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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.

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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

The National Portrait Gallery respects the artistic and intellectual property rights of others. Works of art from the collection are reproduced as per the Australian Copyright Act 1968 (Cth). The use of images of works from the collection may be restricted under the Act. Requests for a reproduction of a work of art can be made through a Reproduction request. For further information please contact NPG Copyright.

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 past and present. We respectfully advise that this site includes works by, images of, names of, voices of and references to deceased people.

This website comprises and contains copyrighted materials and works. Copyright in all materials and/or works comprising or contained within this website remains with the National Portrait Gallery and other copyright owners as specified.

The National Portrait Gallery respects the artistic and intellectual property rights of others. The use of images of works of art reproduced on this website and all other content may be restricted under the Australian Copyright Act 1968 (Cth). Requests for a reproduction of a work of art or other content can be made through a Reproduction request. For further information please contact NPG Copyright.

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