Skip to main content

Coming to visit? Ticketed entry is in place to safely manage your visit so please book ahead. Need to cancel or rejig? Email bookings@npg.gov.au

Menu

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.

Nellie Melba

1898
Ernest Walter Histed

gelatin silver photograph on paper (sheet: 27.7 cm x 23.2 cm, support: 36.1 cm x 29.8 cm)

Dame Nellie Melba GBE (Helen Porter Armstrong, née Mitchell, 1861–1931) was a world-renowned soprano. Raised in Melbourne, at the age of twenty she was taken by her widower father to Mackay, where she met Charles Nesbit, a man who, according to her biographer, ‘agreeably combined exceptional skills as a rough rider with the recommendation of a gentle birth’. She had a son with him, but after a year she left him, returning to Melbourne to study under Pietro Cecchi. Making her way to Paris she became a pupil of Mathilde Marchesi, on whose advice she adopted the name Melba, derived from her native city, Melbourne. After making her début in Brussels in 1887, aged twenty-six, she made her Covent Garden debut in Lucia di Lammermoor the following year, but it was from June 1889, when she sang the title role in Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette, that she dated her success in London. Henceforth she performed regularly at Covent Garden, where she maintained a private dressing room and gave her final performance in 1926. Over the same period, mobbed everywhere by fans and enjoying the attention of many lovers including Philippe, Duc d’Orléans, she made sensational tours of the USA and Europe. Partly resident in Australia from 1909 onwards, she sang the national anthem at the opening of Parliament House, Canberra in May 1927, during the period in which she made so many farewell appearances that across Australia the phrase ‘doing a Melba’ came to mean making repeated announcements that one is leaving, without actually departing. On her grave in Lilydale Cemetery, Melbourne, is the farewell uttered by Mimi in La Bohème: ‘Addio, senza rancor’ (‘Goodbye, no hard feelings’).

Ernest Walter Histed was born in Brighton, UK, but made his reputation as a photographer in Chicago and later in Pittsburgh. He returned to England to set up a studio first in New Bond Street and then in Baker Street. In 1898 he made portraits of H Rider Haggard, Clara Butt and the Empress of Germany, the last by command of Queen Victoria at Windsor castle. He also photographed Royal Academicians, leading actors for The Candid Friend and Pope Pius X. The firm continued as Histed and Company when he moved to New York to operate a studio on Fifth Avenue. Having relocated to Palm Beach, Florida, he continued to work until 1934. The largest collection of his work is held by the Museum of the City of New York; the National Portrait Gallery, London, has thirty of his portraits.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery
Purchased 2010

Artist and subject

Ernest Walter Histed (age 36 in 1898)

Dame Nellie Melba GBE (age 37 in 1898)

Subject professions

Performing arts

Related information

The Companion

Permanent collection catalogue

Café and shop

On one level The Companion talks about the most famous and frontline Australians, but on another it tells us about ourselves: who we read, who we watch, who we listen to, who we cheer for, who we aspire to be, and who we'll never forget. The Companion is available to buy online and in the Portrait Gallery Store.

Suave

Magazine article by Dr Sarah Engledow, 2010

Charles Haddon Chambers the Australian-born playboy playwright settled permanently in London in 1880 but never lost his Australian stance when satirising the English.

Doodles of the Diva

Magazine article by Dr Sarah Engledow, 2010

Three tiny sketches of Dame Nellie Melba in the NPG collection were created by the artist who was to go on to paint the most imposing representation of the singer: Rupert Bunny.

© National Portrait Gallery 2021
King Edward Terrace, Parkes
Canberra, ACT 2600, Australia

Phone +61 2 6102 7000
Fax +61 2 6102 7001
ABN: 54 74 277 1196

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.

The National Portrait Gallery is an Australian Government Agency