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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.

May Wirth, c. 1921

Daguerre Studios

gelatin silver photograph on paper (sheet: 20.2 cm x 25.3 cm, image: 18.2 cm x 23.3 cm)

May Wirth (1894–1978) was once described as the ‘greatest lady bareback rider of all time’. Born in Bundaberg, she was the daughter of a Mauritian circus artist and his Australian wife, but was adopted in 1901 by Mary ‘Marizles’ Wirth, of the famous Wirth Brothers’ Circus troupe. May had been introduced to acrobatics, tightrope walking and other tricks by her father, and her adoptive family soon added equestrian stunts to her repertoire. After a star turn with Wirth Brothers’ Circus in Sydney in 1911, Marizles took May to the USA, where she was signed for two seasons with Barnum & Bailey. She made her American debut at Madison Square Garden in 1912, and later performed in the UK and Europe with Marizles and her step-sister, Stella. As the ‘Royal Wirth Family’ the trio featured alongside other dazzling international artistes in Wirth Brothers’ 1915–1916 Australasian tour. One report described a stunt wherein May somersaulted from the back of one horse to another galloping behind it, ‘thereby earning salvos of applause from the big audience present’. Returning to America in 1917, the ‘Wizard Rider’ again headlined with Barnum & Bailey, remaining the star equestrienne attraction until she left the company in the late-1920s. Later in life, she resided in Sarasota, Florida, and was inducted into the Circus Hall of Fame there in 1964.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery
Purchased 2015

Accession number: 2015.23

Currently not on display

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Artist and subject

Daguerre Studios

May Emmeline Wirth (age 27 in 1921)

Subject professions

Performing arts

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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.