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Keith Vaughan: Photographing the Ballets Russes

25th May 2022.

A rare example of Keith Vaughan’s early photography and an important visual account of a 1930s Ballets Russes production is coming up for sale at Tennants Auctioneers on 25th June, when an album of the Modern British artist’s photographs of Thamar will be offered with an estimate of £700-1,000 plus buyer’s premium.

Keith Vaughan is best known for his works as a painter. After the Second World War he was part of the Neo-Romantic group of artists alongside friend Graham Sutherland (1903-1980); however, his work would become increasingly abstracted and his focus on the faceless male nude, often set in landscapes, reflected his inner turmoil as a closeted homosexual.

He was, however, deeply moved by ballet, having first been taken by his mother to Covent Garden in 1929 to see one of the last performances of the Ballets Russes whilst it was under the direction of legendary impresario Sergei Diaghilev, who would die a month later. The company would be revived in 1932 under the name Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo. A frequent visitor to the ballet, Vaughan wrote in his journal:

“Nothing can recreate the staggering wonder of that Saturday afternoon when I first saw Serge Lifar (the legendary Ukrainian dancer) in 1929. And I can share it with no one. Mother, of course, took me, but understood nothing. “

In the early 20th century ballet was at the cutting edge of culture, an avant garde art form, and inspired collaboration amongst the most radical artists of the period. Vaughan attended performances night after night, frequently photographing the dancers from his seat or from the side of the stage. Several albums of photographs by Vaughan exist, but this album from 1936 captures a performance of ‘Thamar’ which tells the story of the seduction of a sailor by the sadistic Queen of Georgia. A lavish display of Orientalism and with music by Mily Balkirev, the ballet had first been performed in 1912 and was revived in the mid-1930s with Lubov Tchernicheva dancing the title role as depicted by Vaughan. Tchernicheva had an extraordinary stage presence, and was celebrated for her highly expressive performances, captured beautifully in this rare and atmospheric set of 12 silver gelatin prints.  

The photographs are signed and dedicated ‘for V.M. Vassar, July 1936’, thought to be Veronica Vassar of London, a devotee of the Ballets Russes.

Also on offer in the sale, from another vendor, is a pen and ink sketch by Vaughan of two figures. With provenance from Tremayne Fine Arts, St Ives, and Sotheby’s London; the sketch is offered with an estimate of £800-1,200.


With thanks to Gerard Hastings for his catalogue entry for the lot.

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