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Tilly Losch papers and artworks

Identifier: BUSC-2014-001


Ottilie Ethel Leopoldine Herbert, Countess of Carnarvon (née Losch; 1903–1975), known professionally as Tilly Losch, was an Austrian dancer, choreographer, actress and painter. A graduate of the Vienna Opera Ballet School, Losch worked with Max Reinhardt for productions such as of A Midsummer Night's Dream (1927) and The Miracle (1932).

The Tilly Losch collection consists of incoming and outgoing correspondence as well as legal documents, banking records, personal memorabilia, diaries, engagement books, press clippings, photographic portraits, and publicity photos. The collection also includes a large number of loose sketches, sketchbooks, and personal memorabilia and more than 500 of her paintings, many dealing with autobiographical themes. The collection loosely spans the years 1910-1975. The major portion, however, represents materials she accumulated during the many years she lived and worked in America, roughly from the 1930s to the time of her death in 1975. The bulk of this material pertains to her post-dancing career, when she was active as a painter, model and socialite, although numerous photographic studies document her dancing and film career as well.

The largest portion of the collection comprises incoming and outgoing personal correspondence with family and friends, as well as business and legal correspondence. Correspondents include European and American artistic, literary, theatrical, and social personages, some well known in their day. The arrangement is alphabetical for incoming correspondence and topical for outgoing correspondence. Newspaper clippings regarding her career as dancer, actress, painter, model and socialite from the 1920s on are also arranged topically. A subsequent portion of the collection contains primarily photographic portraits and is arranged alphabetically by photographer and production. Finally, a large number of working sketches, sketchbooks and finished paintings as well as assorted memorabilia in no particular order or sequence comprise the collection. The paintings, being of varying sizes and shapes, are stored separately.

The Tilly Losch collection represents a valuable resource for both practitioners and historians of twentieth-century arts and culture. As an important figure in the world of classical and modern dance, her career illustrates many aspects of the large-scale intellectual and cultural migration from Europe to American from the 1920s to the 1940s. While her earlier dancing career is closely associated with Max Reinhardt's theatrical enterprises, she also adapted successfully to the new world of Broadway musicals and Hollywood films. Her biography and career reflect the successes and tribulations that European émigrés faced in America, as well as the process of cultural transmission and the enrichment they brought to American artistic life.


  • Creation: 1907 - 1991
  • Creation: Majority of material found in 1930-1975


Biographical Note

Ottilie Ethel Losch, born in Vienna on November 15, 1904, was the daughter of Otto Emil and Eugenie (Dreucker) Losch. From her first dance appearance at the age of six, she grew up in the embrace and discipline of the Vienna Imperial Opera ballet school. Encouragement from Opera Director Richard Strauss led to important roles and opportunities for further study. She became a full member of the ballet corps at the unusually young age of fifteen, and by the time she was twenty was one of Vienna's most popular dancers. She made appearances as chief ballerina, gave solo recitals in Paris, Prague and Budapest, and developed a reputation for innovation and modernism. On occasion, she also performed minor dramatic roles at the Burgtheater. It was at this time that she received an invitation from acclaimed theater director Max Reinhardt to dance the role of First Fairy in his 1927 Salzburg Festival production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, an event which opened a new chapter in her career. In the course of that momentous summer, Max Reinhardt, then at the pinnacle of his fame, asked the young dancer to join select members of his Berlin and Salzburg ensembles for an upcoming guest tour in the United States.

While visiting America had long been a dream, strict contractual commitments to the Vienna State Ballet precluded any sort of independent career. After her request for an extended leave of absence was denied, she reluctantly resigned from the Vienna Ballet and traveled to New York City with Reinhardt's troupe for a highly successful 1927-1928 theater season. This tour was an important political as well as cultural event, since it marked the first official visit to America of a German-speaking theatrical group since 1914. Relying on his instinct for recognizing new talent, Reinhardt asked Ms. Losch to choreograph as well as dance for these productions. Never having choreographed before, she was understandably overwhelmed when the renowned German theater director requested that she arrange all the dances for A Midsummer Night's Dream. “You can do it—talent is talent!” Reinhardt reassured her. Indeed, she did it so well that she was asked to choreograph the dance sequences for other tour productions, such as Everyman and Danton's Death.

In later life, Tilly Losch acknowledged that she had been fortunate in having received the necessary support for her dancing, acting and painting efforts early on. Again, it was Reinhardt who encouraged Tilly's acting ability by casting her in the lead role of the Nun in his 1932 London revival of Vollmoeller's mystery play, The Miracle. Moreover, changes were made for this production specifically to accommodate her talents. Tilly was given the only spoken lines in the play, The Lord's Prayer, which she uttered with great pathos just before her character died and the curtain fell.

Tilly Losch's choreography held many elements in common with the directorial style of her mentor, Max Reinhardt. In the process of creating dance forms, she first immersed herself totally in the music. As she listened with her “inner” ear, dreamlike movement sequences began to take visual form. Figures in her mind moved in response to the music, generating kaleidoscopic patterns seen first in the imagination before being worked out concretely in detailed steps. She favored the human component in artistic production and allowed her dancers considerable leeway to develop their own feelings about the music and articulate their individual styles. She expected to make choregraphic changes during rehearsals once the dancers had learned their steps and began to improvise artistically. Herself a dramatic dancer, Tilly created dances with sweeping dramatic themes and tended to focus more on the emotional significance of the dance for artist and audience alike than on accurate steps and flawless technique.

While dancing at the Salzburg Festival during the summer of 1927, another of Tilly Losch's dreams came to fruition. She had caught the eye of English impresario Charles B. Cochran, who at the time managed some of the great names in the world of entertainment. Cochran signed her on the spot for a series of dance appearances the following spring, and her career was about to take off in new directions. She made her London debut in Noel Coward's musical review, This Year of Grace, in 1928, and the following season appeared in Charles B. Cockran's revue, Wake Up and Dream, in which she choreographed and starred in several ballet and dance numbers,. Among them was What is This Thing Called Love (choreographed by George Balanchine), which became one of Cole Porter's most popular songs. In the New York production, she also performed a solo number entitled Arabesque, or Dance of the Hands, set to music by Ravel, which found particular favor with New York audiences.

In America, Tilly Losch was kept busy choreographing the ballet for The Gang's All Here (1931) and dancing in the company of Fred and Adele Astaire in The Bandwagon (1931), during which she wore out a $50 pair of handmade ballet shoes at each performance. She made repeated trips to England to perform in Reinhardt productions, and danced in Johann Strauss' Die Fledermaus at Covent Garden, with Bruno Walter conducting. In the early 1930s, she was featured in several memorable dance recitals with actor Harald Kreuzberg at New York's Columbus Circle Theater. These avant-garde performances showcased the artistic modernism then prevalent in Central and Western Europe for New York audiences. Her first husband, financier and collector Edward James, who befriended both Salvador Dali and René Magritte, created several notable dance productions expressly for her, particularly Les Ballets 1933. Although having only a short Paris run, Les Ballets 1933 had a seminal influence on American dance because it featured collaborators such as composer Kurt Weill, singer Lotte Lenya, and choreographer George Balanchine, all of whom would go on to make a profound impression on American culture.

Another of Tilly Losch's triumphs lay in Bertholt Brecht's The Seven Deadly Sins in her creation of Anna II, the dancer, next to Lotte Lenyas Anna I, the singer. She danced with the Russian Ballet under George Balanchine, where she shared the post of premiere danseuse with Tamara Toumanova, and also performed in Goyescas with the Ballet Theater. Deeply involved in dance most of her life, she once commented that she never considered it work but rather a labor of love. In England she had appeared in straight dramatic roles as well—Everyman, Danton's Death, and Goldoni's The Servant of Two Masters. At this time her personal popularity was said to equal that of Sarah Bernhardt in her prime. French poet Jean Cocteau called her the greatest performing artist since Eleonora Duse, who at the end of a distinguished acting career had made notable guest appearances during the first decade of the twentieth century in Reinhardts Berlin theaters.

Hollywood film producers, too, were impressed as much with her exotic beauty as with her dancing and acting ability. She made several brief but promising screen appearances—as a dancing girl in The Garden of Allah (1936), Lotus in The Good Earth (1937), and a Native American dancer in Duel in the Sun (1946). Her stamina was legendary, as when she did over 300 retakes of her energetic dance routine in the course of two days shooting of Duel in the Sun. She also choreographed the Hollywood film, Song of Scheherezade. Despite receiving fabulous salaries for these roles, she was not particularly happy in the Hollywood dream factory. She recalled that it was a lonely, isolated life, with countless artists competing against each other for fame, all caught up in the “great American game of promise” and relying on fine words that rarely translated into action.

Disenchanted, Tilly Losch returned to the East Coast, where she danced briefly with the American Ballet, did summer stock in Connecticut, and landed an occasional role on Broadway. Following a lengthy illness and recuperation at a sanitarium in Davos, Switzerland, she discontinued her dancing career, but soon felt the need for expression through another artistic medium. Having first tried her hand at watercolors, she began to paint seriously when other artists working on her portrait encouraged her to take up this endeavor fearlessly and without regard for consequences. Her prime mentor in this instance was John Spencer Churchill, Winston's nephew. Her initial attempts resulted in a series of self-portraits in oil; she also painted likenesses of Anita Loos, Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya. Further encouragement and support came from celebrated British writer and designer Cecil Beaton, who likewise advised the fledgling artist not to let obstacles and adverse criticism stand in her way. The first one-person exhibition of her paintings, held at New York's Bignou Gallery in the spring of 1944, revealed an artist of considerable grace and skill somewhat reminiscent of the French primitivist school, with a hint of Grandma Moses. Art critics noted that she captured on canvas some of the fluid and rhythmic aspects of dance, evoking a mystical sort of romanticism that has been referred to as “evocative magic” and “a gift of divination.”

Her paintings have overt autobiographical significance and often feature dancing themes. She did not use live models, but rather started from a preconscious dreamlike state in which imagined or half-remembered figures emerge—sometimes happy, often somber—and unpredictably burst into movement on her canvases. The backgrounds of her paintings, too, represent dreamed-up vistas or landscapes out of her past—old Imperial Vienna, postwar deprivation in the Austrian Republic, waning aristocratic England, the effects of war on children. Saga in Five Movements allegorically portrays every woman's life in five discrete stages. Out of My Life reveals a series of evolving sketches—children dancing in the street, adolescents responding to awakening adult emotions through dance, and mature female figures on a gallows and stretched upon a cross. One painting in this series entitled Adam and Eve in New England portrays a boy and girl seeking but at the same time evading one another. Religious longings, too, pervade these works, as when the Virgin of Mariazell offers to shelter humanitys children in her wide blue robe of grace.

Tilly Losch's paintings were purchased over the years by various arts organizations including the Tate Gallery in London, Philadephias Barnes Museum, the Sam Lewison Collection in New York, the Leonard C. Hanna Collection in Cleveland, the Maitland Collection in California, the C. Bliss Family, as well by as individual collectors, such as Ina Claire, John Gunther, Thornton Wilson, Conger Goodyear, I.V. Patchevich, George S. Kaufman, and Paul Mellon.

Tilly Losch's first marriage to Edward James ended contentiously in 1934, when she sued for divorce but lost, amid great scandal. In 1939, she married the Sixth Earl of Carnarvon, son of the discoverer of King Tutankhamen's tomb. Almost overnight, Tilly Losch from Vienna became Lady Carnarvon, an English Countess. Her close friends at one time were the Sitwells, Cecil Beaton and Pavel Tchelitchev. Ten weeks after the wedding, she left England for the safety of the United States. Her newly acquired social status proved to be of great advantage in American society and in the furtherance of her career. The marriage did not survive wartime dislocation and separation, and ended in divorce eight years later, although the couple seems to have remained on cordial terms.

Tilly lived out her remaining years commuting between London and New York, where she died of cancer in 1975. The Earl of Carnarvon was among only a handful of mourners at her modest Catholic funeral service. In her will, Losch named the Max Reinhardt Archive at the State University of New York at Binghamton as the recipient of her artwork and left the disposition of her personal and professional papers to the discretion of her executors. The executors gifted some of these papers to Binghamton in the years following her death. The Max Reinhardt Archive and its associated additional donations including the Losch collection are now part of the Binghamton University Libraries' Special Collections.


18 Linear Feet : Paintings and other artworks stored separately.

Language of Materials