The QVMAG convict photos exhibition 1977

These are some of the original documents and press release prepared for the 1977 exhibition of commercial and police photographer T. J. Nevin’s prisoner mugshots at the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, Launceston, Tasmania, catalogued as “Convict portraits, Port Arthur 1874” in public collections:

Above: Letter to Specialist Collections Geoff  Stilwell at the State Library of Tasmania from the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery curator John McPhee, dated 24th February 1977.


Dear Geoffrey, Enclosed is a photostat of a convict history sheet, featuring a photograph. I think we have a couple of these.
Should you be interested in including them in your exhibition or any of our T.J. Nevin photographs, do let me know.
Best wishes, John

Geoffrey Stilwell in turn forwarded this letter with biographical information about Thomas J. Nevin to John McPhee, dated 4th April 1977:

Above: Letter from Geoff Stilwell to John McPhee, curator, QVMAG, dated 4 April, 1977.

Above: curator John McPhee
ABC TV snapshot 26 June 2009


Dear Mr McPhee,
At last I have some biographical details about Thomas Nevin though I am afraid these are somewhat late for your exhibition. These were mainly supplied by his granddaughter Mrs Shelverton.

Thomas Nevin was born on 28 August 1842 near Belfast, Northern Ireland (Mrs S[helverton]). He was the son of Private John Nevin and Mary his wife whom he accompanied on the convict ship Fairlie which arrived at Hobart Town in July 1852. John who was one of the guards of this vessel was also accompanied by his other children Mary A. and Rebecca both under fourteen and Will[iam] J under a year old (MB2/98).

The following marriage notice appeared in the Mercury of 14 July 1871.

NEVIN-DAY – On Wednesday, 12th July, at the Wesleyan Chapel, Kangaroo Valley, by the Rev. J. Hutchison [sic], Thomas, eldest son of Mr. J. Nevin, of Kangaroo Valley, to Elizabeth Rachael, eldest daughter of Captain Day, of Hobart Town.

Kangaroo Valley is now know as Lenah Valley. From about 1876 to 1880 he lived at the Town Hall, Hobart as caretaker. Two of his four sons were born at the Town Hall residence. He had in addition two daughters one of whom was Mrs Shelverton’s mother.*

According to Mrs Shelverton he died about 1922, she is not sure of the date, and was buried at Cornelian Bay. The tombstone has now fallen over.

Yours sincerely, [signed] G.T. STILWELL Librarian, Special Collections

Both letters are from the files of G. T. Stilwell, courtesy of the State Library of Tasmania. Surprisingly, this information was not only forwarded to the QVMAG for their files, but addressed directly to John McPhee, yet his latest exhibition catalogue for the QVMAG exhibition, The Painted Portrait Photograph in Tasmania (November 2007-March 2008), which included a coloured carte with the Clifford and Nevin Hobart Town inscription on verso (p. 63), makes the erroneous statement that the arrival date of T. J. Nevin in Tasmania is not known (p.103)!.

Photos © KLW NFC 2009 ARR

Above: John McPhee’s brief biography of Nevin, p. 103, published in the QVMAG exhibition catalogue, The Painted Portrait Photograph in Tasmania (November 2007-March 2008) with several incorrect statements which McPhee (and his editor) should have checked before publication. The following are established facts:

  1. Nevin arrived with his parents and three siblings in Tasmania free to the colony on board the Fairlie in July 1852;
  2. Nevin leased Bock’s studio from fellow Wesleyan Abraham Biggs (Victoria). He sublet the former studio of Bock’s in 1876 but maintained his studio at New Town, first established in 1864, where he resumed professional photography between 1881-1888.

  3. Nevin worked as a commercial and government photographer until the late 1880s;

  4. Three of Nevin’s seven studio stamps make no mention of A. Bock;

  5. Nevin produced an equally large number of stereographs, held at the TMAG. Many more were reprinted by Samuel Clifford from Nevin’s commercial negatives from 1876, and thereafter by the Anson Bros and J.W. Beattie;

  6. and 7. The photographs of convicts or “prisoner portraits” were legal instruments taken for the police to be used daily; they were not produced as ethnographic doco-artefacts of criminality for the middle-class gaze;

  7. Nevin’s position of keeper at the Town Hall included photographic services rendered to the Police Office on the premises, specifically the production of mugshots;

  8. Nevin was not arrested the night he was detained by Detective Connor on suspicion of practicing spirit photography.

  9. Nevin was not the person dressed as a ghost in a phosphorescent-coated white sheet. The name “George” was uttered when constables set off on the chase after the “ghost”; Edwin Midwood, Nevin’s colleague at the Town Hall police office was the likely “ghost” though never apprehended or charged.

Thomas J. Nevin was also a special constable, a commercial designer for press advertisements with H.H. Baily, a Wesleyan and a Loyal United Brothers Lodge member.

The notice (below) appeared in the Hobart Mercury on March 10th, 1977, announcing the opening at the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery of the first major exhibition of “convict photos” taken by Thomas J. Nevin, with the date “1874” written on the versos in the 1900s.

Convict photos at Launceston
Hobart Mercury March 10th, 1977

Most of these prisoner ID photographs were acquired by the QVMAG in 1927, as part of photographer John Watt Beattie’s (1859-1930) collection from his estate and convictaria museum in Hobart. Beattie’s sources in turn were the police gazettes, photo books and prisoner registers held at the Town Hall Municipal Police Office, where Nevin worked full-time 1876-1880, and from the Sheriff’s Office and Supreme Court at the Hobart Gaol where his brother Constable John Nevin was his assistant. Beattie had ready access as official government photographer ca. 1900s to these documents.

Beattie also had access to Nevin’s commercial negatives when he joined the Anson brothers studios in 1892. The Ansons had acquired Nevin’s negatives from their purchase of Samuel Clifford’s photographic stock which was advertised at auction in the Mercury, 16th March, 1878. Two years before that date, on 17th January, 1876, Samuel Clifford placed a notice in the Mercury, stating that he had acquired the interest in T.J. Nevin’s negatives, and would reprint them for Nevin’s friends and patrons on request. Nevin’s civil service as bailiff, keeper and police photographer at the Hobart Town Hall from that date precluded income derived from active, independent commercial practice.

The collection of convict photographs featured in this exhibition remained intact at the QVMAG (witnessed) until ca. 1984. A large old leather-bound photo album of 70 or so prisoner photographs was sent first to the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne (before 1985 – communication per the curator), and then to the National Library of Australia in Canberra where the album was intact in 1996 (witnessed), rectos and versos photocopied) and was still intact in 2000 (witnessed*).

The QVMAG prisoner photographs are largely Thomas Nevin’s originals and duplicates which were taken of men sentenced at the Supreme Court adjoining the Hobart Gaol (Campbell Street Hobart) and then circulated to police and regional prisons including Port Arthur. They were duplicated for the central criminal registry at the Town Hall Municipal Police Office on the prisoner’s discharge. But many have been copied and circulated and accessioned in the last thirty years: the Archives Office of Tasmania has both originals and copies (92 online as at April 2009); the National Library of Australia has both originals and copies, including an early donation of twelve (12) or so similar photographs, estrays from a government archive and part of the Gunson Collection (80 were listed online in April 2009); the Mitchell Library NSW holds thirteen, some stamped verso with Nevin’s government contract studio stamp (with Royal Arms insiginia); the Penitentiary Chapel Historic Site in Hobart next to the old Gaol has a few, including one pasted to a criminal record written on parchment; and a few are held in private collections. The numbers which appear on the loose  mounted cartes-de-visite mugshots range from 1 to 322, and are clear evidence of extensive copying by archivists from Beattie’s time onwards. The two major cataloguing events at the QVMAG which affected the versos of their collection were in 1958 and 1985, visible as stamps and inscriptions on the versos, eg:

Convict Thomas Fleming

Prisoner Thomas Fleming
Print from Nevin’s negative, taken at the Hobart Gaol on the prisoner’s discharge, 7 January 1874.
QVMAG Collection Ref: 1985:P:0169

Source: Police gazette, Tasmania Reports of Crime Information for Police J. Barnard Govt Printer

Fleming was tried at the Supreme Court Hobart of 9 September 1867, sentenced to 7 years, and photographed by Nevin prior release from the Hobart Goal, in the first week of January 1874. He was NOT photographed at Port Arthur.

Thomas Fleming cdv prisoner mugshot

Prisoner Thomas Fleming
Mounted carte-de-visite by Thomas Nevin from his negative

Verso cdv of convict Thomas Fleming

Above: recto and verso of T. J. Nevin’s mugshot  of Thomas Fleming, QVMAG Collection with three archival inscriptions from different periods:

1.Taken at Port Arthur 1874″ dates from Beattie’s time, ca. 1916. These prisoners were photographed in Hobart and not at Port Arthur. Beattie hyped these cartes as convictaria of notoreity for sale to tourists at his convictaria museum in Murray St. Hobart
2.The square stamp dates from 1958 catalogued at the QVMAG as 1958:78:22
3.QVM 1985:P:67 is the third catalogue date – 1985 at the QVMAG

This prisoner photograph of William Smith with T. J. Nevin’s government contract studio stamp with the Royal Arms insignia is held at the QVMAG.

Above: Another photograph of the same prisoner William Smith, wearing the prison black leathern cap and grey jacket issued at the Hobart Gaol. This photograph with Nevin’s Royal Arms stamp is held at the Mitchell Library NSW. The official stamp of T. J. Nevin, Photographic Artist, 140 Elizabeth St. Hobart Town, was used to register his government commission to provide identification photographs of prisoners, most with Supreme Court records who were incarcerated and released from Tasmanian prisons, January 1871-3; the copyright endured 14 years from the second year of registration (1874). Nevin’s earliest prisoner identification photographs were taken in 1871, as soon as the prison system was transferred from Imperial to Colonial government control.

The Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart, acquired over fifty (50) of Nevin’s convict photographs (apart from his commercial cartes and stereographs) from several sources. Some were estrays from the Town Hall Police Office (next door), some were lantern slides reproduced from the original glass negatives by Beattie for his lecture tours on Tasmanian history, and some were duplicates donated by Beattie from his convictaria museum ca. 1916 (noted by a South Australian visitor in The Mercury February 3rd, 1916). Some were copies by the Ansons Bros dating to ca. 1878. And some were copies acquired and accessioned from the QVMAG collection ca. 1985-87, deposited at the TMAG instead of being returned to the QVMAG.

The TMAG erroneously attributed their convict photographs to the Civil Commandant at Port Arthur A.H. Boyd (May 1871-December 1873, ADB). Boyd’s function as the former accountant at the prison was to sign for the purchase and delivery of goods into and from government stores. Boyd had no reputation in his life-time as a photographer, and there are no extant photographic works by A.H. Boyd. The “Port Arthur convicts” as the men whose images survive in this collection are called at the National Library of Australia, were not photographed by Boyd, nor were they photographed at Port Arthur. The majority were habitual criminals, repeat offenders and recidivists whose criminal careers at large in the open prison of the island of Tasmania earned then a further sentence and a mugshot, taken by Thomas Nevin at the Hobart Municipal P.O. (Police Office) and Mayor’s Court at the Hobart Town Hall, and at the Supreme Court and adjoining Hobart Gaol. The Boyd misattribution was published in the TMAG publication Tasmanian Photographers 1840-1940: A Directory (1995:36) and was thereafter mistakenly assumed to have some credence by later authors on this subject of “Port Arthur”. The Boyd shibboleth was based on nothing more than a sentence in a short story about a children’s holiday at Port Arthur, written by a niece of Boyd, unpublished and submitted by her in typescript to the State Library in 1942: the story mentions neither Boyd by name nor the photographing of prisoners. It is generically FICTION, yet has been used as if it is a document of historical fact. There are no official documents which associate Boyd as a photographer of prisoners.

QVMAG convicts cartes list by Nevin 1977

Photo © KLW NFC 2009 ARR

Above: The QVMAG lists of 72 convict cartes from the 1977 exhibition,worksheets acquired here in 2005, courtesy of the QVMAG. The physical number at the QVMAG now totals 112. The list here might give the impression that there were 199 items, listed by the number written on the carte itself, eg. George Nutt or White, no. 1, but in fact the person at the QVMAG who prepared this list ran a sheet with numbers from 1 to 199, and inserted the prisoner’s name by the number on the carte, totalling 72. What is missing therefore, are cartes with numbers on recto or verso which were circulated to the NLA, AOT and TMAG, and those that bear numbers greater than 199, and there are quite a few; for example, the NLA carte of convict Henry Cavanagh is numbered “306” on verso. He was photographed by Nevin on admission to the Hobart Gaol on 17th September, 1873.

At present (April 2009), the QVMAG states they hold 112 physical copies of the original cartes: 72 were exhibited at the QVMAG exhibition with Nevin’s attribution in 1977. Another 40 were included in the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition, Heads of The People, Canberra, 2000 with Beattie’s attribution, despite the fact that Beattie had arrived in Tasmania in 1878, and did not join the Ansons as a photographer until the early 1890s. Beattie was never involved in the actual photographing of prisoners for the police; he merely exhibited or copied those mugshots he found in the police, courts and prison registers, divorcing them in the process from their contemporaneous written references, and reprinted several for sale as tourist tokens.

Above: Press release for the QVMAG Exhibition 1977

John McPhee, curator of the QVMAG exhibition of Thomas J. Nevin’s Port Arthur convict portraits in 1977, announced in his press release (above) that these photos have “a quality far beyond that of records” – i.e. police records – and that these photographs –

“… are among the most moving and powerful images of the human condition.” They also “represent the 19th century’s great interest in phrenology and the belief in various other quasi-scientific methods of identifying the criminal ‘type'”.

This statement was certainly true by 1882 when a reporter for the HobartMercury (8th July 1882) wrote a lengthy account of his visit to the Hobart Gaol, detailing the layout and the procedures, past and present, fr om the prisoner’s reception, bath and issue of clothing, the areas isolated specifically for men awaiting Supreme Court trials, and the general physicality of the prisoners’ features:

In their dark-grey uniform and black leathern caps, with their criminal visages, shaven of the covering Nature had given to aid them in the concealment of their vicious propensities and villainous characters, they were, in truth, a forbidding, repulsive lot. Yet very far from unintelligent, at least, in some marked instances. A villainous shrewdness and a perverse cleverness writ in many a cunning, gleamy eye and heavy brow ; and a dogged determination to be read in the set of the jaw, and the style of the gait, were as the translated speech of artfully calculated, daring crime.

The Mercury, 8th July 1882

Old police identification photographs taken on arrest, arraignment and discharge, commonly called mugshots now, are enjoying a renaissance of interest in this decade of the 21st century. Even though they were legal instruments taken for the police to be used daily, they became doco-artefacts of criminality for the middle-class gaze in the age of Bertillonage and the portrait parlé in the 1900s. They can be seen on the walls of art galleries, and in coffee table glossy volumes such as Pellicer’s Mugshots (2009). But what of the photographer? Anonymity was de rigeur in the job, although Nevin’s work with police was common knowledge in the 19th century. It is only in the late 20th century and continuing today that acknowledgement of his work has been compromised by the error made by Chris Long and those who have “believed” in his belief about Boyd based purely on a piece of fiction. Because of this dead-end misattribution, the Nevin brothers’ total involvement in police photographic work in Tasmania from ca. 1865 to the mid 1880s has yet to be fully appreciated.

Bertillon mugshots 1888

Photo © KLW NFC 2009 ARR

Above: from Mugshots 2009 by Raynal Pellicer: on the left, Bertillon’s own front and profile mugshots used to demonstrate the non-commercial photographic pose for criminals he advocated to the Paris police, 1888, and on the right the Commissioner of Police, 1903, trying out the system of Bertillonage for himself.

*Witnessed in the course of research 1977-2007
First published 27th April 2007. Updated May 2009. Last update August 2010