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Madame Sibly, Phrenologist and Mesmerist
, 1870's

by James E. Bray

albumen silver carte de visite photograph (mount: 10.1 cm x 6.2 cm, image: 9.4 cm x 5.5 cm)

More images of this artwork

Marie Sibly (c. 1830–1894), mesmerist and phrenologist, performed in towns throughout Australia for nearly twenty years. Purportedly French-born, she arrived in Sydney around 1867 and worked as a clairvoyant, making her first stage appearances in 1868. By 1871 she was in Melbourne, ‘manipulating heads’ for packed houses at Weston’s Opera House on Bourke Street before embarking on a tour of Victoria. Through the 1870s she toured New South Wales and Queensland, her shows incorporating séances, phrenological readings and hypnotisms whereby audiences members were induced to fight, dance, sing or behave absurdly. A report of one performance described how she convinced two men to fetch a leg of lamb from the butcher; she then made them think they were dogs and they ate it. Her later repertoire included ‘baby exhibitions’ in which prizes were awarded to the specimens with the best mental and physical capacity. She took up land at Parkes in 1877 but continued touring regardless. By the mid-1880s she was in New South Wales again, performing with her daughter, ‘Zel the Magnetic Lady’, and advertising her range of remedies for conditions such as gout, rheumatism and neuralgia. She was known by various names throughout her career although it is unclear how many husbands she had. Having ‘retired from the platform’ she ran a store at Drake, near Tenterfield, where she died in April 1894.

James E Bray ran a business called the ‘Prince of Wales Photographic Gallery’ on George Street, Sydney, which was sold in late 1865. He then went to Victoria, and by early 1868 was reported as ‘having an extensive gallery built at his place of business, Camp Street, Beechworth’. There, he was enabled to ‘execute Every Variety of Photographic Portraiture’, including ‘Cartes de Viste, Tinted or Fully Colored in Water Colors’. He appears to have stocked portraits of international celebrities (such as the conman Arthur Orton, aka The Tichborne Claimant) in addition to taking likenesses for local citizens. Notably, he was among the photographers who documented the Kelly gang and their off-shoots: such as the 22 men of Irish descent who were banged up in Beechworth Gaol for four months without charge in 1879 on the off-chance they might be Kelly sympathisers. Another of Bray’s cartes shows constable Alexander Fitzpatrick, whose attempt to arrest Dan Kelly had initiated the gang’s formation in the first place. Marie Sibly performed in the Beechworth area on several occasions during Bray’s time there. Her reading of certain gentlemen’s heads in Eldorado in August 1871 was judged so accurate that it was assumed she’d ‘received some private information about the parties’; and at a séance in Wangaratta that year, ‘a young man, while under mesmeric influence’ had ‘rudely seized’ the wife of another chap, who struck said young man with a stick. In winter 1879 Sibly was in Beechworth, Chiltern, Corowa, Bright and other towns, variously causing offence, sensation or consternation, it seems, wherever she went – and thus becoming a ‘sure card’ for photographers.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery, Canberra
Purchased 2017
Accession number: 2017.113