Nellie Stewart

"My good sir, throughout my career I have made it a rule never to allow private feeling to interfere with my professional duty."


Picture of Nellie Stewart

Miss Nellie Stewart


Nellie Stewart was born in Sydney on November 20th, 1858. She made her debut as an actress at the age of five. After touring abroad with her family she was lead in Coppin's Sinbad the Sailor in 1880 in Melbourne. She eventually took the lead in Offenbach's La Fille du Tambour Major for producer George Musgrove, with whom she became closely associated for the rest of her career. In Melbourne in 1902 she first played Nell Gwyne in Sweet Nell of Old Drury, which was to become her most famous role. She died in Sydney on June 21st, 1931.


The following article appeared in Melbourne's Table Talk on April 12th 1889

The proof of the popularity of any public performer is the continuity of public favor which is gained and maintained throughout a career, and probably if a vote were taken on the subject of theatrical favorites, Miss Nellie Stewart's name would be found pretty near the top of the poll. Sheer has won her reputation by sheer hard work and perseverance, and throughout the Australian colonies, her success has been complete.

Born in Wooloomooloo, Sydney, on November 20, 1861, her earliest memories are of the stage, for her father, Mr. Richard Stewart, was proprietor of the theatre once familiarly known as the "Old Vic," and her mother is the talented Madame Guerin - the first English prima donna who appeared in Sydney, - and the first to play Arline in the Bohemian Girl. All the members of the Stewart family have distinguished themselves on the stage. and Miss Docy Stewart (Mrs H.R. Harwood), as a soubrette, cannot be distanced even now. She and her sister Maggie are only half-sisters to Miss Nellie Stewart, as Madame Guerin is Mr. Stewart's second wife, and it is to her mother that the popular prima donna owes her operatic training. As a child it was her greatest treat to be allowed to appear in the pantomimes, and her father, who was in management at the Theatre Royal with Messes. Hennings and Coppin, humored his little daughter so far as to give her a small part in each Christmas production, at which time she remained away from school and generally indulged in day dreams. The late W.S. Lyster, when in management at the Old Princess' Theatre, was the first to detect the glimmering talent and offered her the part of Mercury in the burlesque of Orpheus aux Enfers. This was fourteen years ago, and was really her first step on the ladder of fame. Still nobody dreamed of turning her voice to account. Mr. Stewart, when the proposition wa made that "little Nellie" should sing something in the pantomime, gave way to a burst of derisive laughter and stoutly declared his daughter could not sing. Twelve years ago, Mr. Garnet Walch, at Mr. Stewart's wish, put together a burlesque - really a framework for songs, witticisms, dancing and other specialties, - entitled "If; or, Cinderella - an old gem reset," and this the Stewart family gave as an entertainment in Australia, India, England and America, under the title of "Rainbow Revels." The company included Mr. Stewart himself, his son, Mr. Richard Stewart, Miss Docy Stewart (now Mrs. H.R. Harwood). Miss Maggie Stewart, the youngest of the Stewart family - Nellie - and Bertie Collins (the son of Miss Docy Stewart by her first husband). Mrs. Stewart also travelled with the company, but non-professionally. In London, the troupe played at the Crystal Palace for three weeks, and in America they travelled about for four months, appearing at different towns, and everywhere with success. Mr. Sheridan, of the Fun on the Bristol Company, was greatly struck by Nellie Stewart's performance, and told her to study for opera. But her father declared her forte to be comedy. At this juncture Mr. Coppin wrote, asking his old partner to return to Melbourne at once and let his company open in pantomime. After some hesitation, for Mr. Stewart was doing well in America, the troupe returned to Australia, and in the Christmas production of Sinbad the Sailor in 1879 Nellie Stewart sustained the leading part. Her singing was the success of the piece, and poor Ian Ghele, who heard her, prophesied a brilliant future. In 1880, Tambour Major was produced, and a few ,months later reproduced, with Miss Stewart as Griolet, the drummer, in which she burst on the public with all the charm and novelty, for her voice was delightfully pure and fresh, and her acting so full of brightness and espieglerie that the young girl at once leapt into popularity. Her salary was seven pounds a week, but during the year following it was trebled, as she found to be so much in favour with the public.

Her next part was the Countess in Olivette, with Miss Pattie Laverne as prima donna, then came Germaine in Les Cloches de Corneville, and other similar operatic efforts. Her real opportunity came a year later, when Mr. W.H. Woodfield arrived from London. This popular tenor wished to make his appearance (as) Captaine Robert in Tambour Major, but there was nobody to play Stella, as Pattie Laverne had returned to England. Mr. Woodfield, who had seen Miss Stewart perform, suggested that she should play, declaring that he had see Miss Loseby in London, and that Miss Stewart was equally as good. After some reluctance on the part of the management, who had no comprehension of the operatic nugget they had in their hands, the character of Stella was allotted to Miss Stewart. Her first appearance as prima donna was completely satisfactory, and the piece was a bigger draw than ever. After this came La Mascotte, with Mrs. Williamson in the leading character, and Nellie Stewart was almost heart-broken at having to play the second part. However Mrs. Williamson's Mascotte was such a flash of genius that even in the London production, Miss Violet Cameron was not to be compared with her. At the same time Miss Stewart's Princess Fiametta has never been bettered. Mrs. Williamson took ill, and Miss Stewart at a few hour's notice, took her place. It was remarked at the time that she copied Mrs. Williamson in every detail, but this she had to do, for the management made it compulsory to adopt the version given by the clever original.

Since then Miss Stewart remained in her present position of prima donna and has been identified with all the operatic productions of the firm. And here it is not out of place to refer to the stage manager of the company, Mr. John Wallace, who did all in his power to add finish to this lady's representations, a fact she acknowledges with great sincerity, declaring that to his experience and watchful direction she owes much of her success. Miss Stewart has no wish to return to the operatic stage, and is only doing so to oblige the management. Mr. Arthur Garner, while in London, has been seeking for a prima donna, but cannot engage one anywhere, as the leading operatic ladies are kept busy as they wish with London performances. Miss Stewart has a great fancy to appear in comedy, - and especially in Dandy Dick, one of Mr. Garner's purchases - in the part Mrs. John Wood is playing in London, but at present her destiny seems to lead her on to fresh triumphs in opera.

During her recent trip to London, this popular Australian vocalist studied under Randegger, - really the only outside tuition she ever had, for all her musical knowledge was derived from her mother, with whom she lives in Victoria Park. Dancing came to her without effort, but in London she had lessons from D'Auban, who taught her the castanet dance in Pepita. This bore some resemblance to the Gaiety Burlesque Company's dancing, but Miss Stewart learnt it before she ever saw that company. A good deal might be said of this prima donna's taste in dress, and her dainty manner of fixing and altering her stage clothes. When thinking out a costume, her plan is to pay a visit to the National Gallery and study the pictures until she hits on the dress she wants, when she has one made exactly similar. She is also a perfect dressmaker and understands the exact values of colors in relation to the scenes represented, In fact, the secret of Nellie Stewart's success is that shew studies every point that can possibly be to her avantage. At rehearsal she is as subservient to the stage-managers as the veriest super - more so in fact, for she never misses a rehearsal, and she will patiently go over a score again and again with her coadjutors until it is satisfactory. This sometimes takes from ten in the morning til, four in the afternoon, and it is no wonder her health suffered, more particularly as she can take no stimulant, her only refreshment being an egg beaten up. Her last trip home was for the double purpose of a rest, and to give an opening to other Australian vocalists, who had talent enough to step forward. The management brought out Miss Leonora Braham, the most popular operatic performer in London, but the Australian public did not receive her with any warmth. They expected too much and were disappointed. On Miss Stewart's return to Melbourne Mr. Alfred Cellier mooted the Faust idea and insisted she should essay Marguerite, and much against her will she complied. Unfortunately Miss Stewart is inclined to worry over any imaginary falling off in her performance, and will become quite melancholy if she fancies the public are not satisfied with her efforts.

With the opera company she is as popular with the public, and her confrères have repeatedly testified the esteem in which they hold her for she has always proved that it is the interest of the company, and not her own individual interest, she has at heart.

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