Mirror with a Memory Exhibition, National  Portrait Gallery 2000

A new National Portrait Gallery of Australia is under construction in Canberra. No doubt the new spaces will display photographic portraits of convicts transported to Australia, as part of the country’s rich history of migration. How will the National Portrait Gallery handle issues of attribution? Will the contradictions of the exhibition Mirror with a Memory in 2000 be repeated?

MirroMemorylogo

The NPG staged an exhibition from 4 March to 11 June 2000 titled Mirror With A Memory: Photographic Portraiture in Australia (director: Andrew Sayers).

On page 16 of the Catalogue, under the heading Portraiture and Power, Helen Ennis wrote:

The exhibition also includes a selection of cartes-de-visite portraits of convicts from the Port Arthur penal settlement in Tasmania. Research by *Chris Long and Warwick Reeder has established that they were probably the work of Adolarious Humphrey Boyd, the Commandant at Port Arthur from 1871-1874, and a keen photographer.

Boyd’s documentation of the convicts is systematic. The photographs are in a carte-de-visite format, nearly always vignetted; each convict is set against a neutral background and is photographed in a three-quarter view, his eyes averted from the camera and from Boyd [note 45].

The photographic transaction expresses and reinforces the power dynamics of the relationship between the Commandant and his charges. Rarely is there any engagement between them or any sense of the subject’s investment in images of themselves that presumably they will never see.

[*] Neither Chris Long nor Warwick Reeder established this attribution to the Port Arthur Commandant A.H. Boyd, “probably” or otherwise. Their speculation about attribution has contributed nothing to the history of Tasmanian prison photography. The attribution to T. J. Nevin was established in 1977 without hesitation at the QVMAG which held a significant number of convict cartes stamped by Nevin, although several since seem to have vanished or been lost. Helen Ennis’ later NLA publication Intersections (2004) clearly attributed the Port Arthur convict cartes to T. Nevin.

Helen Ennis’ “power dynamics” discursive turn of post-modern critical theory now looks dated, and of course, it carries no factual information whatsoever. Far from a lack of “engagement” between sitter and photographer, Thomas Nevin knew convict Michael Murphy (to cite ONE example) from the voyage out on the Fairlie in 1852. Both were boys. Nevin was accompanied by his parents and siblings as free settlers, Murphy was transported as a Parkhurst boy. Murphy was released from the Hobart Gaol in 1876. These are facts. Notice how the writer shifts the modality of uncertainty – “probably the work of … Boyd” – to the modality of certainty – “eyes averted from the camera and from Boyd“. With this slippage and sleight of hand, the reader is seamlessly co-opted to the “belief” generated by Chris Long (1995:36).

Another fact to escape Helen Ennis was the attribution of the carte of convict Mumford to support her statements in the catalogue to the exhibition. It was taken from the National Library Collection and attributed to Nevin. The majority of the convicts cartes in the Mirror with a Memory exhibition, however, were borrowed NOT from the NLA in 2000 but from the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, where the A.H. Boyd attribution was derived from confusion generated by researcher Chris Long in the 1980s.

MumfordNLA

William Mumford, per Agusta [i.e. Augusta] Jessie, taken at Port Arthur, 1874. nla.pic-an24612787, Nevin, Thomas J., 1842-ca. 1922.

There were two exceptions, borrowed not from the TMAG but from the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery. Both were unattributed BECAUSE their versos were pasted to the prisoner’s record sheet, and dated to 1873 without explanation.

QVMAG items in the Mirror with a Memory exhibition:

1. Unknown photographer Henry Harris, criminal record, loose sheet c. 1873 albumen silver photograph on printed sheet 6.0 x 9.0 on sheet 22.0 x 34.5 Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, Launceston

2. Unknown photographer Edward Wilson, criminal record, loose sheet c. 1873 albumen silver photograph on printed sheet6.0 x 9.0 on sheet 22.0 x 34.5 Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, Launceston

The exhibition displayed images from the list below, including these two vignettes held at the Archives Office and correctly attributed to Thomas Nevin:

30-3261cHarrisonalsoTMAG 30-2023cJamesMartin

Convicts Harrison & Martin
AOT, photographed at Port Arthur by Thomas Nevin
Ref: 30-3261c James Harrison; 30-2023c James Martin

Checklist for MIRROR WITH A MEMORY with wrongful attribution

Mirrorlistconvicts

A.H. Boyd was not a photographer, and not THE photographer of Tasmanian prisoners at Port Arthur in 1874. The National Dictionary of Biography dates his vacation of the office of Commandant to the end of December 1873. His final departure from the position was early February of 1874, although still on government pay, leaving Dr John Coverdale to take over sooner than his official appointment date of April 1, 1874.

Convict records in 1871 show 271 inmates at the Port Arthur site, but by 1873-4 many had already transferred to the prison and other locations in Hobart (AOT Guides to Convicts & Mitchell papers, Manuscripts B5, SLNSW, viz):

Title : Convict Department – Separate Prison Reports, 1867-1871
Creator : Tasmania.
Convict Department
Date of Work : 1867-1871
Some entries note, “Discharge to Hobart Town”, implying that the prison is elsewhere in Tasmania.There are pin holes evident in the pages indicating that there were additional notes and papers.Volume was bound in July 1933
David Scott Mitchell Collection. Prisons — Tasmania — Port Arthur. Call no. : B 5

As these transferees arrived from 1871 onwards at the Hobart Town Gaol, their records were updated, their photographs taken and pasted to their record sheet. The photographer printed his stamp on the verso of several of these cartes – “T. J. Nevin, Photographic Artist, 140 Elizabeth St. Hobart Town” – and included the government Royal Arms insignia of the lion and unicorn rampant which appeared routinely on Police Department documents – but the majority were left blank. Those stamped verso by Nevin were used to register joint copyright under the terms of his commission.

The inscription and date “Taken at Port Arthur, 1874” is therefore misleading, although Nevin was at the site on May 8th of that year, and had photographed the prison personnel there between 1865-1873. The photographs of Tasmanian prisoners, whether transportees incarcerated at Port Arthur, or “native” local offenders, were taken over a period of years by Thomas Nevin, possibly with the assistance of his partner Samuel Clifford, but especially with his brother Constable John Nevin at the Hobart Gaol. The Sheriff’s Office held the prisoners’ records at the Gaol and others were held at the office of the Administrator of Charitable Relief (within the Chief Secretary’s Department), but in 1887 the Deputy Sheriff complained of their filthy condition and asked that they should be entirely under the Sheriff’s care. The bulk of the records were still in the custody of the Sheriff when they were transferred to the State Archives in 1951. John Watt Beattie acquired several records bearing photographs for his Port Arthur museum in Hobart ca. 1915 with the demolition of the old photographers’ room at the Hobart Gaol.

The handwritten inscription “Taken at Port Arthur” and the date “1874” on the verso of several extant convicts’ cartes which have no identifying photographer’s stamp is in a style later than the 1870s. Someone has written this date on the verso of these cartes decades later, probably at the Beattie studios and convict museum from ca. 1900 onwards where they were exhibited before Beattie turned over the collection to the Launceston Council which then transferred the tonne of his convictaria collection to the Queen Victoria and Art Gallery in 1930. In the 1980s many of these “original” convict cartes bearing the date “1874” on verso were distributed piecemeal from the QVMAG to the TMAG (1987) the NLA (1982) and the Archives Office of Tasmania which also holds a dozen originals acquired from Radcliffe’s museum, The Old Curiosity Shop, at Port Arthur (1930s). The Archives Office dates some of these cartes between 1870 and 1872.

The attribution to Thomas J. Nevin in modern times was founded on sound judgement and thorough research by the curator of the Convicts Portraits exhibition in 1977 at the QVMAG. In the 19th century it was common knowledge that Nevin worked with police as both photographer and bailiff, reported in the weekly police gazettes and the newspapers of the day.

A.H. Boyd was not a photographer. No photographs exist which bear his name as photographer. There is no evidence he even held a camera. Hearsay is not evidence. The “belief” and “interpretation” by Chris Long in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery publication Tasmanian Photographers 1840-1940: A Directory (1995:36) proffers guesswork, supposition, aesthetic and subjective tastes, non-sequiturs, and lack of knowledge of the curatorial and publication history of the Nevin attribution, but no factual evidence which can be substantiated, validated, proved, or even considered logical to support attribution to A.H. Boyd. The same applies to Warwick Reeder’s discussion of these cartes (ANU thesis 1995:70). Reeder’s discussion is descriptive rather than speculative, confused and inconclusive, and his biographical information regarding Thomas Nevin is seriously inaccurate. His segue into a discussion of Nevin and the QVMAG holdings of their convict cartes alerts the reader to the fact that the “belief” in A.H. Boyd originated with Chris Long:

Chris Long was the first to suggest that they [Port Arthur cartes 1874] might have been taken by A.H. Boyd.

Why were they misled? The cargo of photographic glass (288) allegedly ferried to Port Arthur in July 1873 was the red herring. Chris Long made a simple calculation which convinced him that convicts were photographed there: 288 plates, 271 convicts. However, by 1873 there were only 109  inmates of the criminal class at the prison: many had already transferred to Hobart from 1871 onwards (Mitchell papers on Separate Prison records). By July 15, 1873 a total of 60 prisoners of the 109 prisoners sent from the Hobart Gaol to Port Arthur since 1871 had already been relocated to Hobart, as stated by Attorney-General Giblin in Parliament on that date. Thomas Nevin and Samuel Clifford may have used some of these same glass plates to photograph a small batch of prisoners at Port Arthur in 1873, but it is highly unlikely. The prisoners were photographed, bathed, shaved and clothed on arrival back in Hobart, the transfer being completed by October 1873. Without the use of onsite photographic facilities at Port Arthur,  both photographers would defer photography until the inmates’ arrival in Hobart.

The government schooner’s cargo lists do not record the plates returning to Hobart in any quantity, although a Mr. Clifford (or Gifford?) is shown returning to Hobart on board the schooner Harriet on December 1st, 1873 with some very large boxes. Most of the plates might have been sent back to Hobart, some unused, some broken and defective, but there is evidence to suggest those plates never left Customs in Hobart. When Nevin printed the cartes from his glass negatives in his City studio and at the Gaol studio, he even printed some with  hand-colouring: two of these are held at the National Library of Australia. Nevin’s mobility to and from the Tasman Peninsula was faciliated by his father-in-law, master mariner Captain James Day. Several Candahar transportees were at Port Arthur in the 1870s, but Nevin’s photograph of Candahar convict Appleby which survives in the NLA Collection was taken at the Supreme Court on July 4th, 1871, the first of the many prisoners photographed at the Gaol adjoining the Supreme Court after or awaiting trial.

The presence of photographic equipment in government stores doesn’t make Boyd a photographer. Samuel Clifford – Thomas Nevin’s senior as the photographers “Clifford & Nevin” – might have been the passenger Mr Clifford who travelled on the same trip as the cargo of 288 photographic plates to Port Arthur on July 30th 1873 . Clifford has left a photographic record of his visits in images of the Government Cottage, the Church, the surrounding landscape, and so on. A large collection called The Clifford Album is held at the State Library of Tasmania with many photographs dated exactly to 1873. Commentators should look at these original documents and note what other cargo accompanied the photographic materials -drinking glasses, red bunting and braid etc – supplies for official functions attended by visiting dignitaries (eg the Governor of South Australia). To order 12 gross of photographic plates says more about the frustrations of early photography when significant waste, breakage, and errors were the norm.

You have to wonder at the logic of these commentators – photohistorians in particular – who wish to write out of the official records a professional photographer such as Thomas Nevin, whose association with these convict photographs cannot be disputed, and write in an accountant such as A. H. Boyd who has no reputation or body of work as a photographer, none whatsoever.

Essentialist ideas about ‘authorship’ are dear to photohistorians, despite a flirtation such as Ennis’ with postmodern theory. ” The author is dead” was the post-modern mantra of the 1980s, remember, so why did they pursue A. H. Boyd with an attribution? Unwittingly, several repeated Chris Long’s and the TMAG’s error in book publications, which is one explanation, and it is an error which is not easily undone. Because of professional jealousy, is another explanation. The attribution to Nevin as photographer of the Tasmanian convict photographs was the work of John McPhee, whose reputation and publications – of the highest standard in Australia – other photohistorians can only envy. His latest publication, titled simply Joseph Lycett ~ Convict Artist, recently published by the Historic Houses Trust of NSW (2006) is a sumptuous and meticulous work.

LycettWellington

Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery Collection
Ref: AG291
ITEM NAME: watercolour:
MEDIUM: watercolour, watercolour on card,
MAKER: Joseph Lycett [1775 – 1828] [artist];
TITLE: ‘Mount Wellington near Hobart Town, Van Diemen’s Land’
DATE: 1823c