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


Introduction / Processes / Holtermann / Merlin / Bayliss / Iconography / the Plates / Bibliography


When, in March 1904, I came to Sydney with my parents from Christchurch, New Zealand, we stayed for a while at Mrs Baird's boarding house, 'Romaka', on the heights above Lavender Bay. At the end of the same street to the west, stood the buildings of the Sydney Church of England Grammar School. These clustered around the mansion with a high tower and purposeful stone pinnacles which was for long a prominent Harbour landmark.

Some years later, as a pupil at the school, I learnt that the house and the tower had been built by a wealthy and 'eccentric' gold-miner, Bernard Otto Holtermann. The appositeness of the first adjective was obvious from the tower itself; as to the second, we found out that the circular stained glass window half-way up the tower was a realistic representation of the gentleman himself, in shirt-sleeves and fancy vest, standing with the nugget which had contributed to his wealth.

The tower was out-of-bounds, but through my membership of the photographic society which had been allotted a small room near the foot of the tower for darkroom practice, I was among the few boys who were able to see the window from the inside. Camera Club members were also permitted to take photographs of the view from the tower and I duly secured a very fair seven-frame vista with my postcard Kodak. I cannot recall thinking for a moment that perhaps there had been other panoramas taken from this vantage point.

Forty years later, the existence pf Holtermann's tower was to re-enter my life rather more dramatically. By this time, I had become associate editor (and later editor) of the Kodak magazine for advanced amateurs, The Austualasian Photo-Review. In 1943, by way of adding variety to the contents of the journal, we adopted a policy of featuring articles dealing with early Australian photographers and their work. For this major undertaking many people cooperated; in addition to myself, there were my wife Iris, our second son Quentin, Vyvyan Curnow (A.P.-R. staff writer), Jack Cato, and E. A. Robertson.

This worthy project received something of an impetus when A. H. Chisholm agreed to my suggestion that his new Australian Encyclopedia include amongst its entries the history of Australian photography and that Jack Cato be invited to compile the material. Jack Cato not only accepted the invitation but went on to persuade a publishing firm to commission him to write a history of Australian photographers, The Story of the Camera in Australia (Melbourne, 1955).

In the meantime, The A.P.-R. had printed about thirty illustrated historical articles. In the process many important collections had been located, and in some instances preserved, and their content discussed and identified.

Some of the more notable photographers thus brought to public notice were W. S. Jevons M. P. Moresby (England), Dr Robert D. Ward (first resident physician north of the Harbour) and Professor John Smith (First Professor of Chemistry, University of Sydney), all of whom were keen wet-plate amateurs during the late fifties of last century. Two professionals who flourished in the eighties were Charles Kerry (Sydney) and J. W. Lindt (Melbourne).

My personal interest in the history of Australian photography has continued to the present day, and in my capacity, over the last ten years, of consultant in photography to the National Library of Australia, 1 have managed to ensure the preservation of a large number of collections, together with supporting documentation, books and magazines. It is hoped that the present work will play a part in bringing to notice other examples of our photographic heritage.

In I951, a survey of photographs in the Mitchell Library brought forward the name of Bernard Otto Holtermann who was catalogued as being responsible for some panoramas of the Harbour, marked 'Holtermann's Views'. On enquiry to the then Mitchell Librarian, Phyllis Mander Jones, I was told in a letter of 22 November 1951 that she had presently heard that the plates of photographs taken by old Mr Holtermann may be in the possession of Mrs M. C. Holtermann of 15 Thomas St, Chatswood'.

It appeared that Mrs Holtermann was the widow of B. 0. Holtermnnn's youngest son (Leonard) and that she still held her father-in-law's photographs. They were safely preserved in a garden room, but the room had remained locked for many years. After some delay, a key was obtained through the cooperation of her son Bernard Holtermann III, and the room disclosed its long-hidden treasures.

It was an incredible sight : neat stacks of cedar boxes of various dimensions, each with slotted fittings which had held the large negatives in perfect preservation. And there were the actual negatives of the huge 1875 Harbour panorama, noted in all the records of photography as being the largest ever taken by the wet-plate process. A number of enamelled iron boxes, not so carefully designed, contained a vast clamber of smaller negatives.

To locate such treasure is one thing but to interpret its potential is quite another. The larger negatives recorded a series of well-photographed, but more or less conventional, views taken around Sydney and the mid-western N.S.W. country towns; then the scene moved to Melbourne, Ballarat and 2 other Victorian provincial towns.

The smaller glass negatives, 3¼" by 4¼" in overall size, represented an entirely different type of subject matter. These were scenes photographed in a small mining settlement (or settlements). The photographer had covered every aspect- shops looking strangely theatrical, homes of every conceivable construction, and mines both small and large.

Most important of all both series were negatives and could be directly enlarged. In this held one normally encounters faded prints of which the images can be restored only partially and then at considerable expense. The problem was one of identification. All that we had to begin with was the general assumption that, as the material had been preserved by Holtermann, it was likely to relate to Hill End, the town which was the source of his fortune.

A preliminary survey showed that this was correct for about half the subjects; the remainder had been taken at a very deferent settlement on a plain, clearly far from the steep slopes of the Turon. The first clue came with the identification of a chemist's shop bearing the sign 'Mudgee Drug Store'. As Mudgee had never been a gold-mining town, we sought a 'rush' in the Mudgee district -and so it was not very difficult to decide upon Gulgong, about eighteen miles away.

Later there was found the well-known 'Gulgong Dispensary' picture which is reproduced on every ten dollar note. Who made all these mining pictures?

A few cartes-de-visite showed the name, elaborately designed and lithographed, of the American and Australasian Photographic Company, overprinted with the signature 'Beaufoy Merlin' ; later we were to learn that Merlin had on his staff a talented assistant, Charles Bayliss.

These Hill End and Gulgong subjects represented the last of many thousands of exposures which these same photographers had made in Victoria and in eastern N.S.W. at an earlier period, when they were operating a travelling outfit, based on a horse-drawn coating caravan. So thoroughly had the party organised its photographic coverage that it is possible to reconstruct the two towns exactly as they were in the year 1872, a year which represented the heyday of both settlements.

As the photographs were studied, it was as though a window he'd suddenly opened, disclosing in the minutest detail an intriguing panorama of human activity precisely as it existed at an important period in Australian history. Eventually it was established that the other negatives, those of 10'' by 12 (and larger) in the slotted cedar boxes, had been taken by the same photographic team, but not for regular retail sale.They were subjects specifically photographed to the instructions of Holtermann for exhibition overseas in order to show the progress that had been made in the Australian colonies and thus to encourage emigration.

As for the procedure used in interpreting the photographs: the answer is by no means simple and my adventures in this direction would almost make a book by themselves, and were in fact described in a short article I wrote for Australian Photography (October 1969) entitled 'solving Old Photo Mysteries' in which I explained how six or seven important photographs had been persuaded to tell their special stories. There is no royal road here. Apart from experience gained from a lifetime spent with photography and early photographs, I am fortunate in having some familiarity with the various photographic processes which have been used in this country since 1842.

There is a brief technical outline of these processes following this introduction. Of course, with the Merlin subjects, we had excellent modern enlargements for scrutiny and in these the best detail could be examined with a magnifying glass. Almost every photograph had far more to over than might be thought, although sometimes months or years would elapse before the full implications of the detail were apparent.

Many shop photographs included narrow sections of buildings next door to right and left and these fragments could be studied in company with general street views which showed the whole run of premises. Familiarity with the actual ground was rewarding and sometimes quite exciting; my wife and I made many stimulating visits to both regions, checking the few existing buildings or standing thoughtfully in front of the sites of those which had long since vanished.

Valuable, too, was the compass and observation of the movement of sunlight which provided information about the direction in which a particular building was facing, while the time of the year was sometimes deduced from the appearance of deciduous trees. And of course one had recourse to directories, files of newspapers and recollections published in local histories.

For the survival of an early photographic collection of this calibre, several near miracles are necessary - a talented photographer in the first place, the safe-keeping of his work over a long period, and finally its notice by someone able to appreciate its value — or only too often have collections, especially negatives, been consigned to the nearest rubbish tip or merchant in glass for greenhouses.

An immense amount of information about Australian social and pastoral history was lost when the major portion of the lifetime's work of Charles Kerry (1858-1928) and his expert staff met exactly this fate.

On the other hand however, when some assistants at the University of Sydney were instructed to clean out and throw away the debris from some cupboards, they had sufficient intelligence to inspect the 'rubbish' and were thus able to save the priceless negatives of Professor John Smith, some of which depicted the building of the university's Great Hall and the Tower.

The Hill End and Gulgong negatives were in the size or format known as carte-de-visite, measuring about 2¼'' by 3½". Despite the name, it was only in their very early period in the late series that they were likely to have been used for visiting card purposes.

The popularity of the cartes, which ruled the world of professional photography for two decades or more, has led to them being dubbed a 'craze', but no term could be more misleading. They were not some folly of the moment but the means of bringing the new reproductive art to a world hungry for inexpensive personal photographs. There had of course been photographs before them but they were comparatively costly studio portraits and each called for a separate sitting.

The cartes quickly escaped from the bounds of the studio and the public supplied with pictures of their homes, beauty spots, portraits of theatrical and concert artists, copies of old masters and religious subjects.

If the reader is astonished at the perfection and beauty of the photographs in the present volume, Beaufoy Merlin would have been considerably more surprised. Enlarging was unknown in his day; if a big photograph was required, it had to be taken in the desired size. Enlarging was not possible until the introduction of bromide paper many years later.

The unique nature of the Collection should be stressed. Although the world's great libraries and museums hold vast numbers of photographed there are very few intense coverages of a single event or period of time. Some groups do come immediately to mind : Roger Fenton's coverage of the Crimean War and Matthew Brady's immensely detailed recording of every phase of the American Civil War — but these were major events rather than the life of ordinary people.

Eugene Atget's amazing photography of Paris is probably most comparable with the Hill End — Gulgong Collection. Ten thousand exposures have been preserved revealing a Paris which has long since gone. Atget's work was mainly confined to the people if the streets, to the lives of the petit bourgeois.

The work of the brothers Freeman is largely preserved in truly impressive examples of portraiture, but the models were almost entirely drawn from 'society' life in the Sydney of their day.

The Merlin subjects are very different. Featuring the daily round of people caught up in the gold rush, people from every walk of life and from almost every country in the world, they reveal a period of Australian history which was brief but of immense importance. The gold rushes lasted only a few decades, but they changed the life of the country entirely.

For two decades my wife and I have lived with these people of the photographs until they have become as familiar to us as the faces of old friends. However often they are regarded, their images retain a pristine quality as though the normal dimensions of time and place no longer applied. That pause before the lens was to them just a matter of staying still for a few seconds and then relaxing to go about their own fairs in their homes, trades or shafts. But those few seconds were to mean much more to us.

From the first tentative surmise followed a thousand questions. Some of these have been solved in the present volume, but many more remain unanswered and one could wish for a universal lens, 'the comprehending eye upon the whole'. Yet light breaks through from many unexpected apertures.

Clearly it was not an easy life for anyone, but that life does not appear to have robbed these people of the dignity so evident in their bearing. These are free men drawn together by a common purpose, that of searching for gold, and all were in some way dependent upon the success of that search. Yet the calm eyes look out, showing little trace of the feverishness usually associated with the earlier gold rushes; Hill End and Gulgong stand as examples of settlements which were really communities in the true sense of the word, with each member contributing his special skills to the benefit of all.

From their long night, when they lay negative in darkness, they have been brought out positive into the light of a later day. It is hoped that the presentation of this selection will lead to a greater appreciation of early photographs both for their sociological content and implications, and for the immediate pleasure of coming face to face with our past as though a mist had lifted from our country's early mornings.

>> continues (Processes)

Introduction / Processes / Holtermann / Merlin / Bayliss / Iconography / the Plates / Bibliography

>> see also A. P-R.  1953

The text and notes to the plates: copyright © Keast Burke 1973

The original GOLD AND SILVER plates were taken from the Holtermann negatives, Mitchell Library Sydney.


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