Barry Kay – Biography – 1932-1955


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.


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 Kay1, also known as Sam Kay, 1893-1968, of Russian descent; groom; later merchant and importer of lace and trimmings. – Mother: Ruby Kay2, 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.3

Following his overseas service during World War I4, 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.



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.”



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.

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



March 1939
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.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, sets 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).



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.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.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 artists8; 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.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.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.11

1953-1955 Month / Day [?]
Première [?] of Jacaranda Town; ballet; assignment sets; script and choreography Walter Gore; possibly the Walter Gore Ballet, touring Australia as Australian Theatre Ballet; opening venue [?] maybe Melbourne.12

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.
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.13

Month / Day [?]
Première of Swan Lake, Lev Ivanov’s act II; ballet; assignment sets 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.14

July 3
Première of Maldición or The Spell; ballet; part of a triple bill; assignment sets 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.


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.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.16

July 4
World première of Soft Sorrow; ballet; assignment sets 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 sets 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 sets and costumes [?] as assistant designer to Anne Fraser17; 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 sets; choreography Walter Gore; company and venue [?]; location possibly Melbourne [?].18