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

Barry Kay – Biography – 1932-1955



September 1
Barry John Kay is born in Caulfield, Melbourne, Australia, as the second of three siblings – brother to Shirley, his older, and Wendy, his future 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: Ruby Kay [2.2], née Kemelfield, 1899[?]-1963, of Polish descent; concert singer; daughter of Barnett Kemelfield, managing director of Kemelfield and Yinder Pty Ltd, millinery manufacturers, 128-130 Franklin Street, Melbourne.

Preceding family history
In the late 19th century, both Barry's paternal and maternal grandparents turn their backs on Russia and Poland, respectively, to begin a new life in England. The Kays settle in the Clapton Common area in East London and the Kemelfields in Nottingham. Before long, both families emigrate to Australia independently to establish themselves in Melbourne together with their English-born children, including Barry's parents-to-be. [2.3]

Following his overseas service during World War I [2.4], Sam returns to Australia on November 20, 1916, settling in Melbourne again. It is here where, presumably through their parents' 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 318 Flinders Lane located in the hub of Melbourne's garment trade.

At the time of Barry's birth, the family lives at 32 Albany Road, a prestigious address in Toorak, Melbourne – the parental lifetime residence.


The itemized biography about Barry Kay, spanning well over three decades of his working life, charts year-by-year assignments and engagements with the focus on documenting his creative process and advancement. The recording of theatre performances is generally limited to first-night dates, while follow-up presentations are only listed occasionally. Annual seasons cited throughout refer to those of the northern hemisphere. Missing or unconfirmed data are tagged with a question mark. Annotations are placed in the margins and background information, anecdotal details and accounts of oral history can be found in the footnotes.



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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 are taking Barry out of the Ecole Internationale de Genève.

March - April 1939 / Day [?]
Due to the increasing unrest in Europe and looming danger of war, the Kays find themselves forced to leave Switzerland. They permanently return to Melbourne via their European family hub in Nottingham, England.

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.


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. [2.5]

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, fairy tale with dance, musical fantasy; 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.

1949 [late 1940's] - 1950 [?]
Kay commences taking art courses at the Melbourne Technical College (since 1960 Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology).

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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.

With his interests developing into a different direction, Kay is keen to establish himself as a painter, albeit with a propensity for stage design. He terminates his music studies and returns to Australia, where he continues his education in art and design at the Melbourne Technical College. He starts to paint in a serious way, but all the while keeps on designing for the theatre. [2.6]

While working as an assistant to the theatre designer Kenneth Rowell during that time, Kay meets the Scottish-born choreographer Walter Gore. Aware of Kay's potential, Gore puts it to him that the 'Melbourne Tech' is not the venue of choice to attain a thorough arts education. [2.7]

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 - February 2
Barry Kay partakes in the exhibition "Theatre Arts Display", featuring the work of around forty artists [2.8]; venue: print room, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; event: National Theatre Arts Festival; occasion: Centenary of Victoria [independence from the New South Wales colony; ed] and Jubilee of the Commonwealth Celebrations.

1951 - 1953, September [?]
Following Walter Gore's suggestion and advice, Kay quits 'Melbourne Tech' to continue his studies in art and painting at the Académie Julian in Paris. The artists Christian Bérard and Antoni Clavé are his most influential models. [2.9]

Zika Ascher, Britain's preeminent maker of innovative textiles based on contemporary art, commissions Barry Kay to design a silk scarf entitled "Neptune" for the limited editions of the Ascher "Artists' Squares" project. [2.10]

1953 - September or later
After his stay in Paris and back in Australia, Kay begins making a name for himself as a painter. He exhibits widely and also attracts corporate business, securing him prestigious design commissions for promotional advertising art and the windows for Myer, Melbourne's iconic department store. All the same, his fascination with the theatre runs just as deep.

Around that time Kay renews his affiliation with Walter Gore. While working for him, he discovers that his true passion is stage and costume design. His interest motivates him to exclusively design for the theatre. Although not yet quite ready to give up painting, his subjects are frequently theatre-related.

1953 Month / Day [?]
Kay creates three set designs and an act drop for The Rake's Progress, believed to have been intended for, or inspired by, the eponymous opera by Igor Stravinsky; there are no performance data available. [2.11]

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. [2.12]

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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



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. [2.13]

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. [2.14]

July 3
Première of Maldición or The Spell; ballet; part of a triple bill; assignment scenery and costumes; choreography Alison Lee; Ballet Guild; Ballet Guild Studio Theatre, Melbourne; season 3-18 July 1954; eight performances. – The critic Geoffrey Hutton, writing in The Age, notes: "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.

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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. [2.15]

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. [2.16]

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 décor for "Hats Through the Ages", a pageant 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; assignment scenery and costumes; 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 [?] as assistant designer to Anne Fraser [2.17]; 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 [?]. [2.18]

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onward to 1956-1965



According to Barry Kay, his paternal grandfather had the family name of Kaplovič [spelling ?] changed to Kay after the family had left Russia and settled in England. >> back to text


The Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages of the State of Victoria, Australia, appears to provide conflicting information concerning the first name of Barry Kay's mother; in the marriage entry she is listed as Rebecca, in the death entry of her younger daughter as Ruby. Notwithstanding this, she was always known as Ruby. Barry and all her relatives referred to her by that name, as did the local newspapers in respect of family announcement. Her own last will and testament she signed as Ruby. Since this is a legal document, it is reasonable to ascertain that Ruby was her official first name. >> 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 aboard 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. So he quit and moved on... without the broom. >> back to text


Later, when reminiscing over his past and Walter Gore's suggestion, and after decades as a seasoned draughtsman, Kay was very much amused that the 'Melbourne Tech' intended to fire him anyway for apparently lacking the talent to draw. >> back to text


Participating artists included, among others, Ann Church, William Constable, Clem Kennedy, Robin Lovejoy, Alan McCulloch, John Rowell, Kenneth Rowell (the former's nephew) and Loudon Sainthill. >> back to text


Records held at the Archive suggest that Walter Gore and Barry Kay eventually struck up quite a confidential friendship, which is supported by correspondence in which the former relates internal information to the latter. Also, Gore appears to have become Kay's professional mentor in his efforts of gaining a foothold in the world of theatre design. >> back to text


The Ascher "Artists' Square" project commenced in 1946 and terminated in 1955. Zika Ascher commissioned fifty-one leading French and English artists, among them Jean Cocteau, Sonia Delaunay, Henri Matisse and Henry Moore.

Given that Kay settled in London permanently in 1956, he most likely met Ascher during his studies at the Académie Julian in Paris from 1951 to 1953. Kay would have executed his scarf design within that period – a black paint brush drawing accentuated with highlights and printed in seven different background colours, including versions in buff, cerise and lavender; two-tone silkscreen print on 100% pure silk; signed: Barry Kay; labelled: Ascher.

Kay chose an ambience in the neo-romantic style, enitled Neptune, depicting 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. Illustrated within are scenes of seafaring discoverers or pirates having landed on the island, which is inhabited by semi-mythical creatures living amid scattered ancient temple ruins.

Antoni Clavé, whose works inspired Kay, and who also participated in the project with his design "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 set designs for The Rake's Progress, an opera in three acts plus epilogue by Igor Stravisnky, only came to light when they were offered at a Melbourne auction sale in April 2007. The lot, which the Archive acquired, consisted of one drawing for each act – The Garden, The Morning Room, Bedlam – and an act drop. The drawings came without production or performance data.

In the light of Stravinsky having first presented his opera in the early 1950s, it is unlikely that Kay would have been asked to designs an actual stage production, and especially so while still studying at the Académie Julian at that time. Instead, it seems more probable that he might have attended the opera's Paris staging in 1952, which in turn could have inspired him to express his own vision of the topic in form of a study project or an exam work.

In 2019 it emerged that another design, entitled The Graveyard (Act III, scene 2), evidently part of a set of altogether five drawings, including those mentioned above, is held at a private Australian collection. >> 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 assumed the name Australian Theatre Ballet for the Australian tour (source: Australia Dancing). As Barry Kay was still studying in Paris in 1953, he probably created his Jacaranda Town design for Australian Theatre Ballet between 1953 and 1955. >> back to text


It remains unconfirmed 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


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


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 was assistant to Anne Fraser, whom theatre records list as the sole designer of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. The Archive holds two set designs by Kay for this production – one of the Parlour of a Melbourne House, the other of the Interior of the Young & Jacksons Hotel (Australian term for pub). It however remains unclear whether his scenery was in fact realized for the stage, and whether he was also assisting in designing the costumes.

Research provides conflicting results in that the identical cast is quoted to have performed at two different venues on precisely the same opening date – at the Union Theatre, Melbourne University, and the Russell Street Theatre, Melbourne. >> 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


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