From Australia’s Jewish Past: Lena Brasch – Actor and Artists Model – Part 1

December 26, 2023 by Ruth Lillian
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Selina Venus Brasch was born in North Melbourne on 9 November 1874. She was the youngest child of Wolfe and Esther Brasch.

Lena Brasch 1898

Her father left Prussia (now known as Poland), travelled to Australia, and settled in Melbourne in 1852.  He ran a pawnbroking business at 240 Swanston Street.  Wolfe’s brother, Marcus, was already living in Melbourne and running an importing business in Elizabeth Street, which included pianos, which he later focussed on for his main business, which interestingly had a life for over a century.  Wolfe married Esther in Melbourne in 1857 and produced a large family of nine children – five girls and four boys.  The children all had biblical names, whereas Selina – who became known as Lena – was given a Greco-Roman goddess name.

The family moved to Sydney around 1879, following Wolfe’s pawnbroking business being liquidated and in Sydney, he opened a general store at 713 George Street.  The family settled at 48 Botany Road, Surry Hills.  The family prospered and soon moved to Moore Park.  The eldest daughter, Golda married an artist, Louis Abrahams, who had attended the Artisans School of Design in Carlton, where he met and befriended the pioneering Australian impressionist Frederick McCubbin. Both went to the National Gallery of Victoria Art School, where they befriended Tom Roberts.  The three of them established the artists’ camp at Box Hill.  Louis, together with his father, ran a cigar importing business in Lonsdale Street and Louis donated 183 cigar-box lids to the artists working at another artists’ camp – Eaglemont Camp – which was to be used principally by Tom Roberts, Arthur Steeton and Charles Conder in producing the paintings for the ground-breaking ‘’9 by 5 Impressionists Exhibition’’ of 1889 in Melbourne.  The exhibition was stage-managed by Tom Roberts, who had painted a portrait of Louis Abrahams in Melbourne in 1886, and he went on to paint acompanion piece of his wife Golda in the year of their marriage, 1888.  It was an exciting and important occasion when Lena, at the age of thirteen, met Tom Roberts at his older sister’s wedding, and in time Tom Roberts would work with Lena as his model in half a dozen paintings.  He would have been struck by her character and looks – her special qualities, even as a young teenager.

It is not known whether Lena excelled at school, but she had musical ability and, in April 1899, appeared at the age of fourteen for the first time as Lena Brasch performing a piano solo at a mixed concert, given by the Surry Hills Wesleyan Band of Hope at the school hall in Botany Street.

Around 1890, Lena’s four brothers—Reuben, David, Henry, and Alfred—together decided to start up a new artists’ camp in Sydney, known as ‘Curlew’, at Little Sirius Cove in Mosman, overlooking Sydney Harbour. The camp attracted the cream of Australian artists, including Tom Roberts, who moved from Melbourne to Sydney in September 1891, Arthur Streeton, Julian Ashton, and several other artists, plus two outstanding musicians – conductor G W L Marshall-Hall and composer Alfred Hill.  One other member was the very well-known Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson, who was visiting Sydney from his home in Samoa. The camp housed only men and women were welcomed at the weekend, and among the visitors was Lena.  It was an amazing environment with the members camping – although quite salubrious – with a manager, cook, and staff.  The bohemian residents made their tents comfortable and, in fact, quite stylish.  It was during this time that Tom Roberts painted his first image of Lena.  It is not known what the nature of the relationship between Lena and Tom was.  However, in a letter from Arthur Streeton to Tom Roberts he wrote about a ‘pretty sitter with abundant hair’ on the rocks, ‘fanned by the afternoon breeze at the point’, a sitter with grey eyes, ‘both of you have pretty full round eyes’.  This is surely sixteen-year-old Lena.  It is suggested that Tom went on to paint four more portraits of Lena in 1893 at Lena’s home, which was now in Bondi at 2A Penkivil Street.  Two of the paintings of Lena from that year are counted as among Tom’s finest works: An Eastern Princess and Plink-a-Plonk (also known as Girl Playing the Banjo); the others being two studies: Lena Brasch and Portrait Study of Len Brasch.  An Eastern Princess is housed in Canberra’s National Gallery of Australia.  In this particular portrait, Lena is presented as a sultry oriental royal, her dark eyes directly fixing the viewer.

Lena Brasch painted by Tom Roberts

Mary Eagle, the art historian, has written that the image represented complementary types in the nineteenth-century social mythology of women.  Dr Julie Cotter, art historian, has written of the group as follows:- during the early 1890s it was Lena Brasch who performed manifestations of her character in collaboration with Roberts and became one of his favourite subjects … she was part of the inner bohemian circle … Brasch was perfectly suited to, and complicit in, the testing of a modern approach to portraiture of young, intelligent and beautiful women.

In 1974, while An Eastern Princess was being catalogued at the National Gallery of Australia, the cataloguer noticed that beneath the canvas was another layer of canvas. The two were separated and there appeared another, quite different image of Lena by Tom Roberts—now entitled Portrait Study of Lena Brasch. Although both paintings are clearly of Lena, they could not be more different. In the Portrait Study, eyes closed and averted, Lena appears young and fashionable but demure.  Mary Eagle has suggested that it may have been painted by Roberts in late 1891 or 1892.

Julie Cotter observes: ‘The sketchy quality of Lena Brasch shows the casual nature of some portrait encounters, while it is also possible to observe the beginnings of Roberts’s attraction to her profile … The costume worn by Brasch … is clearly a roughly painted version of the delicate costume in Plink-a-Plong.

In an article written by Roger Neill – an arts writer – documents that Lena was painted and photographed by some of the most famous artists of the day.  He wrote: “One such photographic portrait, which was part of the Art of Walter Barnett, another member of the Club and a friend of Lena’s, was mounted by the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra in 2000 and, since that time, a copy has hung on my wall in my home in England.  I have come to realise how little is known about Lena Brasch – actor and artists’ model.”

Tom Robert’s works can be seen in many galleries both in Australia and overseas.  Several of the portraits of Lena can be found in the National Gallery in Canberra.  Plink-a-Plonk is hung in the South Australian Gallery in Adelaide.

In Part 2 next week,  learn about her talented life as an actor.

The AJHS acknowledges the following references in the preparation of this story:-  Theatre Heritage Australia; National Gallery of Australia; National Portrait Gallery Canberra; Trove – Australians in England.

The Australian Jewish Historical Society is the keeper of archives from the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788 right up to today. Whether you are searching for an academic resource, an event, a picture or an article, AJHS can help you find that piece of historical material. The AJHS welcomes your contributions to the archives. If you are a descendent of someone of interest with a story to tell, or you have memorabilia that might be of significance for the archives, please make contact via or

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