“In a New Light”: NLA Exhibition with Boyd misattribution

In November 2000,the National Library of Australia in Canberra exhibited 22 mugshots in carte-de-visite format from their holdings of 78 [84] of Tasmanian prisoner ID photographs which were originally and correctly attributed on accession into their holdings as the work of professional photographer and government contractor Thomas J. Nevin (1842-1923). The exhibition was called IN A NEW LIGHT: A Love of Order. The exhibition in summary form is still online.


Above: webshot of front page In A New Light: A Love of Order.
Below: the four cdvs included of “convicts” in the online exhibition.

This section online, called A Love of Order, which includes the four Tasmanian prisoner images above is fronted with the A.H. Boyd misattribution in this statement:-

In 1874, A. Boyd, the Superintendent at the Port Arthur penal settlement, embarked on a comprehensive documentary project—for official reasons presumably, he photographed all the inmates living at the settlement. Each man was photographed in exactly the same way, posed in front of a neutral backdrop and depicted from the same vantage point.

Clearly, nothing was offered to substantiate the claim that A. H. Boyd “embarked on a comprehensive documentary project—for official reasons presumably” since no evidence could be found to support it. A. H. Boyd did no such thing. Behind this statement lies the story about the Colonial Secretary of Tasmania requesting photographs from Boyd of the Gregson brothers who were working in a gang at the city Domain, not at Port Arthur,  when they absconded on January 9th, 1874 and were arrested at Launceston one month later. There is nothing in the memo from the CS to Boyd which indicates Boyd as the photographer of any prisoner, or indeed of any photograph in any genre, simply because he was NOT a photographer.

By January 1874, Boyd was no longer present at the Port Arthur prison. He was dismissed for embezzlement and stolen timber, and it wasn’t his first dismissal from public office. He had also been dismissed from the Orphan School under accusations of misogyny from the Ladie’s Committe. The Gregson brothers’ prison identification photographs, duplicates of those formerly held at the QVMAG, now at the TMAG, are also held in this NLA collection. They were taken by the police photographer Thomas J. Nevin at the watch house, Hobart Gaol, when the Gregsons were arrested in Launceston and conveyed by Page’s coach to Hobart. They were not photographed at the Port Arthur prison. As with the majority of men pictured in these prisoner mugshots, they were photographed at arrest and trial at the Supreme Court and Hobart Gaol as second offenders. They were known at the Hobart Gaol in their time as “Supreme Court Men” (Mercury 8 July 1882).

The National Library of Australia had acquired 68 (84 total in May 2010) of these prisoner mugshots (catalogued as Port Arthur convicts) by 1982, some from Dr Neil Gunson as archival estrays deposited in the 1960s, many from the QVMAG as T. J. Nevin’s duplicates, and some as John Watt Beattie’s copies made ca. 1916, also from the QVMAG. Some of the NLA’s copies were also held as copies at the Archives Office of Tasmania, as the letters and other documents at the NLA in Thomas Nevin’s Australian Photographers Ephemera File clearly indicate in 1982, yet they were not accessioned, exhibited or catalogued until May 1995, and when they were catalogued, they were attributed correctly to Thomas J. Nevin as photographer. A. H. Boyd’s name was never mentioned in Chris Long’s letters sent to the NLA in 1982 (Sprod MS), which included a general statement about the prisoner cartes-de-visite collection and a brief summary about Nevin’s work. But Chris Long is now regarded as the eventual perpetrator of the Boyd misattribution. See the NLA worksheets from Thomas J. Nevin’s ephemera file at the end of this article, and the weblog for these prisoner cartes at the NLA.

In 1976 at the Art Gallery of NSW and in 1977 at the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, Launceston, dozens of these Tasmanian prisoners’ photographs taken in the 1870s were exhibited and correctly attributed to Thomas J. Nevin. The curator’s press release stated that many of the men photographed in the 1870s had been transported as Parkhurst boys to Port Arthur. Few of these men had remained there. There was a constant coming and going of prisoners to Port Arthur during the 1860s. Men who were incarcerated there on transportation to Tasmania before 1853 served on average 7-14 years before being discharged. From 1871, only second offenders were photographed, and they were photographed at trial in the Supreme Court and Hobart Gaol BEFORE they were sent back to Port Arthur to serve a sentence. All but a few paupers and lunatics were still there in 1874: the majority of 200 or so were listed as inmates at the Hobart Gaol by Parliament in 1875, but because of the transcription written in the early 1900s on the verso of many cartes, viz. “Taken at Port Arthur 1874“, the idea that prisoner photographs were taken there has become set in concrete.

Of the 109 prisoners listed in the Nominal Return of prisoners sent to Port Arthur since the transfer to Colonial Government (i.e. since 1871), tabled in Parliament on June 11th, 1873, sixty (60) had already been received back in Hobart by that date; the remaining 49 were all relocated to Hobart by May 1874. Nowhere is there evidence that these men were photographed at Port Arthur. It is a mid to late 20th century view of the place as an Arcadian boot camp where the good ole’ bad boys tinkered away at their trade, like Santa’s shoe-making elves. The reality is that the men whom T. J. Nevin photographed were repeat offenders, habitual criminals, and recidivists whose criminal careers at large earned them a further sentence in the Supreme Court and a mugshot. Their mugshots were salvaged or selected from a much larger corpus of prisoner photographs and criminal records, now lost or destroyed by the Lyons government in the early years of the 20th century. They were saved on the basis of the man’s notoreity, and chosen for their photographic qualities as commercial items for sale to tourists. The idea that Nevin (or anyone else) might have photographed more than 200 prisoners solely at Port Arthur is an erroneous one and needs to be dispelled.

Beattie and Searle salvaged the extant photographs and glass negatives from the Sheriff’s offices at the Hobart Gaol. The old photographer’s room there was demolished in 1915 (reported in the Mercury July 1915). By 1916 Beattie was selling Nevin’s original prints in his “Port Arthur” convictaria museum located at 51 Murray Street, Hobart, reproducing them from the original glass negatives, all in the interests of commercial tourism. They were also displayed on touring exhibitions of convictaria aboard the fake convict hulk Success. The generic date “1874” and “Taken at Port Arthur” were both transcribed on the versos of so many of these cartes at that time, purely as a selling point to encourage tourism to the ruins of the Port Arthur prison on the Tasman peninsula. Neither the date nor location factually reflects the circumstances of each prisoner at their one and only sitting with contractor T. J. Nevin. When the QVMAG acquired the prisoner cdv’s from Beattie’s estate in the 1930s, they were exhibited amongst other convictaria from his “Port Arthur Museum” in 1934 in Launceston, and more transcriptions likely were added.

In short, Thomas J. Nevin’s original photographs (including his duplicates) of prisoners now in public collections were salvaged by John Watt Beattie from the Sheriff’s Office at the Hobart Gaol between 1892, when he assumed the position of government photographer, and around the date of the demolition of the old photographer’s room in 1915. The commercial potential was not lost on the Tasmanian government eager to promote Port Arthur as the State’s premier tourist destination. Had the prisoners ‘ identification photographs  remained intact and in situ, they would have been accessioned at the Archives Office of Tasmania as the supplement to the Habitual Criminal’s Register and the Tasmania Police Gazettes (known as Tasmania Reports of Crime Information for Police until 1884) which recorded on a weekly basis the subject of every photograph’s offense, sentence, and discharge.

Fortunately, the later police gazettes dating from 1890 and their photo books have survived intact at the AOT. The prison photo books of the 1870s have not survived. Once divorced from the police gazettes records and prison photo books, these earlier photographs from the 1870s lost their contemporaneous reference, and have been misattributed and misappraised as “portraits”, i.e. art objects by the public institutions which hold them. The terms and execution of Thomas J. Nevin’s prisoner commission were contractually and generically comparable to those of other professional photographers working in prisons, Frazer Crawford (1867, South Australia) and Charles Nettleton (1873, Victoria).

Between 1958, 1977, 1985 and 1987  the QVMAG catalogued their collection of these 1870s mugshots once again. More copies were made and distributed to other state and national institutions. The curator of the 1977 exhibition at the QVMAG sent an album of these photographs to the National Gallery of Victoria, which then found its way to the NLA. The record keeping at the NLA is such that no provenance is clearly stated on their accession sheet dated 1995. It would seem that if the event is not a personal memory of staff members, the event details are either lost when the staff member leaves, and worse, the event then never occurred, and that sad state of affairs underscores the mess the NLA has made of this collection.

The appearance of A.H. Boyd’s name on NLA documents occurred in 2000, scribbled on the original cataloguist’s worksheet of 1995. No staff member bothered to search the National Library’s own manuscript collections for original documentation on accession for the date and donor of the “Port Arthur convicts” collection.  If they had done their job properly, they would have seen Nevin’s name as clear accreditation and would never have countenanced the nonsense about Boyd. It would seem that the staff members responsible (eg Ms Sylvia Carr – it is her handwriting) had heard about or read (only a part of) Chris Long’s idle hypothesis, published in 1995 (TMAG), that Boyd might have taken official photographs of prisoners at Port Arthur. Even though Nevin is still accredited by Chris Long in that publication, he also seriously put forward the fantasy that Boyd, with no reputation in his lifetime as a photographer, and without a single extant work to his name, was the sort of amateur gentleman photographer who would apparently have the skills and equipment to pose his prisoners for a Sunday session of photography.

Chris Long offered no evidence to support his idle imagining: he did no research on individual prisoners who were the subjects of the photos; he used nothing more than a second-hand report that a photographic tent was returned to Boyd personally in April 1874 (the original document does not bear this out: i.e. Tasmanian Papers Ref: 320, SLNSW); and for no other reason than hearsay of a story that a Boyd descendant had seen cameras at Port Arthur (when? probably the late 1880s when the site was renamed Carnarvon and the tourism business was booming), he maintained the fiction until Nevin’s attribution became severely compromised. The Boyd descendant’s story was an unpublished children’s tale called “The Young Explorer”, delivered as a talk in the 1930s to a Literary Society, and submitted in typescript to the State Library in 1942 by E. M. Hall. It is generically FICTION: neither Boyd nor prisoner photography is mentioned in this children’s story, yet Chris Long and those who have cited this non-factual source proffer it as acceptable, historical fact.

Extraordinary as this abrogation of professionalism now seems, the NLA librarians also had to contend with Long’s “‘belief” used by photo historians who had referenced his published statements in their own publications. Helen Ennis, for example, an academic at the ANU, wrote the paragraph cited for this online exhibition, IN A NEW LIGHT, with the fuzzy nonsense about A. H. Boyd.

The questions have to be asked: why are these photo historians so interdependent, why are they so self-referential, why so presumptive, self-seeking of personal attention and why are they so lazy? Why does such an illogical and groundless fantasy take hold when the attribution to Nevin in the 19th century was common knowledge, and in the 20th century was validated with authoritative, curatorial and published history? When it comes down to pricing such a collection of inestimable value to the national heritage, messing around with hypothetical attributions to a non-photographer as was A.H. Boyd is hardly the way to increase incremental interest: the public does not deserve to be treated to such stupidity.

Had the NLA appraised these Tasmanian prisoner vignettes for what they are – police “mugshots” taken by a police photographer for the same reasons that police photographers take “mugshots” today – they would not have been seduced into treating these vernacular photographs as “portraits” or art objects interpreted through the prism of an art historian’s aesthetic gaze. Nor would they insist that a photographer’s stamp on the verso of these vignettes is vital to an attribution, as they now proclaim on each photograph’s full record. To expect police photographs to be accredited at all in similar manner to art photography bespeaks of ignorance or perversity. Nevin’s work was accredited and validated with rewards in the 19th century by those who employed him, whereas A. H. Boyd, an accountant promoted to Civil Commandant through nepotism, was accused of corruption in the parliament and the press, and disappeared from the police records soon after February 1873, where his name appeared only as a signature undersigning the transfer of paupers (not criminals) to Hobart, none of whom were photographed. A.H. Boyd was a non-photographer who has entered photohistory through the fictions of art, through a fiction written for children, through the subjective tastes of photohistorians, and through the personality politics of librarians, but not through the facts of police history.

Just to add to the confusion, the four individual images of Tasmanian prisoners placed online for the exhibition, IN A NEW LIGHT, all bear the caption “… photographer unknown.” This is yet another sign of incompetence on the part of the NLA Pictorial staff, their guest curator Helen Ennis et al.

Each photograph has its own page, per this example, with the caption beneath: “Photographer unknown“. So while the writer of the front page online for this section of the exhibition waffles on about A. Boyd as the photographer – “presumably” – the same writer has changed her mind, yet still abjects Nevin despite his established attribution at the NLA from 1982 onwards.

CAPTION: “Unknown photographer”

Unknown Photographer (incorrect information)
John F. Morris, per P. [i.e. Pestonjee] Bomanjee 2, taken at Port Arthur, 1874
carte-de-visite; 9.3 x 5.6 cm

This is how the NLA is still cataloguing the cartes: the current catalogue entries at the NLA still wish the public to believe these photographs were taken at Port Arthur in 1874. The police records tell a different story.


John F. Morris was originally transported to Tasmania before 1853 on the ship the P.Bomanjee 3. He was convicted at the Supreme Court , Hobart, on the 9th April 1861 for murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was photographed by Nevin on discharge from the Hobart Gaol, 28th April, 1875.

NLA CAPTION: (incorrect information)
George Fisher, per Streathaden [i.e. Stratheden], taken at Port Arthur, 1874
carte-de-visite; 9.3 x 5.6 cm

George Fisher was photographed by Nevin on discharge with ticket-of-leave 15th April 1874 at the Municipal Police, Hobart Town Hall, when Fisher was “enlarged” with a ticket-of-leave. On 2nd December 1874, he was arraigned and sentenced to 12 years for forgery and uttering at the Supreme Court, Hobart:

George Fisher arraigned at the Supreme Court Hobart on 1st December 1874 for forgery and uttering.

NLA CAPTION: (incorrect information)
Unknown Photographer
William Mumford, per Agusta [i.e. Augusta] Jessie, taken at Port Arthur, 1874
carte-de-visite; 9.1 x 5.7 cm

William Mumford was photographed by Nevin at the Supreme Court Hobart on 10th September 1872 when Mumford was convicted of burglary and sentenced to 10 years.

NLA CAPTION: (incorrect information)
Unknown Photographer
James Harper, per S.R. [i.e. Sir Robert] Peel, taken at Port Arthur, 1874
carte-de-visite; 9.4 x 5.6 cm

James Harper was photographed by Nevin at the Hobart Gaol when the returns (.i.e. lists of numbers of prisoners) of convictions were tabled in the Supreme Court Hobart on 16 December 1871 and again on 11th January 1873. The NLA vignette could be the earlier one and date from 1871.

The curators of such exhibitions are too smitten with the pomposities of aesthetics to regard these photographs as mere vernacular documents, the result invariably leading to arguments about attribution based not on facts but on the standing and reputation of the curator and his or her “opinions”. Such procedures might be acceptable within the curatorial cohort but it is not acceptable to the public at large. The quality of reproduction by the NLA for the purposes of the exhibition IN A NEW LIGHT of these 22 cartes in 2000 is far superior to their more recent online digitisation of the remaining 54 in the collection in May 2007. Their reference in these photographs’ full records to an essay supporting the Boyd attribution dating from May 2007 by Julia Clark is irrelevant; it is a worthless and intellectually deceitful attempt to promote the commercially driven interests at the Port Arthur Historic Site. Clark is now also under investigation for professional fraud and theft of intellectual property pertaining to the NLA “convict portraits”.

These records and sheets can be sourced from the NLA in this file:
T.J. Nevin’s ephemera file, Photographers’ Files

NLA Nevin ephemera file:
Letter from Archives Tasmania to NLA dated 3 December 1982. Nevin was not a convict. Chris Long’s visit to the AOT is dated here as October 1982. Chris Long is the published source of the A.H. Boyd misattribution (TMAG 1995), but there is no mention of Boyd here.

NLA Nevin ephemera file:
Included in letter from AOT to NLA dated 3 December 1982, Chris Long’s vague notes about Nevin despite a firm attribution by Kerr, Stilwell, McPhee et al in 1977. There is no mention of Boyd here.

NLA Nevin ephemera file:
Included with letter from AOT to NLA dated 3 December 1982

NLA Nevin ephemera file:
NLA Accession sheets dated 10th May 1995 for Nevin’s convict photos

NLA Nevin ephemera file:
Original catalogue of Nevin’s convict photos dated 12 May 1995, with note in Sylvia Carr’s handwriting inserting misattribution to A H Boyd dated 15th November 2000.

NLA Nevin ephemera file:
Catalogue revision of Nevin’s convict photos.
Dated 15th November 2000 with misattribution to AH Boyd.