Barry Kay, internationally acclaimed stage and costume designer, photographer, born 1932 Melbourne Australia, died 1985 London England




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Barry Kay – Biography – 1932-1955


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September 1
Barry John Kay is born in Toorak, Melbourne, Australia; the second of three siblings, brother to an older and and a younger sister.

Father: Samuel Kay [2.1], also known as Sam Kay, 1893-1968, of Russian descent; groom; later merchant and importer of lace and trimmings. – Mother: Rebecca Kay, also known as Ruby Kay, née Kemelfield, 1899[?]-1963, of Polish descent; concert singer; daughter of Barnett Kemelfield, managing director of Kemelfield and Yinder Pty Ltd, Melbourne, millinery manufacturers.

Preceding family history
Shortly before or around the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, both Barry's maternal and paternal grandparents – independently of each other and together with their children – turn their backs on Poland and Russia, respectively, to begin a new life in England. The Kays settle in the East End of London, the Kemelfields in Nottingham. Before long, both families emigrate to Melbourne. [2.2]

Following his overseas service during World War I [2.3], Sam returns to Australia on November 20, 1916, evidently settling in Melbourne again. It is here where, presumably through business affiliations, Sam and Ruby meet one another for the first time. They marry in 1924 and start their own family. In 1925, Sam is founding his lace and trimmings import company, S Kay & Co Pty Ltd, at Flinders Lane in Melbourne.

The itemized biography about Barry Kay, spanning well over three decades of his working life, charts year-by-year engagements and assignments. Annual seasons cited throughout the biography refer to those of the northern hemisphere.

Concerning scenery and costume designs, the focus lies primarily on documenting the design process and progression as well as on recording opening nights – première and first night dates. Performance seasons at different venues or associated with special events are occasionally specified. With exceptions, follow-up performances are generally not listed as this exceeds the purpose and scope of the biography. Some of them can be found in the Omnes Alphabetical Index.

To keep these pages as compact as possible, annotations are placed in the margins, anecdotal details and accounts of oral history in the footnotes.

* * * * *

Extremely little is known to the Barry Kay Archive about Barry Kay's youth and formative years, his education, training and very early professional activities, up to 1955. Scant records exist for the period from 1956, the year he settled in London, to 1966. Only since 1967 were his professional engagements chronicled meticulously when, by chance, the Archive's founder-to-be acted out of personal interest – in hindsight, with foresight, it seems.

The documentation left by Kay is not altogether complete and coordinate. Much data, therefore, remains uncharted. In time, as more information emerges, it shall be placed on these pages.



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1937 [?] Month / Day [?]
During the latter part of this period the Kay family moves to Switzerland, apparently by way of England.

January 1938
The parents are placing their son Barry as a 'day student' at the Ecole Internationale de Genève (Ecolint), a boarding school, where he receives his initial education. The logbook for Kay states that he enters the school in the 'lowest Primary class'. He also begins to learn French, becoming extremely proficient at the language later on.

June 1938
In her report of June 1938 Kay's class teacher affirms: "Barry est très aimé par ses camarades. Toujours obéissant, sa conduite est très bonne."



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March 1939
Presumably based on the threatening political developments in Europe following the Nazi's occupation of Prague on March 16, Kay's parents are changing their plans and take Barry out of the Ecole Internationale de Genève.

March - April 1939 / Day [?]
Due to the imminent danger of a great European war, the Kays leave Switzerland via their European family hub in Nottingham, England, to permanently return to Melbourne.

May 1939 [?] - March 1942 [?]
In Australia Barry Kay attends Glamorgan Preparatory School for Boys, Toorak, Melbourne – since 1947 under the auspices of Geelong Grammar School.

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Campus and complex of buildings of the Ecole Internationale de Genève in Switzerland, where Barry Kay received his initial education from January 1938 to March 1939; Foundation for the International School of Geneva

Barry Kay aged 7 with Box Brownie camera probably in Gstaad, Switzerland, 1938, frame of a home movie

Wesley College, St. Kilda Campus, Melbourne, in 1944. Barry Kay attended the College for six years, from 1942 to 1948.


Ecole Internationale de Genève, Switzerland 1937
photo courtesy Fondation de l'Ecole Internationale de Genève

Barry Kay, Switzerland ca 1938
photo © Michael Werner

Wesley College, Melbourne, Auatralia 1944
photo courtesy Wesley College, Curator of Collections

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April 14, 1942
For further education, Kay enters Wesley College, a high school, attending as a 'day boy' at the St. Kilda Road Campus, Melbourne.

At Wesley College, he is awarded the "Raymond Herbert Lowe Memorial Prize" for "Original Work" accomplished, a remarkable composition of music – Concerto in G Minor. [2.4]

December 12, 1948
Finalizing his studies at Wesley College. A record card preserved at the College Archives attests Kay to possess qualities of a "sensitive, artistic nature" and to be of "a sound character".



December 19
Première of The Glass Slipper; Kay designs the character costumes, presumably his first-ever designs for the performing arts; ballet costumes Ann Church, scenery Hugh Stevenson; production Robert Donat; direction Garnet H Carroll; choreography Joyce Graeme<; Carroll-Fuller Theatres Pty Ltd in conjunction with The National Theatre Movement of Australia; National Theatre Ballet and Rex Reid; Princess Theatre, Melbourne.

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1950 - 1951
Introduced and inspired by his mother, a concert singer, to playing the piano at an early stage, Barry Kay wants to become a composer and moves to Switzerland to study music, probably at the Genève or Zürich [?] Conservatoire. Concurrently, he takes up painting in a serious way.

With his interests developing into a different direction, Kay terminates his studies in music. He returns to Australia, matriculates at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and enrolls in arts and design classes to eventually establish himself as a painter. [2.5] All the same, his fascination with the theatre runs just as deep.

While working as an assistant to Kenneth Rowell, he meets Walter Gore, the Scottish choreographer, who succeeded Joyce Greame as artistic director of the National Theatre Ballet, and for whom Rowell is designing.

Together with Barbara Newman Kay wins a competition to design the sets for The Taming of the Shrew, a production by The National Theatre Movement of Australia presented at the Princess Theatre, Melbourne.

1951 - 1953, September [?]
Once more in Europe, he is studying arts and painting at the Académie Julian in Paris [2.6]. The artists Christian Bérard and Antoni Clavé are his most influential models.

Zika Ascher, Britain's preeminent maker of innovative textiles based on contemporary art, commissions Barry Kay to design a scarf in three variations for the limited editions of "Artists' Squares". All in all, Ascher commissions fifty-one leading French and English artists between 1946 and 1955 [2.7], whereby in most cases each artist contributes one scarf design. Among the artists are Jean Cocteau, Sonia Delaunay, Henri Matisse and Henry Moore.

1953, September or later
Following his studies in Paris, Kay returns to Melbourne. He starts exhibiting as a painter and draftsman and continues designing for the theatre. Making a name for himself in both métiers, he attracts the attention of corporate business. He feels equally at home at creating smart promotional advertising art as well as accepting the prestigious commission of designing the windows for Melbourne's iconic department store Myer.

Eventually, Kay's passionate interest in the theatre motivates him to exclusively design scenery and costumes for the theatre. He rekindles his acquaintance with Walter Gore.

1953 Month / Day [?]
Kay creates three set designs and an act drop for Igor Stravisky's opera The Rake's Progress; there are no performance data availabale. [2.8]

1953-1955 Month / Day [?]
Première [?] of Jacaranda Town; ballet; assignment scenery; script and choreography Walter Gore; possibly the Walter Gore Ballet, touring Australia as Australian Theatre Ballet; opening venue [?] maybe Melbourne. [2.9]

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Ballerina Paula Hinton and her husband, Walter Gore, with artist Barry Kay (right) at the reception following the official opening by Gore of an exhibition of "Paintings and Designs for the Theatre" by Kay at the Peter Bray Gallery, Melbourne 1955.

Ballerina Paula Hinton and her husband, Walter Gore, with artist Barry Kay (right) at the reception following the official opening by Walter Gore of an Exhibition of Paintings and Designs for the Theatre by Barry at the Peter Bray Gallery in Melbourne


clipping from local magazine, its name and photo source unknown

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January 27 - February 12
Works of a heraldic nature by Barry Kay are included in the "Show of Sixes", a popular, annually recurring exhibition of paintings and drawings, all priced at six guineas each; on show are some fifty items; co-artists Don Cowan, Allen David, Charles Doutney, Russell Drysdale, Donald Friend, Peter Kaiser, Sidney Nolan, Jocelyn Rickards and Wallace Thornton; Macquarie Galleries, Sydney.

February 8
Opening of Kay's first Victorian exhibition of paintings, showing twenty-eight works at the Peter Bray Gallery, Melbourne.

February 17 - March 1
Kay participates in a joint exhibition showing paintings, including the décor for the opera L'Heure Espagnole; co-artist Len Annois; Macquarie Galleries, Sydney. [2.10]

Month / Day [?]
Première of Swan Lake, Lev Ivanov's act II; ballet; assignment scenery and costumes; choreography and staging Laurel Martyn; Ballet Guild; Ballet Guild Studio Theatre, Melbourne. The design assignment constitutes Barry Kay's first commission from Laurel Martyn's Ballet Guild. [2.11]

Month / Day [?]
Première of Maldición; ballet; assignment scenery and/or [?] costumes; choreography Alison Lee; Ballet Guild; Ballet Guild Studio Theatre, Melbourne. – According to Geoffrey Hutton (The Age), the most memorable is Barry Kay's shadowy ornate décor, toning well with Ravel’s music and literary suggestions of witchcraft in old Spain.

November - December
Creation of "Cinderella in Minature"; depiction of the Cinderella story in miniature scenes and characters; designed and executed by Barry Kay and Helen Ogilvie. Enclosed and set on a revolving stage, each setting captures the fairy tale atmosphere and an essential element of the story in a well-considered colour scheme; set up to help children patients feel at ease; venue - a paediatric surgery.

December 22 - duration [?]
Exhibition opening of "Cinderella in Minature"; Peter Bray Gallery, Melbourne.



February 22
"Artist Kay Goes to the Theatre" reads today's headline by Arnold Shore, art critic of The Argus, Melbourne. Announcing Barry Kay's breakthrough of designing for the theatre, Shore writes: "Form and fancy are given decorative expression by Barry Kay in his exhibition of 'Paintings and Designs for the Theatre' at the Peter Bray Gallery. At its best, his coulor is his strongest feature, though a certain sympathy with the subject matter of his paintings and designs is not lacking." – The exhibition is to take place in May of this year.

May 9 - duration [?]
Kay's first solo exhibition of "Paintings and Designs for the Theatre", including designs for A Midsummer Night's Dream; official opening by Walter Gore; Peter Bray Gallery, Melbourne. [2.14]

Two letter cards, written by Walter Gore and addressed to Barry Kay c/o His Majesty's Theatre, Perth, Western Australia, suggest Kay's engagement at this house at that time, where he seems to be involved independently of Gore. No reference is made as to which production is staged. [2.12]

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July 4
World première of Soft Sorrow; ballet; assignment scenery and costumes; choreography Walter Gore; Australian Theatre Ballet; Joanna Priest's Studio Theatre, a converted church in Adelaide, South Australia. Designing this production probably constitutes Kay's true debut as a stage and costume designer.

July 6
Kay provides the setting for "Hats Through the Ages", a show of hats adapted from famous paintings presented by models through appropriately chosen hand-held picture frames to simulate paintings in the surrounds of a series of painted screens – described by The Age as "attractive"; Kay is assisted by Helen Ogilvie; held in aid of the Melbourne University Centenary Appeal; venue Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, Melba Hall.

July 18
First night of Soft Sorrow; ballet; choreography Walter Gore; Australian Theatre Ballet; restaging of above production at the Union Theatre, Melbourne University. The company returns to Melbourne in August for a second season of the same repertoire, by public demand.

September 12 [?]
Barry Kay is responsible for the presentation of Chinese and Egyptian objects of art, an exhibition of a remarkably fine collection of ancient sculpture held at the Myer Mural Hall, Melbourne. On September 13, the art critic of The Age emphasises: "Kay ... is to be complimented on the way he has carried out his task. It is doubtful if works of art have ever been so dramatically and tastefully exhibited in Melbourne."

28 September - 10 October
Exhibition: "Paintings and Theatre Designs by Barry Kay"; venue Johnstone Gallery, Brisbane.

November 28
Première of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll; drama; assignment scenery and costumes; co-designer Anne Fraser [or: scenery Kay, costumes Fraser ?]; direction John Sumner; The Union Theatre Repertory Company (UTRC; now Melbourne Theatre Company, MTC); Union Theatre, Melbourne University. Duration of season November 28 - December 12, 1955.

Month / Day [?]
Projected production of Frankie and Johnnie; ballet; assignment scenery; choreography Walter Gore; company and venue [?]; location possibly Melbourne [?]. [2.13]

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forward to 1956-1965



Barry Kay's paternal grandfather had the family name changed from Kaplovič [spelling ?] to Kay after the family left Russia to settle in England. back to text


Information about the preceding family history is partially based on oral history handed down by Barry Kay himself, as well as by some family members and previous staff serving the Kay family, and partially on public records and school dossiers relating to Kay's education. Although, no records could be found as to why his paternal and maternal grandparents left their respective homeland, the pogroms raging in Eastern Europe in the late 19th century may have forced them to emigrate. back to text


On Barry Kay's father: On September 15, 1914, 'Private Samuel Kay, a 21 year old Groom from Melbourne, Victoria' enlists in the 8th Australian Light Horse Regiment, AIF, "B" Squadron. On February 25, 1915, he embarks from Melbourne, Victoria, on board HMAT A16 "Star Of Victoria" to serve with the combined Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC), supporting the British Empire during the First World War in the Battle of Gallipoli, Turkey, from April 25, 1915, to January 19, 1916. Sam subsequently returns to Australia on November 20, 1916. back to text


Raymond Herbert Lowe entered Wesley College in 1921 and was apparently a good cricketer, being opening batsman for Keith Rigg in 1923 and 1924. His father donated the money for an annual prize in his memory.

About competing for and being awarded the prize, Wesley College Archive records state: "Boys who wish to compete must notify the Headmaster by 1st November stating the nature of the material they wish to submit. [...] The Headmaster was to choose the recipient who carried out the most constructive and original work, whether at home or School." back to text


Whereas Kay's mother, an artist herself, was fully supportive of her son's ambitions of becoming an artist, his father adamantly opposed his intentions. Wanting him to take over the lace business one day, S Kay & Co in Flinders Lane, he insisted on his son starting at the bottom – as an apprentice. For his initiation, Kay was handed a broom to clean the business premises. Sweeping an eight-storey building from top to bottom, in the centre of Melbourne, was not exactly Kay's idea of an artist's career. He quit and left for Europe... without the broom. back to text


It was Walter Gore, obviously recognizing Kay's potential as an artist and stage and costume designer, who suggested further training at the Académie Julian in Paris. While almost all of Kay's training and professional activities during the early 1950s are documented, the major part of the period from 1951 to 1953 remains the only time gap unaccounted for. In the absence of verification, it is believed to be the time span during which he studied at the Académie Julian. (Frequently, Académie Julian is misspelled. The institution derives its name from its founder Rodolphe Julian.) back to text


The Ascher "Artists' Square" project commenced in 1946 and terminated in 1955. Given that Kay settled in London permanently in 1956, it is likely that he and Zika Ascher met in Paris, rather than in London. At that time, Kay was studying in Paris at the Académie Julian, from 1951 to 1953. Following Ascher's commission, Kay would have executed his scarf design in Paris within the same period.

Created in the neo-romantic style, Kay illustrated his scarf with a moonlit tropical island. A continuous band of palm beach scenes arranged along the scarf's boundaries is framing a starry firmament in its centre. The Robinson Crusoe-esque ambience depicts a shipload of seafaring discoverers or pirates who have just landed on the island, which is inhabited by semi-mythical creatures living amid scattered ancient temple ruins. Whereas the three scarves bear the same illustration, a black paint brush drawing accentuated with highlights, their background colours vary – buff, cerise and lavender. Two-tone silkscreen print on 100% pure silk; signed: Barry Kay; labelled: Ascher.

Antoni Clavé, whose works inspired Kay, and who also participated in the Ascher "Artists' Square" project with his design of "Combat de Coqs" in 1947, commented at the time: "In allowing artists complete freedom of execution and interpretation Monsieur Ascher opens a new path for printed textiles." (source: Ascher Studio) back to text


The existence of Barry Kay's designs for The Rake's Progress only came to light when they were offered at a Melbourne auction sale in April 2007. Since the Archive holds no records thereof, it was not clear at that time whether the drawings concerned the one-act ballet (Ninette de Valois, 1935) or the three-act opera (Igor Stravinsky, 1951), both of same title.

Following the Archive's acquistion of the designs, in-situ examination revealed that Kay enitled them in accordance with the opera's three acts, whereby the act drop migh have been intended for use between acts or the epilogue. While this needs to be treated as speculation until further evidence arises, the Archive determined that the designs were created for the opera. It however remains unclear whether they represent a study project, Kay's exam work, or indeed a stage production. back to text


Walter Gore directed the National Theatre Ballet Company, Melbourne, in 1952. Later, he toured his own company, the Walter Gore Ballet, established in London in 1954, which for the Australian tour assumed the name Australian Theatre Ballet (source: Australia Dancing. As Barry Kay was still studying in Paris in 1953, he probably provided his design for Australian Theatre Ballet between 1953 and 1955. back to text


It is not clear whether the décor for L'Heure Espagnole is a painting in its own right or a scenery design intended for an actual stage production. back to text


Laurel Martyn’s Ballet Guild was successively renamed: Victorian Ballet Guild (1959), Victorian Ballet Company (1963) and Ballet Victoria (1976). (source: Australia Dancing) back to text


Walter Gore signed the two cards "Wal" and "Wal Paula", respectively. Paula was his wife, the ballerina Paula Hinton. He mentions that they are on tour and discusses problems concerning "Perth" and "other things". There are references to "ABS" and the "Society", but it is not clear who they are. (The Australian Ballet Society did not exist until 1966.) – Barry Kay kept these cards and other correspondence with Gore throughout his life. It is believed that he did so as they represent part of his working relationship with Gore, who evidently trusted Kay to be his confidant, and because they appear to be of some significance in Australian ballet history. back to text


Barry Kay's set design for Frankie and Johnnie, signed and dated 1955, is inscribed verso in his own hand: 'proposed by Walter Gore'. In the absence of performance data or any other information, it therefore remains uncertain whether Gore ever realized the production. back to text


There is no information available as to whether the design for A Midsummer Night's Dream was intended for an actual stage production. back to text

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