Helen Porter Mitchell was born in 1861 in Melbourne, the city from which she derived her professional surname. "Nell" or "Nellie" is a nickname for Helen. I can't think why she didn't just keep Helen Mitchell instead of becoming Nellie Melba – perhaps she thought "Melba" had an exotic touch that Mitchell lacked, but what about Nellie? Surely Helen has more grace and gravitas: Helen of Troy, Helen Keller … somehow Nellie smacks more of downstairs than upstairs.
Nevertheless, exit Helen Mitchell, while Nellie Melba went on to a stellar career. She was the acknowledged prima donna at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, well into the 1920s. She was feted all over the world, and her recordings always cost at least one shilling more than any other singer's, having their own distinctive mauve label as well.
Melbourne had to wait nearly a century for another of its singing daughters to make the international big time, when Our Kylie swept all before her. (I'm not counting Joan Sutherland – she comes from Sydney!) It must be said that unlike Kylie, Dame Nellie did not market her own line of sexy undies, but they did both have a weakness for Frenchmen. Dame Nellie, who was famous for upstaging her co-performers, easily trumped Kylie's Olivier Martinez with her own Philippe, Duke of Orleans, the Bourbon pretender to the French throne. She had a torrid and scandalous affaire with His Grace. They travelled romantically across Europe to St Petersburg in a private train carriage and were frequently seen together in a box at the opera, causing a lot of nudging and whispering in the stalls.
I don’t need to elaborate on Madame Melba's illustrious career other than to say that everything about it was superlative … other stars may have food named after them by any old chef, but Peach Melba and Melba Toast were created by none other than Escoffier; others may have a street named after them, but Nellie has a highway and a suburb; others may be made Dames Commander of the British Empire, but Nellie's plain Dameship was soon upgraded to Dame Grand Cross. The five-dollar note will do for Queen Elizabeth, but Nellie's face is on the $100 note, and that only because the Australian mint did not feel it necessary to print a thousand-dollar note (and I hope to goodness they may never have to!)
Others had their portraits done, but Dame Nellie is one of only two singers with a marble bust in the foyer of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and her portrait was painted by no lesser painter than Rupert Bunny.
Since the 1880s, Melba and Bunny met frequently in Paris and London. He was not just a painter but a talented musician and composer. Melba was so impressed by his piano playing that she offered him the post of her accompanist. Luckily for us he declined.
Bunny began the portrait in Paris in 1901, but did not complete it until Melba could give him a final couple of sittings in London the following year. It was shown at The Royal Academy in 1902, just when Melba was at the zenith of her career.
She had just begun her musical partnership with the great Caruso, whom she cordially disliked. She found him coarse and uncultivated. She was not amused when, during a performance of La Bohème, he pressed a hot sausage, that he'd hidden in his pocket, into her hand as he sang "Che gelida manina, se la lasci riscaldar."("What a cold little hand, let me warm it")
Rupert Bunny painted her in the grand manner of Reynolds, in a regal pose befitting the Grande Dame of opera and society that she was. Madame looks down imperiously at the viewer, further emphasizing her exalted status. She is opulently clad in a flowing white gown with silk stole, priceless rope of pearls and a flamboyant hat.
The setting is an open, romantic landscape, with summer clouds over a low horizon. The landscape setting was popular with 18th century portraitists, allowing the gentry and nobility to display their affinity with the land at their country estates. During the Victorian era, these "outdoor leisure" portraits enjoyed a resurgence of popularity.
We owe it to the philanthropist Henry Krongold that the portrait is today hanging at the NGV where we can all enjoy it. The NGV's catalogue, as catalogues do, just gives the barest detail: "purchased through the Art Foundation of Victoria with the assistance of Dinah and Henry Krongold CBE".
It is by the merest chance that I happened to be reading Henry Krongold's memoirs recently, and I was most interested to learn how it happened than Henry and Dinah rescued Nellie from a horrible fate: " … we heard that Rupert Bunny's portrait of Dame Nellie Melba needed refurbishment", he says.
" It belonged to J.C. Williamson and hung on a staircase at the Princess Theatre, where it was much stained by tobacco smoke. I went to [the gallery's president] and I said: 'Keith, the gallery should have this painting. On the staircase it rots'. "
Endearingly, he adds; "We'll pay for it … That's the amount we can give you for it so don't go into valuations!" He doesn't say what the amount was, but obviously no quibbling was allowed.
The painting was presented to the Gallery in Henry and Dinah Krongold's name on 28 May 1980, in front of 3,000 people. He doesn't say where the venue was, but it was clearly a glittering occasion – he mentions that the Queen was present and that her diamond and ruby tiara and necklace outshone everybody else's jewels. Well, they would, wouldn't they?
"They were large rubies", Henry says. "Duck-egg rubies they are called". I wonder if he confused his poultry and meant pigeon's blood rubies? Wouldn't duck egg rubies be a wee bit ostentatious? He mentions that her diamonds were large too, but thankfully he doesn't say anything like: "half-a-house-brick diamonds they are called".
While the NGV was being rebuilt, the painting hung at Government House. Henry was invited by the then Governor, Sir James Gobbo, to a dinner. "There were a hundred people", he says, "at a long table. I was placed right opposite Dame Nellie. At the end of the dinner, Sir James praised me and Dinah for it."
Henry's memoirs are a delight to read. Next time they have an open day at Govt House, I am going to have a look at the table that can seat a hundred people. Henry has many enchanting anecdotes to recount – he and the Queen are practically best friends, he is always meeting her. He tells how she often slips a foot out of her shoe and wiggles it a bit before slipping it back in. I know he is telling the truth, because I saw her do just that at a Buckingham Palace garden party. (Didn't know about the exalted circles I move in, did you?) That woman's feet must kill her, poor thing, I don’t know why she doesn't team a nice pair of Reeboks with the duck egg rubies.
The Royal Opera House borrowed the portrait in 1982 to display it in an exhibition at the Royal Academy. Henry proudly tells us that it was highly acclaimed by all who saw it, and one critic particularly admired her "voluptuous lips". Madame would not have welcomed such presumption!
"Henry Krongold: Memoirs" told to James Mitchell: Allen and Unwin, 2003
"The Edwardians: Secrets and Desires", National Gallery of Australia, 2004