Tamara Karsavina painting
'Tamara Karsavina, ballet dancer of the Ballets Russes' by French painter Jacques Émile Blanche.

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A group of wealthy donors have now given the picture of Russian ballerina and teacher Tamara Karsavina (1885-1978) to the Royal Academy of Dance after purchasing the work at a Christie’s online auction.

Karsavina was a founding member of the Royal Academy of Dance in London and is regarded as the ‘mother of modern British ballet’. The RAD syllabus was first constructed by Karsavina in 1954.

Tamara Karsavina, ballet dancer of the Ballets Russes (1928) is by French painter Jacques Émile Blanche.

The group that clubbed together to purchase the painting as a gift are The Linbury Trust, Lord and Lady Sainsbury of Preston Candover, Sir Simon and Lady Robertson, Mr Roger Harrison and Mr Kerry and Mrs Dimity Rubie.

It was purchased for a hammer price of £48,000 (£60,000 including buyer's premium) at a Christie’s online sale running November 26-December 10, 2020 when it was estimated at £20,000-30,000.

It is the second painting of Karsavina by Blanche. He previously painted her in the role of The Firebird. That painting is now housed in the Paris Opera, where the ballet premiered.

The painting which has been given to the RAD is of particular significance, as there are very few paintings of Karsavina not in ballet costume.

Karsavina coached other stars including Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev.

Tamara Karsavina and Margot Fonteyn

Ballet teacher Tamara Karsavina coaching Margot Fonteyn in the role of The Firebird. Photo by Douglas Elston, 1954.

Although dated 1928, the RAD has reason to believe that this portrait may have been painted earlier, between 1910-12.

It was given by Lady Mary Stewart Evans to English dance teacher Roger Tully in 1977. It was then owned in the family, by descent until it was offered at auction last year.

The RAD will open a new headquarters in Battersea in autumn 2021 and the picture will be unveiled to the public there.

Lady Anya Sainsbury CBE, of The Linbury Trust, said: “A friend of mine, Suzanne Gielgud, got in touch and said that a beautiful portrait of Tamara Karsavina, which she had seen before in her friend Roger Tully’s house, was due to go on sale at Christie’s.

“Suzanne thought I would be interested and she was right, when I saw the painting I was absolutely ravished by it. However, I felt that it should go somewhere where more people would be able to see and enjoy it. I knew of Karsavina’s connections with the Royal Academy of Dance and I realised immediately that it should be acquired and given to the RAD for their new headquarters.

"I phoned Luke Rittner and in no time, we had together a wonderful group of people whose energy, enthusiasm and contributions made this a reality. I couldn’t believe how quickly everything happened.”

Tamara Karsavina in 1929

Tamara Karsavina in Russian dance costume in 1929. Dress by Gontcharova. Photographer unknown.

Born in St. Petersburg, Karsavina’s early career saw her dance with the Imperial Ballet alongside her celebrated rival dancer Anna Pavlova, before appearing with the distinguished Diaghilev ballet in 1909 as ‘perhaps the greatest of Russian dancers’. She came to London, joining the founding committee of The Association of Teachers of Operatic Dancing of Great Britain – which went on to become the Royal Academy of Dance.

A hugely influential teacher across the world of ballet, her ‘Karsavina Syllabus’ devised for the RAD in 1954 is still taught to students on ballet teacher education programmes.