of Tay Creggan W
ith its turrets, terraces, gables and dragons, Tay Creggan is a fairytale crafted from red bricks and big dreams. Architectural historians know it as one of Victoria’s most significant houses. Less well known is that for many of this extraordinary mansion’s early years, dance was almost literally at its heart. The fantasy that became Tay Creggan had its beginnings in Melbourne’s 1880s land boom, fevered years in which property prices spiralled ever upwards, sometimes matching those of London. Robert Guyon Purchas was a rising architectural star, still in his twenties in 1889 when he bought a sloping patch of land on a bend in the Yarra. Purchas drew up plans for an English-inspired extravaganza with sweeping views, gracious reception rooms and secret corners. The piece de resistance, at the centre of the house, would be the ballroom: a space so spectacular even his wealthiest clients would gasp in awe. The cream of colonial society would be able to gather around his vast oak-and-copper fireplace and waltz beneath the ballroom’s dragon gargoyles – and three stained-glass ceiling domes, as colourful and glittering as the dancers’ gowns and jewels. For Purchas, that vision would remain a dream. By 1892 the land boom had turned to disaster. Banks were collapsing, fortunes evaporating. Purchas ran out of money. He had to sell Tay Creggan – and his buyer, Michael Spencer, was not so much of a dancing man. We can imagine how Purchas’ heart must have sunk when Spencer commissioned him to convert the beautiful ballroom to a billiard room. Purchas did it – he must have needed the work – and it would be years before dance reclaimed its rightful role at Tay Creggan. Yet it did, with more international panache than the disappointed architect could ever have imagined.
In the spring of 1925, Melbourne’s The Herald newspaper reported that a couple named Mortill had given “a small dance” at their new home, Tay Creggan, to celebrate their first wedding anniversary. William Mortill, a man in his early fifties, had made money in the transport industry. His bride, Lydia, was much younger – and much more exotic. She was Russian and, so she said, a dancer. The Tay Creggan ballroom was back in business – and the Mortills had no hesitation in using it as their ticket to Melbourne’s undeniably cliquey but increasingly cosmopolitan art and social circles. The pair held sumptuous dances, large and small, to welcome foreign dignitaries, to farewell Melbourne friends and later – as the Depression took hold – to raise money for charity. In April 1933, social magazine Table Talk reported on the Mortills’ “charming little dance … to afford their friends an opportunity to meet Princess Irina Eristoff”. Among guests welcoming the princess was Constance Parkin (later known by her married name, Constance Stokes), a young and exceptionally talented artist whose early portraits hung among the dozens of pictures adorning Tay Creggan’s walls. These works would one day become the subject of Anne Summers’ acclaimed 2009 book The Lost Mother: A Story of Art and Love. Petite, vivacious Lydia Mortill smiled often, charmed many and promoted dance of every kind. In late 1927 she hosted an exhibition of eurhythmic dancing in Tay Creggan’s grounds: a photograph in The Argus carried a caption explaining that the troupe of young women pictured were performing ‘The Scarf Dance’. Tay Creggan’s croquet lawn was the stage for “folk dances of the nations” in 1932, with dancers in costumes from Russia, Germany, England, Norway and Burma.
Each breathless social report described “Madame” Mortill’s exquisite outfits and listed prominent people who came to her parties. As early as 1926, Lydia had become so prominent herself that her own name appears, as an audience member, in reports on prima ballerina Anna Pavlova’s first, triumphant Australian tour. Table Talk visited Lydia at Tay Creggan, reporting that: “the walls … are lined with photographs of famous people who have enjoyed her hospitality for a few days. There are appreciatively inscribed pictures of Pavlova, Alice Delysia, Benno Moiseivitch, Szigeti, Princess Tristoff, and countless others.” “Mrs Mortill … liked to have musicians in the huge chimney corners of the ballroom,” reported Sydney’s The Sun newspaper. “You met all sorts of people there, Russian poets, Russian aristocrats, Swiss folk, Spaniards of various political hues and, of course, all the local intelligensia.” In late 1936, you might also have met members of the celebrated Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo, who visited Tay Creggan more than once during the first of the influential company’s three tours of Australia between 1936 and 1940. Some of these dancers, such as “baby ballerina” Irina Baranova, stayed on in Australia, founding new ballet schools and companies, helping set the stage for the evolution of ballet in this country today. “Mrs W. Mortill, who is an active member of the International Club, gave a delightful party at her home, Tay Creggan in Yarra-street, Hawthorn, last week, for members of the club and some of the Russian Ballet members were also present,” wrote a correspondent in The Sydney Morning Herald. “Mrs Mortill is a Russian, and very artistic. She was herself once a member of the ballet in Russia, and has been a keen patron of the present season of ballet in Melbourne.”
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