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Tea cup ballet

circa 1935


Olive Cotton


11 Jul 1911 - 27 Sep 2003


'This picture evolved after I had bought some inexpensive cups and saucers from Woolworths for our studio coffee breaks to replace our rather worn old mugs. The angular handles reminded me of arms akimbo, and that led to the idea of making a photograph to express a dance theme.

When the day’s work was over I tried several arrangements of the cups and saucers to convey this idea, without success, until I used a spotlight and realised how important the shadows were. Using the studio camera, which had a 6 ½ x 4 ½ inch ground glass focusing screen, I moved the cups about until they and their shadows made a ballet-like composition and then photographed them on a cut film negative. The title of the photograph suggested itself.

This was my first photograph to be shown overseas, being exhibited, to my delight, in the London Salon of Photography in 1935.' Olive Cotton 1995 1

Olive Cotton and Max Dupain were childhood friends and, although she graduated in English and mathematics from the University of Sydney in 1934, her interest in photography led her to work in Dupain’s studio from this year. Cotton was employed as a photographer’s assistant in the studio, however she worked assiduously on her own work and continued to exhibit in photography salon exhibitions. ‘Tea cup ballet’ is one of Cotton’s most well-known photographs and yet it is somewhat eccentric to her main practice, being at first glance typically modernist with its dramatic lighting and angular shapes. Her longstanding interest in organic forms provides a deeper reading. The abstraction of form by the lighting and the placement of the cups and saucers enables the relationship to dancers on a stage to become clear.

1. Ennis H 1995, ‘Olive Cotton: photographer’, National Library of Australia, Canberra p 25

© Art Gallery of New South Wales Photography Collection Handbook, 2007



circa 1935

Media category


Materials used

gelatin silver photograph


37.3 x 29.6 cm image; 38.0 x 30.2 cm sheet

Signature & date

Signed l.r. sheet., pencil "Olive Cotton". Not dated.


Gift of the artist 1980


Not on display

Accession number


Artist information

Olive Cotton

Works in the collection


Shown in 10 exhibitions

Exhibition history

Referenced in 12 publications


Judy Annear, Photography: Art Gallery of New South Wales Collection, 'Australian modernism', pg.131-149, Sydney, 2007, 137, 141 (illus.).

Edmund Capon, Olive Cotton, 'Foreward', pg.4, Sydney, 2000, 4, 16, 20, 22, 24 (illus.). 7

Deborah Edwards, Sydney moderns: art for a new world, 'Ultra-moderne: 'Implement blue' and 'The Lacquer Room'', pg.148-153, Sydney, 2013, 152 (illus.), 184, 203.

Janet Hawley, Artists in conversation, 'Olive Cotton', pg. 394-403, Richmond, 2012, xxiv (colour illus.), 395, 398, 399, 400, 401.

Bruce James, Art Gallery of New South Wales handbook, 'Australian Collection: Australian Photography', pg. 198-207, Sydney, 1999, 203 (illus.).

Gael Newton, Australian Art Review, 'Photography, Towards a dialogue with other media', p42-46, Rozelle, 1982, 43 (illus.).

Masterpieces of Australian Photography, Twentieth Century Photography, Sydney, 1989, 142, 143 (illus.). 246

Soft shadows and sharp lines: Australian photography from Cazneaux to Dupain, Sydney, 2002. no pagination or catalogue numbers

Review: works by women from the permanent collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, The Photography Collection, Sydney, 1995, 17 (illus.).

Seeing is believing: the art in photography, Sydney, 1985. 12

AGNSW Collections, 'From Colonialism to late Modernism', pg. 7-106, Sydney, 1994, 39 (illus.).

Great collections, Sydney, 2008, 100 (colour illus.).