Keast Burke
photographer, photo historian, editor of the Australian Photo-Review

 

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Beaufoy Merlin

Gold And Silver (Australasian Photo-Review #3 1953)

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Gold and Silver

By Keast Burke

Being the story of the association of Bernard Otto Holtermann with Beaufoy Merlin and with Charles Bayliss and of the photographic collection which resulted therefrom.


"In the great days of the gold rushes, many a photographer left behind studio and darkroom to join in the great search - but sure Holtermann must have been the only gold-miner who neglected his gold-mining in favour of photgraphy. He can be ranked perhaps as Australia's first and greatest amateur of photography, using that word in its original French sense. He liked the art for its own sake yet reallsed perhaps more than he knew, its great documentary potentialities. Furthermore, he did not hesitate to spend a vast sum upon a great series of photographs designed to convey to the world at large the story of the colony's extraordinary material progress. He believed that by doing so he could, in some small measure, repay his adopted landfor the many favours it had conjurred upon him."

JACK CATO

The quotation is from some unpublished mss. by Jack Cato in connection with his forthcoming work "The Story of the Camera, in Australia."

 


INTRODUCTION

On one fateful day during the winter of 1922, two distinguished Egyptologists stood outside a doorway in Egypt's famed Valley of the King. For them it was an anxious moment, knowing that that doorway had been sealed for three thousand five hundred years. Would this be just another disappointment?-with nothing disclosed but a few discarded trifles left behind'in haste by some early tomb-robber?

The two were not to know that soon they would be gazing in awe and in rapture upon a storehouse of ancient cultural treasures the like of which the world had never before seen.

Some thirty years later two Sydneysiders were destined to stand outside a small suburban backyard shed; it had been locked for more than a generation, its contents almost forgotten, its key long since lost. Their anticipatory feelings were hardly on the same plane as their predecessors but at any rate there was to be no doubt as to the eventual value of their discovery-the dramatic revelation of a life and culture almost as forgotten as Tutankhamen's.

Here, neatly stored in fitted cedar boxes were incredible numbers of negatives, records that were in due course to disclose every detail of the lives of our gold-fields pioneers-the men, the women and the children, their homes, their business enterprises, and their mining shafts, the populous towns and larger cities.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Of all the arts of mankind, that of the photographer is inevitably both the most lasting and the most perishable. Marble and canvas possess some degree of physical strength but the cameraman must entrust his treasures to perishable paper and film or fragile glass. An oil painting is likely to be treasured as an heirloom or possible "Old Master," but only too often are old photographs "just old photographs" to someone charged with "tidying-up." Occasionally Fate intervenes, as she is also so apt to do in the lives of mortals, but seldom has she been so watchful as in the present instance; those who have followed this story since its inception still have some little difficulty in believing that it is all true, that this marvellous thing can possibly have happened-and the reader may well share that view. It is a long story and one dependent on many, many fortunate coincidences-each one more astonishing than the preceding. But of all these happenings we recognise as the most important the part played by photographer Beaufoy Merlin.


Chapter One       Beaufoy Merlin

Of Beaufoy Merlin we wish we could tell more than we can. After eighty years the written records have become scanty. We have his portrait, made perhaps a year before his death; it shows a sensitive, artistic nature, yet one not lacking in purpose and driving force. Above all, we have his life's work - or, at any rate, a substantial portion of it. The images carried on those thousands of carte-de-visite wet plate negatives show that he was a born photographer, one who combined an excellent technique with a documentary outlook that is astonishingly "modern" by to-day's view. One thing is certain, and that is Merlin's photography was not just a matter of "bread-and-butter"; he was a born artist and one who always gave of his best.

Henry Beaufoy Merlin was born in 1830, the son of an English chemist by name Frederick Merlin - the Beaufoy being perhaps his mother's maiden name; by the time he arrived in Australia he was nineteen years of age. Of his young manhood we know little, but it can be suggested that his interest in photography arose from the family association with chemical science, for in those days almost every chemist dabbled in photography. That interest may also have been reinforced from another quarter.

There is a strong family tradition of association with Ballarat, and it is certainly a fact that there were Merlin families living in that city as far back as the mid-fifties. The Post Office Directory for 1868 shows an entry for T. Merlin, Photographer. It may well be that these folk were relatives and that they afforded hospitality to young Beaufoy when he first landed.

He appears to have established himself as a field operator under the trade-name of the American & Australasian Photographic Company and to have travelled throughout Victoria. On these trips he made numerous records of the scenery, but his specialty seems to have been house-by-house photography. The scheme was to give a few day's notice to the householders of the area so that they could array themselves, ready for the camera, in their 'Sunday-best.'

In 1863, then being thirty-three years of age, he married Louisa Elliott Foster and there were four children of the marriage, all of whom appear to have had interesting and adventurous careers-but that is another story.

Our first documentary information regarding Merlin comes from a Vice-Regal letter still in the possession of family descendants. As was the custom of the photographers of those days, he had presented the Governor of Victoria, Sir John Henry Manners-Sutton, with an album of photographs, and it is clear that this letter of acknowledgment is no perfunctory routine, but one of real appreciation. The date is October, 1869, and it shows Merlin to have been well established as a travelling photographer; of value to us is the fact that it refers to Merlin's plans for the extension of his sphere of activities to other parts of Australia.

Government Offices,
Melbourne.
7th April, 1869.

Dear Sir,
I am directed to convey to you the thanks of His Excellency the Governor for the very handsome book of Photographs which you have presented to him, and which he especially values as containing so many interesting views of the places which he visited in his tour through the Western District last year.

The Governor desires me to request that you will let me know the name of your agent in Melbourne through whom His Excellency may be able to procure copies of the views which you propose to take in other parts of Australia.

Faithfully yours,
(Sgd.) J. S. ROTHWELL,
A.D.C
.


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