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May Wirth
, c.1921

by Daguerre Studios

gelatin silver photograph (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