Sideshow Alley: Infamy, the macabre & the portrait

NPG Ned Kelly Death Mask 1880Bushrangers, oddities, true crime and scandal come together in a new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery featuring a modern day cabinet of curiosities in Sideshow Alley: infamy, the macabre and the portrait until 28 February 2016.

Exploring the exploitation of convicts, criminals and the disreputable for public entertainment in Australia during the nineteenth century, Sideshow Alley re-tells tales of criminal and institutional savagery in Australia’s colonial settlements and considers the tension between the idea of portraiture as a means to edify, refine and elevate the sensibility of the populace, and the popular thirst for the lowbrow, the cheap, the tacky and the ghoulish in portraiture.

The exhibition transports us to a time when crowds surged to see the laid-out bodies of outlaws, competing to tear out scraps of their hair and beards; and a photograph of a corseted matron, posed against a pillar no less rigid than she, might be stuck in the family album alongside a photograph of a defunct bushranger, propped up with gun in hand to menace the populace even in death.

Sideshow Alley brings to life a time when lithographs, woodcuts and waxworks of men in their direst moments attracted just as much interest as the monumental representations of explorers and statesmen that set the official tone of the age.

Intrigued by this time in history, Curator Joanna Gilmour has created an exhibition that will simultaneously captivate, repulse and amuse the inquisitive minds of visitors.

“Featuring a spooky and sometimes disquieting selection of portraits, Sideshow Alley maps the various ways in which artists, photographers and entrepreneurs used portraits of Australian convicts and criminals: the canny publishers trading in salacious prints and penny dreadfuls; the studios doing a brisk trade in portraits of heroes and villains; and the waxworks proprietors who, with their ‘Chambers of Horrors’, turned violence, scandal and misfortune unto a lucrative art form,” says Joanna.

“The range of works in the exhibition will be rich and fascinating, ranging from the satirical images of Botany-Bay bound convicts from the eighteenth century to examples of death masks, such as Ned Kelly’s, displayed to ghoulish and sensational effect in waxworks until the early twentieth century. In addition to the visual spectacle, visitors can delve into the dark, mysterious and often strange circumstances behind each portraits’ creation.”

Drawing extensively from the underbelly of the Portrait Gallery’s own collection, Sideshow Alley will also include fascinating, rarely seen objects from major public collections in New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania, as well as from those of the Old Melbourne Gaol, the University of Melbourne, the Victoria Police Museum, and the Justice & Police Museum, Sydney.

Sideshow Alley: infamy, the macabre and the portrait
National Portrait Gallery, King Edward Terrace, Parkes (Canberra)
Exhibition continues to Sunday 28 February 2016
Entry fees apply

For more information, visit: for details.

Image: Ned Kelly Death Mask, 1880