From Thomas Bock to Thomas Nevin: Supreme Court prisoner portraits

“… portraits of prisoners taken in the dock …”

Thomas BOCK (1790/3-1855)
Police artists worked in the Supreme Court of Tasmania from as early as 1824. An album of portraits of “prisoners taken in the dock” (Dunbar, QVMAG catalogue 1991:25) by Thomas Bock, the father of photographer Thomas Nevin’s close associate Alfred Bock, was on sale at the Sydney booksellers Angus and Robertson in 1910 when collector William Dixson bought it and bequeathed it eventually to the State Library of New South Wales.

State Library of NSW
Image no: a933021h
f.18 Thomas Jeffries: on Trial for the Murder of / Mr Tibbs’ Infant. 20.9 x 15.2 cm.
Thomas Bock – Sketches of Tasmanian Bushrangers, ca. 1823 – 1843
DL PX 5. Sir William Dixson bequest, 1952

The catalogue notes for an exhibition of Thomas Bock’s works held in 1991 state:

The album of drawings consists of seventeen pencil portraits of notorious bushrangers of the 1820s taken while the subjects were being tried …. When William Dixson bought the album from the Sydney bookseller Angus and Robertson in 1910 it came with four albums of original documents, police reports and depositions relating to the exploits of the Tasmanian bushrangers. Clearly the documents and the drawings had been collected together as historical evidence – but by whom is not known.

Source: Diane Dunbar, Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery
Thomas Bock Convict Engraver, Society Portraitist
Catalogue 1991 (page 25)

Thomas Bock “invariably worked on commission” according to Dunbar’s notes, which raises the question of Bock’s “motivation” as she phrases it. Since the prisoner sketches by Thomas Bock were accompanied by police and judicial documents when Dixson purchased them in 1910, they must have been estrays from government records pertaining to prisoner identification and criminal history. In other words, Thomas Bock was most likely contracted on commission to provide police authorities with a “likeness” of the prisoners on trial in the dock at the Supreme Court. Of the seventeen prisoners portrayed in the album acquired by Dixson, at least six were executed.

Alfred BOCK (1835-1920)
Thomas Bock (1790/3-1855) was an early precursor of the police sketch artist and the mugshot photographer working in colonial Australian courts and prisons. Alfred Bock, Thomas Bock’s son also worked on commission as a police artist, producing sketches of prisoners in the dock. This sketch was taken of the prisoner William Griffiths at the Supreme Court on Wednesday 25th October 1865. Griffiths was on trial for the murder of two children. He was executed on 2nd December 1865 at the Hobart Gaol.

Alfred Bock sketch of William Griffiths
Supreme Court Hobart October 1865
Source: Archives Office of Tasmania

Thomas J. NEVIN (1842-1923)
Although Thomas J. Nevin had established a studio at New Town near the Nevin family home at Kangaroo Valley and was displaying and selling portraits and stereographs from the New Town Post Office by 1864, he was working with Alfred Bock at the city studio in 1865. Within a year, when Alfred Bock sold up and departed Tasmania for Victoria, Nevin acquired the business – The City Photographic Establishment – in his own name along with the studio, the glass house, furniture and stock at 140 Elizabeth Street Hobart Town. Thomas Nevin also acquired Thomas and Alfred Bock’s commission in the form of colonial warrants to provide police and penal authorities with prisoner photographs. Alfred Bock was commissioned by James Boyd, the Commandant at the Port Arthur prison during the early 1860s to produce a number of solar and cabinet portraits, including several of James Boyd himself who was an amateur stereographer. When the colonial government commission again was offered, it was offered to Thomas J. Nevin in 1872 to photograph prisoners at Supreme Court trials and at discharge: this time the commission was offered by his family solicitor Attorney-General W.R. Giblin.

The earliest photographs to survive of prisoners taken at the Supreme Court and adjoining Hobart Gaol which were produced by Thomas J. Nevin date from his first contract issued in February 1872 after the visit of the former premier of Victoria Sir John O’Shanassy, accompanied by the Victorian Solicitor-General. A handful of prisoner mugshots was taken on Nevin’s visit to the Port Arthur prison during their visit in 1872 and again in May 1874 at the request of the Surgeon-Commandant of the Port Arthur prison, Dr. Coverdale, but the majority of prisoners there were photographed by Nevin (and his brother Constable John Nevin) when they were relocated to the Hobart Gaol as the closure of the Port Arthur prison commenced. Thomas Nevin continued to provide the colonial government of Tasmania with police identification photographs until his retirement in 1886.

The extant 300+ prisoner photographs taken by T. J. Nevin in the 1870s in public collections are government estrays which were salvaged or selected on the basis of the prisoner’s notoriety (using the records of his Supreme Court trial, lengthy sentence or execution) for exhibition and display in the 1900s. The majority are held at the National Library of Australia, at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, and the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, Launceston. They appear to have been collated in similar circumstances to Thomas Bock’s album of prisoner sketches taken at the Supreme Court, and probably by the same individual. Eleven prisoner photographs taken by T. J. Nevin at the Hobart Gaol were coincidentally also acquired in the early 1900s by the State Library of New South Wales from the private collection of David Scott Mitchell, some accompanied by the Hobart Gaol death warrants.

ROBERTS, Henry per Rodney 2
Photo by T.J. Nevin
Taken at the Supreme Court 28 November 1872

Recto and verso at QVMAG
Beattie Collection
Ref: 1985:P0084

An archivist in the early 1900s, or possibly in 1934 when Beattie’s collection of convictaria was exhibited in Launceston, has written the date “1874” and “Taken at Port Arthur” across the versos of many of these prisoner photographs in oval cdv mounts. Henry Roberts was photographed by Thomas J. Nevin at the Supreme Court on or about 28th November 1872 when Roberts was tried and sentenced to six years for cattle-stealing.

Source: Tasmania Reports of Crime Information for Police, James Barnard Gov’t Printer.

Henry Roberts, 49 yrs old, transported to Tasmania (prior to 1853) on the Rodney 2, Free in Servitude (FS) was tried in the Supreme Court Hobart and sentenced to six years, according to this police gazette notice of 28th November 1872.