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Practising the Minuet (Miss Hilda Spong)
, 1893

by Tom Roberts

oil on canvas (frame: 203.0 cm x 117.0 cm, support: 183.0 cm x 97.0 cm)

Hilda Spong (1875-1955), actress, came with her family to Australia from England when she was thirteen. Walter Spong, her father, was a scene painter who had worked at the Theatre Royal in Bristol and at Drury Lane. Hired by the Brough and Boucicault Comedy Company, in 1888 he moved to Melbourne, where he quickly fell in with Arthur Streeton and Tom Roberts (who soon painted Hilda’s mother, née Elizabeth Tweddell). Hilda first appeared on stage when she was fourteen. After taking some acting lessons, she made her speaking debut in 1891 in the Brough and Boucicault production of Dr Bill. In no time she was a great favourite with theatregoers, one of whom – spurred, no doubt, by the happy fact that ‘Hilda’ rhymed with ‘St Kilda’ – wrote a poem in praise of her appearances at the Bijou theatre. In 1892 Roberts wrote to Streeton that he had been ‘down at Spong’s on Sunday evening … Miss S pouring out tea and looking very charming… Yes, she looked very pretty’. The following year, in which Hilda is thought to have persuaded Roberts to paint her, Walter Spong established a company to showcase his daughter’s talents. On the basis of subsequent triumphs in Melbourne and New Zealand, in 1896 she left Australia to establish her career in London, making her Drury Lane debut in The Duchess of Coolgardie: A Romance of the Australian Gold Fields in September that year. Before long she moved to New York City, where she was to appear in fifty Broadway productions between 1898 and 1940. In all, she spent more than four decades on stage in England and the USA. After visiting Australia to perform before World War I, Hilda Spong went back to America; she last appeared on Broadway when she was sixty- five, some years before she died in Ridgefield, Connecticut.

Roberts’s painting of Miss Spong as a pretty ingénue was in the collection of Australian artist Kevin ‘Pro’ Hart when he died, and was purchased from the auction of his estate in 2008. In her mid-twenties Hilda Spong was painted by the great American portraitist, William Merritt Chase, who had seen her perform on Broadway. Chase’s large, glittering work is in the collection of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Virginia.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery, Canberra
Purchased with funds provided by the Ian Potter Foundation 2008
Accession number: 2008.12