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Hedwig E. Pillitz

(London 1896-1987)

Tai Ai-lien (1916-2006), in a floral dress, c.1939  *RESERVED*

oil on canvas

signed lower right ‘PILLITZ’

50.5 x 40 cm.


From the artist’s estate.


London, The Rowley Gallery, 140 Church Street, W8, c.1939;

London, Royal Academy, Summer Exhibition 1940, Gallery No. II, no. 101 as ‘Ai Lien Tai’, c/o The Rowley Gallery.


London, Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 1940, pp.14 & 130.

This iconic portrait of the “Mother of Chinese Modern Dance’, Tai Ai-lien (also known as Dai Ailian) was painted by Pillitz around 1938-39 towards the end of the sitter’s time in London, where she had lived between 1931-1939, whilst studying dance with the European dance ‘greats’. Her portrait was exhibited by Pillitz the following year at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition in 1940, after Tai had moved to Hong Kong.

Tai had come to London in 1931 aged just fifteen, to study with Antony Dolin, of the Ballets Russes, as well as with Marie Rambert and Margaret Craske. She also joined the classes of Lesley Burrows-Goossens, one of the few modern dancers teaching in London at the time and won a scholarship to the Jooss Modern Dance School after it relocated to London. There, she learned the theory and techniques developed by Rudolf von Laban, later becoming an enthusiastic exponent of ‘Labanotation’ in China.

Tai was actually born ‘Eileen Isaac’ to a third-generation Chinese family in Trinidad, whose origins were in Xinhui, Guangdong Province, and only assumed the name Tai (also ‘Dai’) when her teacher Anton Dolin asked for her Chinese name, and her mother suggested Tai after her father’s nickname, Ah Tai (Ah Dai).

In London, Tai was inspired to create and choreograph her own imagined Chinese dances, and was given a small role as a Chinese Dancer in the film, ‘The Wife of General Ling’, which today provides the only archival recording of Tai’s dancing from her time in London.

After reading Edgar Snow’s ‘Red Star Over China’, she was inspired to move to Hong Kong, where she premiered her dance, ‘East River’ to raise funds for the war effort against the Japanese invasion. She soon moved to mainland China, where she made it her mission to study Chinese folk dance and opera. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Tai was made deputy director of the Central Song and Dance Ensemble, and in 1954 was elected Principal of the new Beijing Dance Academy and Director and Adviser to the Central Ballet of China.

Tai created dances with a strong national identity, including ‘Dance of Lotus Flowers’ (based on a Shaanxi folk dance) and ‘Flying Apsaras’ (inspired by the Dunhuang murals), both now classics of 20th-century Chinese dance. With a hiatus during the Cultural Revolution between 1966–1976, it wasn’t until the 1980s that Tai regained her place and due influence in Chinese dance.

Hedwig Pillitz was born in London to Hungarian Jewish émigrés, Arpad Armin Pillitz (1867-1947) and Josephine, née Fischer (1876-1965). She had two younger siblings, Doris (1905-1959) who became a successful stage actress, and George (1909-1981). They lived at 80 Canfield Gardens in South Hampstead, and it was there that the girls attended South Hampstead High School. By the 1920s Doris was studying drama at the Central School of Speech & Drama and Hedwig had exhibited works at the Paris Salon. It’s logical to assume that she may well have studied art in Paris. In 1924 she exhibited her first portrait at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, a portrait of ‘Madamoiselle Y’, possibly depicting the portrait photographer Yevonde (Yevonde Philone Middleton, née Cumbers (1893-1975)).

By 1926, Hedwig not only had a painting at the Paris Salon, she was also exhibiting a still life of flowers at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. Nonetheless, portraits seem to have been her passion. She established her studio at 29 Abercorn Place in St. John’s Wood, painting a range of Bohemian and artistic sitters – fellow artists, writers, actors and models, including Marguerite Kelsey, a professional artist’s model most famously painted by Meredith Frampton (Tate Britain), the artist and novelist Barbara Comyns (with FEFA), Shulamith Shafir, a Ukrainian-Jewish concert pianist who made her London debut in 1936 aged just thirteen (Private Collection), and the actress Dorothy Black (V&A, London). By 1940, when Pillitz exhibited the portrait of Tai Ai-lien at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition, she was represented by The Rowley Gallery on Kensington Church Street, London.

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