First-born child May Nevin and the China trade soapstone vase/ brush washer

May Nevin (baptised as Mary Florence Elizabeth Nevin, 1872-1955) was born a fortnight before the great Glenorchy landslip which destroyed houses, farms, businesses and streets and tore boulders and vegetation from the slopes of Mount Wellington. She was born on 19th May 1872  and died to the day exactly 83 yrs later on the anniversary of the great landslip, on 4th June 1955. She was the first child born to Elizabeth Rachel Day and Thomas James Nevin who were  married at the Wesleyan Chapel, Kangaroo Valley (Hobart) on July 12, 1871. May was born at Thomas Nevin’s studio, The City Photographic Establishment, 140 Elizabeth Street, Hobart. She died in 1955 and was buried within the denomination of the Church of England at the Cornelian Bay cemetery.

May Nevin’s soapstone vase/brush washer
Photo © KLW NFC Imprint Private Collection ARR 2003-2015

May was the child who witnessed the expansion of her father’s commercial studio practice in the early 1870s to include his commissions with the Hobart City Council’s Lands and Survey Department and the Hobart Municipal Police Office working in prisons. She was the child whose father was also a police photographer and whose uncle Jack (John Nevin jnr) was a Constable at the Cascades and Hobart Gaols. Her education was significantly enhanced by ready access to the world’s newspapers and books held in the Public Library, housed within the Hobart Town Hall, when her parents took up residency there on her father’s appointment to the civil service in 1876.

In a sense, May Nevin was the beneficiary of her grandparents’ military and merchant navy careers. Her maternal grandfather master mariner Captain James Day served in Australian and international waters for many years from the 1830s until his death in 1882. Her paternal grandfather John Nevin snr served in the Royal Scots from 1825-1841 in the West Indies and at the Canadian Rebellions. He arrived at Hobart as warden of Parkhurst boys on the Fairlie 1852 with his wife Mary Ann nee Dixkson, the parents of  May’s father Thomas James Nevin snr, of her uncle Jack (William John Nevin), and her aunts Rebecca Jane Nevin and Mary Ann Nevin. Thomas, Jack, Rebecca and Mary Ann were all under 12 years old on arrival in Tasmania.

May also inherited her parents’ cultural interests and memorabilia. She lived long enough to witness the trajectory of her father’s career from young photographer to police agent to civil servant to horse trainer, and saw as well the arrival of six more of her siblings. She saw the arrival of her siblings’ children who knew her as great aunt May, and saw the arrival of their children in turn, who knew her as great great aunt  May. In 1955, her wake was held in the big house at the property 23-29  Newdegate Street, North Hobart, where her siblings George, William, and Albert also had resided from the 1920s, soon after their father Thomas’ death in 1923. The house contained many beautiful objects and furniture pieces dating from the mid 1870s, including the China trade soapstone vase/brush pot (pictured below). Her wake in the big house was attended by the grand daughters of her siblings Minnie Drew nee Nevin, her youngest sister (1884-1974) and her youngest brother Albert Nevin who died in the same year (1888-1955. The longest survivor of all of May’s siblings was Minnie Drew, born as Mary Ann Nevin in 1884. Minnie Drew died in 1974, aged 90 yrs. See this article for photographs and details of her siblings, children of Elizabeth Rachel Nevin nee Day and photographer Thomas J. Nevin.

May Nevin never married. She inherited her looks from her father’s side of the family rather than from her mother’s side (tall and thin, the “cornstalk” look). Rumours were that she was a cross-dresser, but that might have been an occupational hazard. Her occupation on the Denison electoral rolls in 1905 was listed as “dressmaker”. The “fur” jacket her young sister Minnie is wearing in this photograph, and which May is wearing in the two photographs below, one in her old age, the other with her Axup cousins, was probably her own creation from rabbit fur. It was passed down the female line too, but was tossed out in the 1960s, unlike the soapstone vase/brush washer.

May Nevin’s closest friends were her cousins, the Axups. They were the daughters and sons of Mary Sophia Day, her mother’s sister who married mariner Hector Axup in 1878 at the Wesleyan Chapel, Kangaroo Valley, Tasmania. A few photographs of May Nevin survive, held in the Shelverton Collection, the Axup-Davis Collection, and the private collections of Albert Nevin’s descendants.

This photograph (below) shows Thomas and Elizabeth’s youngest daughter, Minnie Drew nee Nevin on left (b. 1884, so she would have been 55 yrs old here ), and their eldest daughter May Nevin on right  (b.1872, so she would have 67 yrs old here) – a difference of twelve years separated their births. Their cousin Eva Baldwin nee Axup second from right was six years younger than May Nevin (b. 1878, so she would have been 61 yrs old here) and six years older than Minnie Nevin. Their aunt Mary Sophia Axup was born in 1853 and died in 1942, a few years after this photograph was taken. She would have been 86 yrs old on this occasion, which was possibly the wedding of Eva Baldwin’s daughter Ella to Glynn Davis (1939). The Nevin sisters, who would have attended the wedding, posed here with their cousin Eva Baldwin and “Aunt Axup” as she was known, at the railway station on their way back to Hobart from Launceston.

[Above]:Minnie Drew nee Nevin on extreme left, youngest daughter of Thomas and Elizabeth Nevin, and her sister May (Mary Florence Elizabeth) Nevin, eldest daughter of Thomas and Elizabeth Nevin on extreme right, with their mother’s sister Mary Sophia Axup, second from left with her eldest daughter Eva Baldwin nee Axup, ca 1939
Copyright © KLW NFC Imprint Private Collection 2005 ARR.

[Above]: May (Mary Florence Elizabeth ) NEVIN (1872-1955), ca. 1952
Copyright © KLW NFC Imprint 2005 ARR.

[Above]:Mary Florence Elizabeth Nevin, known as May Nevin, second from right in fur coat.
From left: Mary Sophia Axup’s son Sidney Axup; behind him is his wife Emily Axup nee Tyson; in front of her is Sidney’s mother Mary Sophia Axup nee Day; next in the fur is Mary Sophia Axup’s niece May Nevin, (Thomas and Elizabeth Nevin’s eldest daughter),and extreme right is Eva Baldwin nee Axup, Mary Sophia Axup’s eldest daughter
Taken on the steps of St. John’s 15.07.1939 at the wedding of Ella Baldwin to Glynn (David) Davis.
Copyright © Private Collections of Davis and Axup descendants 2007 ARR

[Above]: Webshot with photo insert:
Burial record for May Florence Elizabeth Nevin 4 June 1955
Southern Cemeteries Cornelian Bay Tasmania

This beautifully carved soapstone vase/brush washer depicting a tranquil mountain landscape was passed down from Elizabeth Rachel Nevin nee Day to her eldest daughter May Nevin, who died in Hobart in 1955. From May’s estate it was passed on to her youngest brother Albert Nevin, who also died in 1955. It was then passed on from Albert Nevin’s wife Emily Nevin nee Davis who died in 1971. From her estate it was passed on to one of Albert and Emily’s daughters, who passed it on to her daughter – the present owner and great grand daughter of the original owner(now held in the KLW NFC Group Private Collection).

The vase/brush washer’s provenance may have been a gift from Elizabeth Nevin’s father, master mariner Captain James Day, on one of his voyages between 1830 and 1880, or even from her uncle Captain Edward Goldsmith. A very similar vase is held by John Davis and the descendants of Mary Sophia Axup nee Day, Captain James Day’s younger daughter. Both daughters – Mary Sophia and Elizabeth Rachel Day – were named as legatees in Captain Goldsmith’s will of 1869.

19th century China trade soapstone vase/brush washer
Original collection of Elizabeth Rachel Nevin nee Day (1847-1914)
Photography and vase copyright © KLW NFC Imprint Private Collection.
NB: These images are watermarked 2015.
These images are watermarked

Back of 19th century China trade soapstone vase/brush washer
Original collection of Elizabeth Rachel Nevin nee Day (1847-1914)
Photography and vase copyright © KLW NFC Imprint Private Collection.
NB: These images are watermarked 2015

Mary Sophia’s vase/brush washer was carved from a smaller chunk of stone than her sister’s. Each is unique though similar in conception and execution. The motifs are identical, although the watchtower/pagoda at top right on the larger vase is missing on this smaller one. Both feature hanging willows, trees in blossom, shady bamboo, tea houses perched precariously on paths at the edge of steep cliffs, a cloudy sky, and two separate self-contained pots carved deep into the chunk of stone, leaving the centre void except for the lattice between them. This stone is also light grey overall, but unlike the larger vase which has streaks of pink and dark grey, this one is shot through with pink and bright blue streaks which the carver expertly used to fashion into the theme’s motifs as the edges of paths, the tops of trees, and clouds.

19th century China trade soapstone vase/brush washer
Original collection of Mary Sophia Axup nee Day (1853-1942)
Photography and vase © John Davis Private Collection 2017
Copyright © KLW NFC Imprint 2017

These companion vases/brush washers may have arrived in Tasmania aboard a barque such as the Lufra which was built in 1870 for the China trade and bought by Captain Alexander McGregor in 1874. The barque “plied the Hobart-London route for 23 years, her [its] fastest trip lasting only 79 days” according to Dan Sprod, Victorian and Edwardian Hobart From Old Photographs, (1977 Ferguson).

State Library of Tasmania
Title: Clipper ship “Lufra,” 672 tons
Creator: Baily, Henry Hall, fl.1865-1880
Title: printed below image., Mounted size 31 x 38 cm.,
Notes: Believed to have been photographed by H.H. Bailey., Built in 1870 by McGregors Shipyard ; re-rigged as a barque in 1874 ; sold 1887 to L. Castellano of Naples ; broken up in 1905.
Location: W.L. Crowther Library, State Library of Tasmania

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