Lost footage of Australia’s Queen of Song

BY SIMON SMITH

In celebration of the 160th anniversary of Dame Nellie Melba’s birth on 19 May 1861, we reveal previously unseen private footage of Australia’s ‘Queen of Song’. She is seen relaxing with her family at Coombe Cottage, her outer Melbourne residence, in 1927.

'Australia's Greatest Daughter' At Home

Dame Nellie Melba was unquestionably Australia’s most famous woman in her lifetime. Conquering the opera stages of the British Isles, Europe, America and home, the Queen of Song imperiously controlled her image, career and legacy in an era when few other Australians – men or women – possessed such international standing in their chosen field.

With her career spent mostly abroad, she features briefly in only a few surviving Australian film newsreels. And no moving images have captured ‘Australia’s Greatest Daughter’ being herself, surrounded by her beloved family. But a box lying untouched for over half a century in an Adelaide law office cupboard has changed all that.

An Adelaide Discovery

Film can with inscription that reads: at Coombe Cottage Lilydale Victoria. Taken by Kodak Ltd Melbourne for Dame Nellie Melba in Nov. 1927.

Film can with inscription, 1927. Melba experts agree this note was written by her. NFSA title: 1064169

Don Angus, partner at the Adelaide patent and trademark office Collison and Co, was examining the contents of a box of historic items in a cupboard in the firm’s headquarters. Among the collection of unrelated objects was three cans of 16mm silent black-and-white film.

Two of the films were found to contain home movies of various South Australian scenes filmed in the late 1930s. The third had a small inscription inside the can that simply read 'At Coombe Cottage Lilydale Victoria. Taken by Kodak Ltd Melbourne for Dame Nellie Melba in Nov. 1927.'

Don Angus recalls, 'I really have no idea how the film came into our firm’s office. I reached out to the NFSA as I was aware of the importance and significance of Dame Nellie Melba in Australian history.'

An Australian Film Farewell

On close inspection, the film can revealed 400 feet of 16mm diacetate silent film in poor condition, suffering from naphthalene syndrome. The degrading B&W print was also found to be a darkened copy, likely to be two generations down from the original film shot at Coombe Cottage.

We were aware that the Movietone newsreel collection also contained footage of Melba at Coombe from the same time. Repeated in numerous newsreels and documentaries, including SBS TV’s highly successful Australia In Colour series, was this recent discovery simply a poorer quality copy of footage we had already seen or would it be entirely new? To answer this, we had to revisit the famous moving images of Melba captured at her Australian home by celebrated Melbourne stills photographer, Spencer Shier.

Spencer Shier's Fabulous Footage

Portrait of Spencer Shier

Spencer Shier, c1935. Courtesy: National Library of Australia

A resident of Toorak and well known to Melbourne's elite society, Spencer Shier captured hundreds of portraits of politicians, business executives, society figures, actors and stage performers over a 40-year career. Friendly with Melba, he visited Coombe Cottage sometime in February 1927 and brought with him a 16mm moving image camera.

His 8-minute film travelogue captured scenes in and around Coombe’s grounds including staged ‘natural’ sequences with Melba strolling the back verandah in her pearls and light flowing evening dress, parading for the camera beneath an umbrella and playfully singing to ‘Cocky’, her pet cockatoo.

This footage made its way into the Fox Movietone News film library collection in the late 1920s. It was frequently reused to mark subsequent Melba celebrations and anniversary commemorations. For instance, it appeared in the premiere episode of This Fabulous Century (1978), Peter Luck’s hugely successful trawl through Australia’s recent past:

In 2003, the Spencer Shier estate generously donated the original 16mm film to the NFSA as part of his collection of home movies.

Home Sweet Home

After we digitised the newly discovered Adelaide footage, comparing it to the Shier clip confirmed the images to be entirely different. Judging by the visitors and clothing, the film appears to capture several days at Coombe Cottage in November 1927.

Some key people in Melba's life are clearly identifiable (see image gallery of frame captures, below), though several remain unknown. Among those recognisable are Melba's son George, her daughter-in-law Evelyn (Evie) and much adored granddaughter Pamela (later ‘Pamela, Lady Vestey’):

The 9-year-old Pamela features heavily throughout the film, and is seen astride her horse, riding her bicycle and playing games with her beloved ‘granny’. Lady Vestey would devote much of her life to championing her remarkable grandmother’s legacy.  As she recalled in her own memoirs in 1996, 'My grandmother loved me and her unfailing affection was part of the happiness of my childhood'.

In one sequence, Melba humorously mock-chides her pet sulphur-crested cockatoo ‘Cocky’, sitting in his cage. Purchased by the singer sometime during the 1920s at Melbourne’s Eastern Market, several published eyewitness accounts from the early 1970s indicate Cocky was still a resident at Coombe, more than 40 years after Melba’s passing. 

Also visible in the film are several staff, including Melba’s three women gardeners (at a time when employing female gardeners for an estate like this was unusual). We also see her entertaining several visiting friends making use of her grass tennis court.

Longest surviving film

This 10-minute film at Coombe Cottage represents the last known surviving moving images of Dame Nellie Melba in Australia. Only brief British Pathé footage in London the following year (17 December 1928), featuring her participating in a cake-making ceremony for the benefit of the Duke and Duchess of York, survives between the date of this film and her untimely passing at age 69 on 23 February 1931.

Melba said to the Melbourne Leader in 1912, 'I am enjoying myself immensely at Coombe Cottage. They have made me a darling little home – I love it.' And she loved it never more so than when surrounded by her family, as this film discovery has revealed.

The unknown Kodak-appointed cinematographer has left us the longest single film of the internationally celebrated Australian soprano in existence.

Acknowledgements

With thanks to Melba biographer Ann Blainey, Sue Thompson of the Nellie Melba Museum, Penny Luck, ANU Professor Jeff Brownrigg and Grant Cummin and Courtnay Lucas at Coombe Yarra Valley for their invaluable assistance. Special thanks to Don Angus for making that call!