In search of Lydia Mortill (nee Клягина Лидия Александровна)

Hollick, Ruth 1920, Mortill, Madame W, from National Library of Australia
Hollick, Ruth 1920, Mortill, Madame W, from National Library of Australia

Recently I came across the article in Sydney Morning Herald written by Anne Summers on 29 March 2014 “Russian ballerina portrait still an unsolved mystery“. [1]

I read the article. I read the book “The lost mother.  A story of Art and Love” also written by Anne Summers.

I read all available articles about Lydia in Trove library (National Library of Australia).

The mysterious life story of Lydia Mortill is in my head day and night.

The author did a great research on Lydia Mortill, who she tried to describe and whose life she tried to trace in the book. But the author did not venture into Russian archives research. I decided to do it and see what I can discover.

Lydia Mortill is remembered through newspapers as a petite Russian woman, a “vivacious little person” with dark flashing eyes, dazzling teeth, always smiling.  She is claimed to be a Russian ballerina, who arrived to Australia in 1917 as Lydia Hardy, a widow of an Australian soldier Captain Dudley F. Hardy from Adelaide.

Russian name

First of all, I needed to establish her full Russian name. Her Australian vital records and newspapers record her as Lydia Klagin, Kliaguina, Kliagina Lydia Alexandrovna.

Her birth place is Orel, a town of 70,000 people (in 1897) 360km from Moscow. Her parents’ names were Alexander Klagin and Sophia Vasslenko (more likely Vassilenko).

I have tried different variations in Russian until I ran the surname together with the town name and discovered that there were many Klyagins from Orel gubernia/province before the Revolution of 1917.  The surname is rare so I hope to find something. There is nothing on Klyagina Lydia Alexandrovna (Клягина Лидия Александровна – full Russian name).  It looks like she left no traces in Russia before she left.  No one researched her dancing career or family’s ancestry.

Russian newspapers are not digitised, so I cannot find anything on her. The archives in Orel region are only starting to digitise the vital records.  It is a long way before I will be able to access the archive’s records online.  Unless I write directly to archive and request a search for her, which will be a costly exercise, there is no way of finding her.

Then I have a breakthrough.

Arts career

I am familiar and worked before with RGALI archive – Russian State Archive of Literature and Arts. I have mentioned it before on my Facebook page.

This archive has the personal files (or references) on people who were ever connected with Russian literature, art, architecture, music, dancing and left any impression on Russian culture.  I had many successes in this archive due to its electronic online search facility.  I enter Lydia’s surname Klyagin and find her file.

I discover that she was a student in 1910 at Stroganov School of Industrial Arts (Строгановское центральное художественно-промышленное училище) which is consistent with Lydia’s claim that she “attend the Strogonovsky College in Moscow in 1910 where she graduated with a gold medal for her studies in political economy” (page 244 of the book).

“Stroganovka” is the art school, where the students of no younger than 12 years studied for 5 years to become artists/painters/drawers.  There is no way she was able to get “the political education” at this school; however, this record explains Lydia’s love for paintings.

Later I found an article in Trove library about Lydia’s visit to Paris in 1927, where in her recount of this trip she noted that “for a month I studied painting under Shouhaeff[2] , whose classes are attended by students from all over the world”[3].  This is more likely incorrect as Vasiliy Ivanovich Shuhaev (1887-1973) finished Stroganov School of Industrial Arts in 1906 and moved to St Petersburg.  May be she studied with him?

In any case, it is obvious that she was “keenly interested in all the arts, especially music and paintings”[4]. She painted by herself and showed off her paintings at various Melbourne exhibitions.  Later she “abandoned her aspirations to be an artist and, instead, concentrated on being a collector”.

For now, I will try to get her record from the archive.

But how did Lydia became a ballerina/dancer?  I love everything about Russian ballet.  I am interested to learn about who were her teachers and where did she get her dancing education.

Learn more about Lydia in these articles – RGALI file and nobility.







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