of the National Portrait Gallery’s mystery portraits, the Library provided a list of sitters Dupain was commissioned to photograph – it comprises just under a thousand names, and includes mayors, doctors, company directors, factory workers, school headmasters, artists, musicians, engineers, and even the odd baby portrait.

Portraits by Dupain often have telling inclusions that highlight the sitters’ personalities and fields of endeavour. One such portrait, with a map and globe included in the composition, led me to consider prominent individuals in the Australian airline industry as possible sitters. Searching through the list of commissioned portraits, one line stood out: ‘Commissioned by Qantas, job number 5685, Dec 1954, Portrait of Captain GU Scotty Allan, Qantas assistant general manager in studio.’

George Urquhart ‘Scotty’ Allan was born in Bellshill in Scotland in 1900. He joined the Royal Flying Corps at age seventeen, and was subsequently posted to France as a Sopwith Camel pilot. After the First World War, Allan was recruited by Charles Ulm to join Australian National Airways. A remarkable pilot, he flew alongside Charles Kingsford-Smith on the first all-Australian airmail flight to England, and then with Ulm and PG Taylor when they broke the record for shortest flight time from England to Australia. In 1934 he joined Qantas, where he remained until his retirement in 1961. Renowned for his experience and skill in cloud flying, Allan’s logbook records over 13,000 flying hours.

Whilst Allan did turn out to be one of the mystery sitters, he was not the man with the map and the globe. Instead, Dupain photographed him drawing in a small notebook. Captured during his career at Qantas, the inclusion of the sketchbook alludes not to Allan’s astounding flying abilities, but rather to his enquiring mind, diligent nature and seminal role in helping to build Australia’s reputation as a leader in safety and innovation in civil aviation.

As I delved further into the collection, each photograph revealed its own unique history. One of the more curious examples is a photograph of high-profile American fashion photographer and Hollywood figure Baron George Hoyningen-Huene. Dupain’s photograph shows Hoyningen-Huene adjusting a light above a smiling model, who poses with hand to head behind a bunch of foreground hydrangeas. Most baffling was a pencil inscription on the bottom of the photograph, which was originally deciphered as ‘Huene + Trixie the Mermaid’. Following an exhaustive investigation into mermaids of the 1930s, it was a newspaper report on Hoyningen-Huene’s 1937 visit to Australia which eventually revealed that the inscription in fact read ‘Jessie the barmaid’!

Jessie Sinden was a barmaid at the Brooklyn Hotel on George Street when she was ‘discovered’ by Hoyningen-Huene. In the newspaper report, he likened her to ‘Mae West, Manet and Folies Bergere all rolled into one’. Initially refusing to divulge her name, Hoyningen-Huene commented ‘she is the most interesting woman I have found in my recent travels’. When Sinden’s identity was revealed some days later, she explained ‘the baron asked me if I’d pose for him. I told him I had only my bar dress on, and it was full of beer. You know how it is. He said it doesn’t matter.’ After the shoot, Hoyningen-Huene said he would take the negatives of Sinden to Hollywood with him. Whilst I was unable to find any subsequent record of Sinden, captured in Dupain’s photograph is this small exchange featuring a humble Australian barmaid’s ‘15 minutes of fame’ with a ‘big-time’ international photographer.

The remarkable capacity of Dupain’s portraiture to capture individuality and character allowed me to identify many subjects through the smallest snippets of evidentiary material. The friendly fellow in the suit with glasses turned out to be Sir James Vernon, an industrial chemist who served as Director of CSR from 1958 to 1982. He also chaired the Vernon Committee, which produced a landmark economic report for Federal Parliament in 1965, characterised at the time as the ‘greatest inquest ever conducted into the Australian economy’. Vernon was identifiable from a photograph in a book of eleven CSR board members. While his face in the picture was smaller than the size of my thumb, he was immediately recognisable by his cheerful demeanour.

Another portrait, identified by State Library of New South Wales staff, is of Sylvia Davis-Patricelli, who sits at an easel sketching her husband Anthony Patricelli. Dupain’s photograph reveals the relationship between sitter and artist in the creation of a portrait. Davis-Patricelli was an Archibald Prize finalist for four consecutive years, and at age 21 received international acclaim for a show of portraits and landscapes she had painted whilst visiting the Solomon Islands. Her husband, captured in uniform whilst seated in earnest concentration at a typewriter, was a writer and US Army sergeant. In 1945 Davis-Patricelli moved to Connecticut with her husband, becoming one of some 12,000 Australian G I ‘war brides’ who had fallen in love with American servicemen posted in Australia, and who had subsequently moved to the US.

Some portrait subjects remain a mystery. Despite the number of intriguing clues in the picture, the identity of the man holding the hypnotist’s pendant still eludes us. Meanwhile, his outfit and props led me down some interesting research paths: I encountered such characters as Rosaleen Norton, the notorious leader of a Kings Cross witch coven in the 1940s and 1950s; I gained some subject matter expertise in astrologer costumes in the ballet Le coq d'or, which Dupain photographed for The Home; and I explored key figures in the resurgence of hypnotism in Australia in the 1950s.

This trail again led to a serendipitous discovery, and identification of another of the portraits. A photograph of an unassuming man with furrowed brow revealed itself as famed hypnotist the Great Franquin – Francis (Pat) Quinn – whose shows once drew the greatest crowds of any stage attraction in Australia. Dupain’s portrait of Quinn is somewhat surprising; in contrast to the unknown pendant-bearer, Quinn is not in costume or with props, but rather in relaxed button down shirt, his great hypnotist eyes obscured in shadow. Intimate and relaxed, the portrait is not of the showman this time, which is perhaps fitting for Quinn, a man who retired from show business three times and spent time working on a Western Australian crayfish trawler.

To date, approximately half of the mystery portraits have been identified. Revealed through the black and white shadows of Dupain’s portraiture is an abundance of diverse stories and histories, from barmaids to businessmen, aviators to entertainers. As these sitters are discovered, and some of the portraits move from basement to Gallery wall, we gain a more comprehensive and nuanced collection. And perhaps someone out there knows who the man with the pendant is!

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Max Dupain OBE

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