Wanda Radford – The Australian “Wunderkind”

Above: Wanda Radford, photographed for a German postcard in about 1910. Courtesy of Jean Ritsema.

The 5 second version
Born Blanche Wanda Radford on 22 June 1896 in Adelaide, South Australia. Died 16 September 1982 in Sydney, New South Wales. On stage from a very young age, first in Australia, then Germany and Britain, attracting considerable publicity. In 1915 she appeared in a few British films as Blanche Bryan and then another in 1918  under her own name. Returned to Australia after WWI and took up art and costume design.

For a short time in the early Twentieth Century, “Little Wanda Radford” from Adelaide was heralded as the Australian “Wunderkind” (wonder child),  an outstanding child prodigy. She was an entertaining elocutionist, reciter, singer and dancer, if we are to believe British, German and Australian newspapers of the time – and so, so young.

Blanche Wanda Radford was born in South Australia in 1896 to Randolph Radford and his London-born wife of “Polish-German” origin, Minna Henrietta nee Kuwatsch. She was an only child, an older brother having died in infancy the year before. Wanda first appeared on stage in early 1903, in a concert organised by a Sydney Temperance Lodge. In August she was appearing for Harry Musgrove singing In the Pale Moonlight at Centenary Hall. At the ripe old age of 7 she was one of Musgrove’s artists and debutantes appearing who “were free to accept engagements for the stage, concert platforms, or at homes.” In December 1903 she was on stage in Sydney for J.C. Williamson’s, performing in the pantomime Sleeping Beauty and the Beast. We know Minna managed and accompanied her, as she is repeatedly mentioned in accounts over the next few years.


Happy New Year C 1905-6    Flohm on Wanda 20 April 1907 SMH

Left: Prosit Neujahr! Happy New Year! A Georg Gerlach postcard c 1905. Courtesy Jean Ritsema.
Right: Bertram Flohm advertising himself and profiling his work with Wanda – Sydney Morning Herald 20 April 1907. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

In 1904-5, Wanda trained under Bertram Flohm, a young elocutionist who had won the first ever Ballarat Royal South Street Championship for speech and drama in 1898. Flohm had quickly established himself in Sydney as a “Lecturer on Vocal Physiology and Elocution at Theological Institutions; Teacher of Elocution for Stage, Pulpit, Platform and Bar.” Clearly Wanda became one of his star pupils. By March 1905, Flohm was hosting a farewell concert for Wanda – she was about to leave with her mother to pursue a career in Europe. Indeed, she spent some months there and performed in Berlin and Vienna.
in late 1905, Oscar Klein, a jounalist for Berlin’s Bühne und Brettl wrote the following of “little Radford. She sings English, but how! … The 8-year-old girl, brunette with black fiery eyes, performs like a mature woman. Graceful in every movement, even refined in her facial expressions. I am not usually a fan of the Wunderkinder, but Angelika [another performer] and Radford, the smallest soubrettes on the world’s stages, fascinated me and delighted the audience to the highest degree.” 

Wanda also appeared at the new Apollo Theatre in Vienna in late 1905. But one could be forgiven for thinking Wanda performed on her own, as Australian newspaper reports suggested. In fact, she was part of a variety called the Liliput Circus, and was one of a number of juvenile performers appearing at the Apollo.


The Fatherland Nov 16 1905  Wanda 1906

Left: Ben Tieber’s Apollo Theatre, advertising in Das Vaterland (The Fatherland). 16 November 1905. Via Austrian National Library ANNO Newspapers.
Right: Wanda Radford in a very early postcard, c 1906. Society of Swedish Literature in Finland,
National Library of Finland, Via Europeana Collections

A correspondent from the Chicago Tribune who saw her perform in early 1906 wrote “I had an opportunity to hear the bright black-eyed little woman recite …from Romeo and Juliet, in a manner full of dramatic warmth, understanding and intelligent conception…” In May 1906 she travelled with her mother to London, and she spoke publicly of those she had met in Germany who encouraged her – including socialite Madam Kirsinger of Berlin and later, Australian soprano Nellie Melba. Late in 1906 she appeared for Beerbolm Tree in the title role of a stage version of Oliver Twist, in what British newspapers described as “a wonderfully natural and pleasing style”, “her clever acting and clear enunciation” evoking the “warmest admiration.”

Minna Radford, clearly an early believer in the concept that “all publicity is good publicity,” passed all these compliments on to the Australian press. The story that Wanda was to give Princess Victoria Louise (the Kaiser’s daughter) acting lessons, that first surfaced in Australia on 16 March 1907, and then a few days later in the London Sketch, also appears to owe itself to Minna’s efforts to write home with all the good news. It was endlessly repeated in Australia, Britain and even the US, a country which Wanda would not visit for another 20 years. (see Note 1, below)

Reporting of Wanda’s experiences shifted continually over the next few years, suggesting a degree of tension over work, study and what she could really manage as an adolescent. Her “temporary retirement” from the stage was announced several times – in May 1907 and again in March 1909. But then, she was always soon back on stage again, reciting and singing, in Germany and England and from 1910, reportedly studying at the Paris Conservatoire. Bad luck might have really dogged her career – in July 1911 Minna wrote to Australia of Wanda performing for W.S. Gilbert and his high opinion of her talent. But sadly, Gilbert had suffered a fatal heart attack in May and his active support of her career was not to be.

In 1910, a dramatic new series of photos of Wanda appeared. Gone was the little girl with carefully “ragged” (curled) hair. The photos of adolescent Wanda, looking dreamy and wearing not much more than cheesecloth, had widespread circulation. And Wanda was now being described “as unquestionably the most beautiful girl in Australasia.” (Alone amongst papers, London Tatler later corrected the misinformation about her age. She was only 14 when the photos below were taken). She was reportedly studying in Paris in 1911-12, but a breakdown in her health was announced in February 1913, and another temporary retirement from the stage occurred.


GGCo825   GGCo824    Wanda Radford in 1910

Above: Some of the photos of Wanda that appeared in 1910.  Left and Centre; Georg Gerlach postcards via Jean Ritsema. Right: This Gerlach photo appeared in many newspapers in Britain and the US. This copy is from The Goodwin Weekly, Salt lake, Utah, 31 December 1910. Via newspapers.com.

Perhaps the most unequivocal exposure of the conflicting forces in Wanda’s life appeared in 1914. In February and March, Minna wrote to South Australian friends, requesting they start a fund to support Wanda. Minna’s letter explained “I thought you might get up a little fund for Wanda. She is a South Australian and surely there are some rich people there who will not let such a talent as Wanda has, be lost for the want of funds. . . .  A lady gave me £10 to buy a new artificial foot*, but I had to spend it on Wanda: I could not see her want.” (*Minna apparently had some type of disability). The call for subscriptions appeared in Adelaide’s Register newspaper in May and June, countersigned by old family friend Mrs Caroline Dove, the wife of very well-known Anglican Archdeacon George Dove. Mrs Dove had also raised a public subscription for Wanda several years before.

Soon after, Wanda’s father Randolph, now managing the popular inner city Adam’s Tattersall’s Hotel in Pitt Street, Sydney, wrote to the paper to express “surprise and regret” that the subscription had been raised and asking it to be cancelled. “Sufficient funds” were being sent to Minna and Wanda he explained.

Sons of Satan
Above: What has happened here? Unfortunately we don’t know. Wanda playing Winifred West (left) in a scene from Sons of Satan, made in 1915. Moving Picture World Jan-March 1916. Via Lantern

In 1915, a year after the outbreak of war,  18 year old Wanda, living in England again, turned to the cinema. The London Film Company was a newly established British production company, and Wanda appeared in three of their 1915 films, using the stage name Blanche Bryan. The films were Sons of Satan,  the four-part “slum drama” The Man in the Attic and The King’s Outcast. Unfortunately, none of these films are easily found today. However, we know the “detective thriller” Sons of Satan was well received, with Wanda in the leading role as Winifred West. In the film, Winifred and her boyfriend Lord Desford manage to thwart an evil gang of villains. Wanda appeared in a final British film in 1918, using her own name.

Wanda Radford in 1926 The Home

Above: Wanda Radford in 1926. The Home. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove

But Wanda’s interests changed again – she did not pursue a career on stage or in film. In 1920, she was credited with designing some of the costumes for Gladys Unger and  K. K. Ardaschir’s musical Sunshine of the World, which played for a month at The Empire Theatre. She had become a skilled artist and dress designer, as became clear on her return to Australia in mid 1923. She soon found work as an artist and illustrator – much of her work appearing in The Home magazine, and was active in Sydney’s Society of  Artists.

wanda art for The Home 1 Jan 1927     Cover the Home Vol 6 No1 1925

Above:  Wanda’s art. Left A Wanda Radford illustration from The Home, Vol 8, No 1, 1927. The caption is “Pathetic instance of lady who has applied patent lip-shaped stamp in ignorance ( or deliberately regardless) of the author’s kindly warning”.
Right – Cover of The Home  Vol 6 No 1, 1925. Via The National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Wanda was reputedly also one a small group of “clever women” who Sydney’s Sun newspaper reported were drawing high salaries – in her case as a designer for David Jones department store.

Clearly talented in theatre and as a designer-artist, Wanda Radford left precious little of her own commentary on her life for historians, and her motivation for leaving the stage is still shrouded in mystery. But when she travelled back to the UK via the US in 1928 she made observations that leave us some clues. She said she loved the United States for its “youthfulness, where youth is given every opportunity for self-expression, as contrasted with the laggardness of European countries.” In this comment to the Boston Globe,  she was perhaps explaining why she chose to end her European stage career.

After her mother’s death in London in the mid-1930s, she returned to Sydney, where she died in 1982. She had no children and this writer has been unable to find a husband or partner. She described herself in official documents as a journalist or artist almost to the end of her life and lived comfortably in an apartment overlooking Sydney Harbour. That she was not interviewed by Australian journalists anytime in the last forty years of her life is regrettable.

 

Nick Murphy
February 2020

 


Note 1:
Regarding Wanda’s lessons for the Kaiser’s daughter in early 1907. The author has not yet found a German source that confirms this. However, any trip Wanda took from Britain to Germany to do this at the time it was reported (March 1907) must have been quite short. She was performing again in London on 1 May 1907.

Note 2:
Regarding Wanda’s escape from Germany in 1914. In September 1915, the Sydney Sun devoted space to a long account of Wanda’s escape from Germany on the outbreak of war. Unfortunately, it is also difficult to verify this, as the account does not appear in print anywhere else.

Note 3:
An actor by the name of Blanche Bryan was performing on stage in the US in the 1910s. She is unrelated to Wanda.

 

Special thanks to

Jean Ritsema in Jackson Michigan, who kindly prompted me to research this worthy and forgotten Australian. She also kindly translated some German documents. Thank you again Jean.

Pearl Nunn is a PhD candidate who has previously done some research on Wanda. I have never communicated with her but found her light digital footsteps through the web very helpful – thanks Pearl.

 

Further Reading

Text:

  • Joy Damousi (2010) Colonial Voices: A Cultural History of English in Australia, 1840-1940. Cambridge University Press.
  • Margaret Maynard (2001) Out of Line: Australian Women and Style. University of NSW Press
  • J. P. Wearing (2014) The London Stage 1920-1929: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Newspapers.com

  • Chicago Tribune 29 April 1906
  • Boston Globe 4 June 1928
  • The Goodwin Weekly 31 December 1910

The British Newspaper Archive

  • The Era – Saturday 15 December 1906
  • The Graphic – March – June 1929 for samples of her illustrations produced in the UK

National Library of Australia’s Trove

  • The Evening News (SA) 11 Dec 1906
  • The Evening Journal (SA) 16 July 1906 (Note: This is a reasonably accurate account of her life to July 1906)
  • Sydney Morning Herald 20 April 1907
  • The Register (SA) 8 July 1911
  • The Sun (NSW) 26 Sept 1915
  • Sydney Morning Herald 15 May 1920
  • The Sun (NSW) 20 March 1927.

The British National Portrait Gallery hold one photo of Wanda, taken by W. Walter Barnett in the early 1910s. See it here

The Dictionary of Sydney holds a photo of Wanda at the 1926 Sydney Artists Ball, (although she is mis-identified. She is almost certainly standing on the left, not the right) See it here

Europeana Collections

  • Berliner Börsenzeitung – 2 February 1908 (Berlin Stock Market Newspaper)

Austrian National Library – ANNO Austrian Newspapers online

  • Das Vaterland 16. November 1905
  • Allgemeine Sport-Zeitung: Ausgaben 1905

Lantern Media History Digital Library

  • Moving Picture World Jan-March 1916.

Hathi Trust Digital Library

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