Bella Sutherland – ‘The Vital Spark’

Recently unearthed among the extensive State Library of Queensland glass plate negative and lantern slide collections, was this seemingly unspectacular slide.  At first glance it appears to be a quite straightforward advertisement of limited interest, however further investigation has shown it to be much more. Exploring the origins of the slide has shone a light on the little documented world of variety theatre and vaudeville in Brisbane in the early years of the 20th century, and in particular, on the fascinating figure of Bella Sutherland.

Acc. 30814 Bella Sutherland’s Latest London Duo-Kinetoscope glass plate negative ca. 1905. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

Isabella ‘Bella’ Maria Sutherland was born in the late 1840s, most likely in England.  By 1866, she had made her way to Rockhampton, Queensland, along with her mother. Isabella’s mother, it seems, had traveled with her daughter from Melbourne to Rockhampton for a singing contract. Here, young Isabella is recorded as marrying Matthew Riley, an Irish vocalist, with whom she had one daughter, Eleanor Jeanot Kathleen Riley. Eleanor went to live with family in New Zealand, going on to become a performer in her own right, under her stage name Nellie Talbot.

Seemingly on her own, Isabella left for England in the early 1870s to study singing and stagecraft, eventually performing as a singer in the U.K. and across Europe. In India, in 1876, she met and married an English journalist, Walter Rodway, and back in England they had a son, Oswald Walter Horace Chandos Rodway, before sailing for Australia in 1880. A second son, John (Jack) A. D. Rodway, was born while at sea. Oswald went on to become a well respected professional photographer, based in Brisbane, while John had a pioneering role in early cinematography in Sydney.

John and Oswald Rodway, ca. 1885. Used with permission of family.

On her return, Bella began performing almost immediately, appearing around Australia and New Zealand in companies such as the Montague-Turner Opera Company, the Royal English Opera Company and Warner and Darks’ Merry Thoughts Company.

Engraving of Bella Sutherland, from a photograph by Nicklin, Sydney, undated. Used with permission of family.

Meanwhile, things didn’t go too well for Walter Rodway. He was jailed for two years in May 1882 after being found guilty of conspiracy to defraud.  However, on his release, he made the most of his time incarcerated, publishing a book entitled ‘Songs & poems : composed during his imprisonment and introduced in word pictures of prison life”, and developing an entire series of public lectures on life in prison.

Classified advertisement for a Walter Rodway lecture event, Sydney Morning Herald, 9 May 1884.

In 1885 Isabella, by then listed as widowed, married for the third time, to ‘Professor’ George Washington Gibson, an American ‘pseudo’ medical and science lecturer. It was around this time that Bella began promoting herself as ‘The Vital Spark’ and, along with her husband, had formed her own touring variety company.  Initially advertised as ‘Bella Sutherland’s Vital Spark Combination Company’ the troupe was regularly revived and reconfigured over the next 20 years, becoming most commonly known as ‘The Vital and Electric Sparks’.

Classified advertisement for Bella Sutherland’s Vital Spark Combination Company, Clarence and Richmond Examiner and New England Advertiser, 29 Dec 1885.

Typical of the variety troupes of the day, the various Vital Sparks incarnations always boasted diverse bills, including singers, comedians, musicians, actors, jugglers, minstrels, ventriloquists, trapeze artists, impersonators and lecturers. Sometimes performing solo, but mostly with her troupe, Bella toured relentlessly, performing both in large city theatres and country town halls. This included a short spell reopening and managing the Olympic Theatre in Sydney as a variety theatre in 1886.

Classified advertisement for The Vital and Electric Spark Combination, Riverine Herald, 5 Mar 1897.

Although still touring regularly, the 1890s saw Sutherland and Gibson based in Brisbane and performing regularly around South East Queensland.  In late 1904, their troupe commenced a season at Centennial Hall in Adelaide Street, Brisbane, with Bella listed as the ‘sole proprietress and licensee’. In addition to their usual variety acts, the Vital Sparks troupe were clearly embracing new technology, boasting the ‘loudest and most expensive gramophone’ on which were played the songs of Dame Nellie Melba, and for the first time in Brisbane, ‘Edison’s latest duo-kinetoscope’, showing animated pictures ‘absolutely without flicker’. This  precursor to cinematic projection involved running a series of images over a light, creating an impression of movement. The resulting ‘moving picture’ was viewed, one person at a time, through a viewer at the top of the device. Bella Sutherland can be considered one of the first to bring moving pictures to the Brisbane public.

Classified advertisement for Bella Sutherland’s Vital Spark Combination, The Telegraph (Brisbane), 28 Dec. 1904.

Classified advertisement for Bella Sutherland’s Vital Spark Combination highlighting Edison’s latest duo-kinetoscope, Brisbane Courier, 22 Dec. 1904.

Apparently a larger that life character, Bella was a well known figure around Brisbane. She reputedly drove her own phaeton carriage about town, pulled by horses name ‘Brandy’ and ‘Soda’.

After many years of touring, the stability of having a permanent venue obviously appealed to Bella and Professor Gibson, and in 1906 they began the process of opening their very own variety venue. The Tivoli Gardens Theatre, a ‘theatre under canvas’, was proposed for the corner of Racecourse Road and Allen Street in Hamilton. The application was approved in November of that year and work began almost immediately.

From Brisbane Courier, 14 Nov. 1906.

In the Brisbane classified pages of late 1906 and early 1907 Bella set about sourcing all that she needed to get the theatre up and running, seeking everything from lemon squeezers to 100 strong chairs to a long ladder to a generally useful young man.

From The Telegraph (Brisbane), 12 Dec. 1906.

From Brisbane Courier, 15 Dec. 1906.

From Brisbane Courier, 5 Feb. 1907.

On 29 April 1907 the Tivoli Gardens Theatre opened to considerable fanfare with a full house of enthusiastic patrons including the Mayor and Mayoress of Brisbane. The newspapers responded positively over the following days and the theatre continued successfully for a number of years.  The venue seated 1000, was equipped with a large stage, and boasted acetylene lighting and decoratively painted scenery. Edison’s duo-kinetoscope featured as an early attraction and could be viewed in the theatre gardens.

Classified advertisement for the opening night of The Tivoli Gardens Theatre, Brisbane Courier, 29 March 1907.

Bella Sutherland passed away on 3rd of June, 1918. She was buried in Nundah Cemetery. By then, variety performances had fallen somewhat from public favour and the Tivoli Gardens was mostly screening movies.  Professor Gibson kept the venue running for a few more years, however by 1921 the Tivoli Gardens Theatre had closed its doors for good.

Portrait of Bella Sutherland, undated. Used with permission of family.

R. Hillier, Original Materials Librarian, State Library of Queensland