Help the performing arts recover

7 August, 2020

 

Dame Edna Everage has long been an Australian fashion and comedy icon. Her own website modestly describes her as “probably the most popular and gifted woman in the world today”. Embraced by adoring fans, she has simultaneously reflected and parodied society for more than 60 years. Along the way, the work of British photographer John Timbers has been central to Dame Edna’s public image.

 

Dame Edna Everage, 1982

 

Dame Edna Everage, 1982
Photograph by John Timbers
Donated by The Sidney Myer Fund in honour of Geoffrey Cohen, Trustee 1992–2003
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

 

Collecting Dame Edna

In 1981 Edna’s creator, Barry Humphries, made the first of many donations to the Australian Performing Arts Collection, including material relating to both his career and characters. Just as Edna has dominated Humphries’ career, she takes a generous share of the archival spotlight, in particular through many costumes reflecting her transition from dowdy Moonee Ponds housewife to international megastar.

In 2004, the Australian Performing Arts Collection also acquired John Timbers’ photographic archive of Barry Humphries and his alter egos. Containing over 3,000 images – prints, negatives, transparencies and proof sheets – taken between 1973 and 1997, it includes the wistful Sandy Stone, uncouth Sir Les Patterson and of course, Dame Edna Everage.

 

Dame Edna Everage, 1976

 

Dame Edna Everage, 1976
Photograph by John Timbers
Donated by The Sidney Myer Fund in honour of Geoffrey Cohen, Trustee 1992–2003
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

 

The man behind the camera

John Timbers (1933–2006) began his career in London in 1955 as assistant to innovative photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones (later Lord Snowdon and husband of Princess Margaret). Over the next five years, this work brought Timbers in contact with a who’s who of British society and introduced him to the world of theatre.

His work in theatre photography began in 1960 when he was contracted to take photos for the Royal Court Theatre in London. This included capturing Orson Welles directing Laurence Olivier in the play Rhinoceros. Throughout his career, Timbers continued to photograph for stage and television, along with leading newspapers and journals, biographies and books on theatre.

 

Dame Edna on vintage Daimler car, Savoy Place, London, 1983

 

Dame Edna on vintage Daimler car, Savoy Place, London, 1983
Photograph by John Timbers
Donated by The Sidney Myer Fund in honour of Geoffrey Cohen, Trustee 1992–2003
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

 

The first shoot

John Timbers first photographed Barry Humphries and Edna Everage in 1973. The shoot, commissioned by Harpers and Queen magazine, resulted in a double image of a diminutive Humphries offering a single gladdie to an oversized Edna. Also taken that day were photographs of Edna closely surrounded by a bunch of her beloved gladioli, later used for the record cover of Housewife Superstar (1976) and Dame Edna’s Coffee Table Book (1977).

 

Barry Humphries and Edna Everage, 1973

 

Barry Humphries and Edna Everage, 1973
Photograph by John Timbers
Gift of Barry Humphries, 1981
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

 

“I first met John Timbers in the early 1970s and immediately we became friends,” Barry Humphries has recalled. “Mrs Norman Everage had only recently been ‘Dame'd’ and John managed to capture with his camera the mixture of self-effacing humility and naked ambition which mingle paradoxically in the Dame’s complex nature. Enough to say that he knew Edna when her hair was brown, though we have since learnt that she dyed it that colour because she was ashamed of her unusual, indeed unique, wisteria locks.”

This first assignment led to a successful long-term collaboration. Affectionately nicknamed “Lord Timbers” by Humphries, the photographer went on to capture the changing face of the comedian and his characters over the next 25 years.

 

Dame Edna Everage, 1987

 

Dame Edna Everage, 1987
Photograph by John Timbers
Donated by The Sidney Myer Fund in honour of Geoffrey Cohen, Trustee 1992–2003
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

 

Dame Edna Everage, 1988

 

Dame Edna Everage, 1988
Photograph by John Timbers
Donated by The Sidney Myer Fund in honour of Geoffrey Cohen, Trustee 1992–2003
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

 

The many moods of Edna

John Timbers photographed Dame Edna in a range of settings and styles. Early images document her activities in London – walking a wombat at Windsor Castle, admiring gladioli at the Chelsea Flower Show and drawing attention at Royal Ascot. Timbers also photographed many of Edna’s UK theatre shows, but she shines most of all in the studio.

Timbers’ images depict Edna’s developing aesthetic and rising confidence. In the 1970s she is seen adopting the fashions of the day, increasingly mirroring her audiences. Her advancement of all things Australiana is shown in the 1980s and by the 1990s she is revealed as a vision of modern celebrity.

From playful fashion shoots to pensive portraits, cheeky snaps to glamorous depictions of a woman of the world, John Timbers captured the many moods of Edna. His photographs provide a valuable insight into the stellar career of one of Australia’s most renowned performers.

 

Dame Edna Everage, 1990

 

Dame Edna Everage, 1990
Photograph by John Timbers
Donated by The Sidney Myer Fund in honour of Geoffrey Cohen, Trustee 1992–2003
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

 

Discover more about the Barry Humphries Collection and the John Timbers Collection.

 

Margaret Marshall
Curator, Theatre and Popular Entertainment
Australian Performing Arts Collection

 

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