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Portrait sketch of Nellie Melba
, 1902

by Hugh Ramsay

oil on canvas (frame: 73.5 cm x 63.0 cm depth 8.0 cm, support: 68.0 cm x 57.7 cm)

Dame Nellie Melba GBE (Helen Porter Armstrong, née Mitchell) (1861-1931) was a world-renowned soprano. She studied under Pietro Cecchi in Australia and Mathilde Marchesi in Paris. On Marchesi's advice, Armstrong adopted the name Melba, which she derived from her native city, Melbourne. After making her début in Brussels at the age of twenty-six, she appeared regularly at Covent Garden, where she maintained a private dressing room and gave her final performance in 1926. Over the same period, she made sensational tours of the USA and Europe. She was partly resident in Australia from 1909 onwards, and sang the National Anthem at the opening of Parliament House, Canberra in May 1927.

Hugh Ramsay was runner-up for the National Gallery Travelling Scholarship in 1899, and sailed to Europe on the same ship as George Lambert. For fifteen months he painted and partied in a cold, grimy Paris studio, achieving some critical success while depending on the Lamberts for an occasional hot meal. In London, he enjoyed the patronage of Nellie Melba, who was related to an artist friend. When he fell ill, she funded his return to Victoria, where he was to produce more than 20 full-length portraits before dying of consumption at the age of 28. 'Had he lived longer', said Lambert, 'he would have beaten the lot of us.' Ramsay completed this sketch of Nellie Melba in half an hour on the occasion of their first meeting. He said he was 'a bit flabbergasted and too nervous to do a chef d'oeuvre'.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery
Gift of the Mitchell Family and the Fullerton Family 2000
Accession number: 2000.17