From Thomas Bock to Thomas Nevin: Supreme Court prisoner portraits

“… portraits of prisoners taken in the dock …”

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 Thomas Nevin’s mentor 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
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 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.

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 (1835-1920), 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 2 December 1865 at the Hobart Gaol.

Alfred Bock sketch of William Griffiths
Supreme Court Hobart October 1865
Courtesy Graves of Tasmania

Alfred Bock employed Thomas J. Nevin as an apprentice on 7th July 1863 (when Nevin answered Bock’s advertisement for an apprentice in The Mercury on that date), but by 1867 Alfred Bock had departed Tasmania for Victoria, and Nevin acquired the business in his own name, The City Photographic Establishment, along with the studio, the glass house, furniture and stock at 140 Elizabeth Street Hobart Town. Nevin also acquired the Bocks’ patronage of police and the penal authorities. Alfred Bock had a close association with James Boyd, the Commandant at the Port Arthur prison during the early 1860s, producing a number of solar and cabinet portraits of Boyd while Nevin continued with studio portraiture and landscape stereography until Bock’s departure. When the commission again was offered, it was offered to Nevin to photograph prisoners at Supreme Court trials: 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 were produced by Thomas Nevin and date from 1871. These 300 extant prisoner photographs are estrays from a larger corpus of 3500, and these too were salvaged or selected on the basis of the prisoner’s notoreity (using the records of his Supreme Court trial, lengthy sentence or execution) and so these extant photographs were 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 by Nevin were coincidentally also acquired in the early 1900s by the State Library of New South Wales, some accompanied by the Hobart Gaol death warrants (Mitchell Collection).

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 cartes. 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.

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 and sentenced to six years: his sentence recorded in the police gazette on 28th November 1872. Source: Tasmania Reports of Crime Information for Police, James Barnard Gov’t Printer.