Uncovering the trail of a lost masterpiece

Sydney Living Museums volunteer, author and art historian Robert Holden has devoted his sleuthing skills to the search for a missing life-sized portrait of Irish-born prima donna Catherine Hayes last seen in a photograph from 1917. Can you help with this ongoing mystery?

On the hunt for our musical heritage

Over the past couple of years, I have been working closely with the staff at the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection (CSL&RC) to uncover the stories behind the recently acquired Stewart Symonds sheet music collection. This extraordinary collection consists of more than 1500 pieces of sheet music bound into 46 volumes that belonged to numerous individuals in NSW in the 19th century. Sprinkled through the collection are music publications specifically written for the prima donna Catherine Hayes or performed by Hayes during her Australian tours. While planning for a major new music exhibition at the Museum of Sydney, opening in August 2019, exhibition curator Dr Matthew Stephens, research librarian at the CSL&RC, asked me to dig deeper into the Catherine Hayes story. Eventually this raised what seemed a huge challenge: to find the location of a portrait of Hayes last seen in 1917!

A significant artwork

The quest could be a scenario investigated by the team of art sleuths on the TV program Fake or fortune? But why is this lost painting of Catherine Hayes (1818–1861) so significant? Because, in the 1850s, Hayes became the first operatic diva with an international reputation to perform in the Australian colonies.

Hayes’s timing was fortuitous. In this decade, Australia’s gold rushes attracted thousands of fortune hunters. In their wake there followed an influx of others who saw lucrative opportunities to profit from the indulgent new lifestyles bestowed by sudden wealth. International performers like the Hungarian virtuoso violinist Miska Hauser, the flamboyant Irish dancer Lola Montez, and the English actress Julia Matthews – who charmed Robert O’Hara Burke before he set off on his ill-fated expedition with William Wills in 1860 – were thus lured here.

But few, if any, had a greater cultural impact than Catherine Hayes. Her visit was seen to mark a milestone in colonial cultural heritage, a ‘coming of age’ for the colonies. Hayes conquered Australia so completely that one newspaper acknowledged that the country had ‘made an idol of a singer’.1

Although Hayes’s life story was the subject of a major scholarly biography in 2000, the author was unaware of the lost portrait and therefore of its significance to Australia’s musical history. This significance is clear when we realise that after Hayes there came legendary Australians who were students of the same school of operatic singing: Nellie Melba and Joan Sutherland.

Dame Joan Sutherland was renowned as one of the greatest Lucia di Lammermoors of the 20th century, and her partner, conductor and pianist Richard Bonynge, noted that the great 19th-century English tenor Sims Reeves had also called Hayes ‘the ideal Lucia and the greatest interpreter of the role he had ever sung with’.2 Significantly, Catherine was considered the foremost Lucia di Lammermoor during the lifetime of its composer, Gaetano Donizetti.

After sharing a concert platform with piano virtuoso Franz Liszt in her home town of Dublin, Hayes had made her professional debut at Milan’s La Scala Opera House in 1845, to immediate acclaim. Composers began writing operas for her to premiere and her popular appeal was no less marked than her critical acclaim: racehorses and ships were all named after her.

Not surprisingly, therefore, when Hayes first performed in Sydney, in 1854, she received a rapturous welcome. In the words of The Sydney Morning Herald, on 4 October, she created ‘excitement wholly unparalleled’ in the colony’s history. What was the soprano’s unique appeal? By presenting sentimental Irish ballads as well as operatic works she was able to appeal to a wide audience. And it certainly didn’t hurt that many of her Australian audiences were of Irish descent themselves!

Wood engraving of Catherine Hayes departing Sydney

Departure of Miss Catherine Hayes from Sydney, October 18th, 1854. J R Clarke, Sydney, 1857.

Rex Nan Kivell Collection NK2106/154, National Library of Australia

Hayes’s Sydney debut received an ecstatic reaction: ‘Miss Hayes, on leaving the theatre, was received in the most enthusiastic manner by an immense multitude congregated outside, who were only deterred by her own entreaties, and the exertions of the police, from taking the horses from her carriage and dragging it to her hotel’. Not surprisingly, such adulation was described as having ‘all the deference due to Royalty’.3

After her first visit to Sydney, Hayes entertained audiences in Melbourne, Geelong and Adelaide. She then sailed to India and performed for British army personnel in Calcutta. Following performances in Singapore and Batavia (Jakarta), she arrived back in Australia in mid-1855. Thereafter, for more than a year she continued her conquest of Australian audiences.


Hayes’s Australian legacy

As well as leaving behind enraptured audiences, another outcome of Hayes visit to Sydney was her donation of a concert’s proceeds to the city’s most prominent charity, the Society for the Relief of Destitute Children. Ultimately, her donation contributed to the building of a Catherine Hayes Hospital in 1870 as part of the children’s asylum complex (now the Royal Hospital for Women) in the Sydney suburb of Randwick.

On her return to London in 1856, Hayes commissioned a life-size portrait of herself, specifically intended to be hung in her namesake hospital. This would be the culminating example of numerous images of the diva produced in her lifetime. One Sydney newspaper alone published seven portraits or views of Hayes during the first month of her arrival. Photographers here and elsewhere vied for exclusive rights to her image, particularly photographs of Hayes in costume for her most famous operatic roles. In Sydney, a demand for such images saw her portrait reproduced on the covers of three items of sheet music, two of which were specially written or adapted for the diva.

Furthermore, during her Australian visit almost a dozen songs were expressly dedicated to Hayes. In Tasmania, in 1856, wax medallion portraits were created to cater to a public clamouring for a memento of her visit. Much more substantial still were the casts made from a marble bust of Hayes (half life-size) in Melbourne in 1854.

But far surpassing any of these was the life-size portrait for the children’s hospital that opened in Randwick in 1870. It was in a history of the hospital that I first discovered the only known image of this lost portrait. It was a full-page photo in the asylum’s official history, published in 1917, which showed the asylum’s director sitting at his desk, where he was completely dwarfed by the impressive portrait of Hayes hanging behind him. And this is where my sleuthing really began! 

Black and white photograph showing large portrait on a wall

Photograph of the missing Catherine Hayes portrait.

Image: Joseph Coulter, Randwick Asylum, NSW Government Printer, Sydney, 1917.


Following the trail to the Sydney Conservatorium of Music

Since the asylum had long since closed I wondered if the portrait had remained behind when the complex became the Royal Hospital for Women, but my surmise was soon disproved. After that I trawled through newspaper archives, where I unearthed a few mentions of the portrait in the 50 years up to the eve of World War I.  

Further determined research revealed that the asylum was requisitioned by the NSW Department of Defence as a repatriation hospital for Anzacs wounded at Gallipoli. Obviously the large portrait would then have been at some risk, as the future of the building had become uncertain. A brief news item in The Sydney Morning Herald for October 1915 clearly showed that the authorities were aware of this danger: ‘In all probability the large oil painting of Catherine Hayes … will be presented by the directors to the State Government. If it does not find its way to our National Art Gallery the portrait … should have a place of honour in the new Conservatorium of Music’.

A search of the conservatorium’s history revealed that its first director had only arrived from England weeks earlier, and such an acquisition would hardly have been a priority. By default, therefore, Sydney’s public gallery seemed the only available choice. And so the circuitous path took me to the archives of the Art Gallery of NSW. My search seemed to be coming to a successful end when I found a note in the gallery’s minutes. In November 1915 they recorded that the portrait was accepted conditionally: ‘That it should be held in safe keeping until a Portrait Gallery be started or a more suitable institution or place be selected for the Exhibition of same’.

Eureka! I thought. Success at last. But, sadly, my optimism was short-lived. Disappointingly, I could find no further mention of the portrait until a full decade later, in December 1925, when the gallery wrote to the conservatorium’s registrar soliciting his interest in this, perhaps unwieldy, burden on the gallery’s storage. The ensuing correspondence between the institutions finally revealed the dimensions of the portrait: 7’11” x 5’2”. It was indeed life-size.

Crop of sheet music cover with illustration of singer Catherine Hayes

Cover illustration of Catherine Hayes, ‘Tis Sad to Say Adieu’, Dublin, [1856].

Courtesy Richard Bonynge

By 1925, providentially, the conservatorium had initiated a much-strengthened program of operatic studies and performance. Appropriately, it accepted delivery of the portrait to be hung in its Verbrugghen Hall. I felt I could breathe a sigh of relief, having found its final secure home. However, further research into the Con’s history revealed that the portrait was completely unknown to its current regime. It was not hidden away in storage and had, seemingly, disappeared completely. Perhaps, I was told, it left the building when renovations were carried out in the 1970s and never came back. Even this distant date seems optimistic as there appears to be no-one living who remembers the painting.


Identifying the artist

Some time later I found a mention of the portrait in the colonial press that revealed the artist’s nationality: Italian. I surmised that any expatriate artist working in London must have been prominent and that he would have wanted to exhibit such a significant work before its departure to the colonies. And London’s Royal Academy was the obvious choice.

Having already drawn a blank in British newspapers, I now turned my attention to British art periodicals of the day. Hours later my patience was rewarded: ‘An elegant and simple portrait, of the size of life, presenting the lady dressed in black, before a plain green background’ was painted by an ‘A Baccani’ and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1860. Further research revealed that the artist was Attilio Baccani (1823–1906), who was born in Rome and arrived in London in 1856, residing there for 50 years.


Where to next? 

All that is left now is to find this elusive work. Perhaps it languishes somewhere, hidden behind a cover in a basement somewhere, its value unrecognised. Have you seen it?

If you have any information that might help track down this important portrait, please let us know by emailing music@slm.com.au


Black and white photograph of woman

Portrait of Catherine Hayes, Herbert Watkins, late 1850s.

National Portrait Gallery, London: NPG P301(96)


1.Illustrated Sydney News, 28 October 1854, p328.

2. Foreword by Richard Bonynge in Basil Walsh, Catherine Hayes, 1818–1861, the Hibernian prima donna, Irish Academic Press, Dublin, 2000.

3. Freeman’s Journal, 28 May 1904, p34.


About the author

Photograph of man in library with books

Robert Holden


Robert Holden has had a distinguished career as a research librarian, art historian, lecturer and curator and is the author of over 30 books and numerous articles.

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