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Annette Kellerman
, c. 1907 (printed 2003)

by H. Walter Barnett

modern bromide print from an original negative (sheet: 30.3 cm x 40.5 cm, image: 27.3 cm x 39.3 cm)

Annette Kellerman (1886–1975), swimmer and entertainer, was among the early twentieth century’s most recognisable women. Born in Sydney, Kellerman was diagnosed with rickets as a child and learnt to swim when the sport was recommended as a means of strengthening her legs. Aged fifteen, Kellerman became the state champion for the 100 yards and set a world record for the mile. In Melbourne from 1903, she began giving diving demonstrations and accomplished the first of her feats of endurance swimming. Frustrated with the lack of opportunities in Australia, she went to England in 1905, earning attention with a number of marathon swims, including three attempts at swimming the English Channel. A deft self-promoter, Kellerman styled herself as the ‘Australian Mermaid’ and the ‘Diving Venus’, devising a unique stage show that eventually combined music, singing, dancing and wire-walking with diving and underwater ballet. She left for the USA in 1907 and performed in amusement parks in Chicago and Boston before being signed by New York impresario, Benjamin Franklin Keith. By 1917, she was reputedly the highest paid woman in vaudeville and had starred in the first of several feature films, each a vehicle for her stunts and mermaid routines. These ventures powered Kellerman’s parallel profile as a fitness advocate and populariser of the women’s one-piece swimming costume. Declared ‘the Perfect Woman’ in 1908, Kellerman was a potent embodiment of modern femininity and her attitudes on exercise and swimwear issued a strident challenge to notions of ‘decency’. She promoted her beliefs in the pioneering books Physical Beauty: how to keep it (1918) and How to swim (1918). Kellerman spent World War II touring with her own theatre troupe, performing charity shows for soldiers in Australia and the Pacific. Staying true to her belief in the benefits of a daily swim until very late in her life she died in 1975, aged eighty-nine.

Walter Barnett (1862–1934) set up Falk Studios in Sydney in 1885 and it became not only the leader in portraits of contemporary Australian stars, but also captured many celebrated visitors to the country, including Sarah Bernhardt, Robert Louis Stevenson and Mark Twain. In the 1890s Barnett established a highly successful studio in London, working with celebrities, artists, royalty and high society personalities. His portrait of Kellerman depicts her in her trademark full-length swimsuit, a style she devised to avoid offending English audiences.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery, Canberra
Gift of an anonymous donor 2004
Accession number: 2004.13