NEVIN & SMITH, 1868: the client with white fingernails

Photographers NEVIN & SMITH, Hobart 1868
INJURY and DISEASE 19th Tasmanian industries
CAMERAS, lenses, and the circle of confusion

Robert Smith was known to Mrs Esther Mather. She was not happy about the colouring he had applied to a portrait of her brother when he visited the studio she called “Smith’s” in Hobart. She said so in a letter to her step-son, dated 1865. Nothing was known about this partner of Thomas J. Nevin called Robert Smith until recently when portraits and stereoscopes bearing the business name NEVIN & SMITH came to light. Robert Smith may have been an independent photographer prior to forming a partnership with Thomas J. Nevin at Alfred Bock’s former studio. The partnership lasted less than a year and was promptly dissolved in February 1868 following the Royal visit to Hobart, Tasmania of Alfred Ernest Albert, Duke of Edinburgh, second son of Queen Victoria, in late 1867 on his first command, H.M.S. Galatea. Thomas J. Nevin continued the photographic business in his own name at Alfred Bock’s former studio, 140 Elizabeth St. Hobart Town, while Robert Smith departed for Goulburn NSW where he set up a photographic studio before taking to farming and politics.

Points of Interest
Two studio stamps and the two labels have survived from studio portraits and stereoscopes taken during the partnership of Robert Smith and Thomas Nevin, but for rarity alone, the stamp they printed in anticipation of the Royal visit is their unique legacy. It featured the Prince of Wales’ blazon of three feathers and a coronet, banded with the German “ICH DIEN” (I Serve).

To date, four cartes-de-visite have surfaced bearing this stamp:
1. a delicately tinted upper-body portrait in a buff oval mount of an unidentified bearded young man seated in semi-profile, wearing a summer check-patterned jacket (view here);
2. a full-length portrait taken by Thomas J. Nevin of his sixteen year-old brother, Jack Nevin standing next to a plaster plinth on thick carpet (view here);
3. a full-length hand-coloured portrait of two children standing on either side of a dining chair; and
4. a full length hand-coloured portrait of a young man standing next to a dining chair (the two below)

This last portrait, the most recent to emerge in the market place, is yet another rare example of the work of the firm NEVIN & SMITH bearing the feathered Royal insignia. As nothing is known about this young man, he will remain nameless in the discussion which follows…

cdv by Nevin & Smith 1868 Hobart Tascdv verso by Nevin & Smith 1868 Hobart Tas

Carte-de-visite, hand-coloured full-length portrait of a young man, mid-twenties
Photographer(s): NEVIN & SMITH – Thomas J. Nevin and Robert Smith.
Location and date: Hobart, Tasmania, January 1868
Copyright © KLW NFC Imprint & Private Collection 2021. Watermarked.

cdv by Nevin & Smith 1868 Hobart Tas

Subject: Solidly built young man in mid-twenties, wearing a thin jacket with creased sleeves, waistcoat, cravat and white pocketchief, and corduroy trousers.
Photographer(s): NEVIN & SMITH – Thomas J. Nevin and Robert Smith.
Location and date: Hobart, Tasmania, January 1868
Format: carte-de-visite, full -length portrait, sepia print on plain buff mount
Details: mulberry colouring on drape, light violet tinting on man’s cravat, tinting on man’s cheeks
Condition: good, some dark spots, discolouring of carpet where foreground blurring of focus has occurred
Provenance: Douglas Stewart Fine Books, Melbourne, Vic.
Verso: Prince of Wales blazon with three feathers, coronet and band with “ICH DIEN”
Printed below: “From NEVIN & SMITH Late Bock’s, 140 Elizabeth Street HOBART TOWN. N.B. Additional copies may be had at any date if required.”
Copyright: © KLW NFC Imprint & Private Collection 2021. Watermarked.

The 19th century cameras Thomas J. Nevin was using at his studio in the 1860s included a single lens sliding box camera and stereoscopic cameras, some on loan from his close friend, prolific stereographer Samuel Clifford, plus a variety of other equipment salvaged at auction from the studios of photographers George Cherry and Alfred Bock in 1864-65 when both men separately faced insolvency.

The blurred foreground at the bottom of this photograph of the young man suggests the photographer had miscalculated the depth of field for a full-length portrait of a fully-grown male standing too close to the camera; or indeed, he had chosen a lens more suited to closer upper-body portraiture. A successful photograph would get as much of the shot in focus as possible without blurring the foreground, known as the blur spot or circle of confusion. The hyperfocal distance between the carpet on the floor in front of the camera, the standing figure of the young man in the middle distance, and the back wall would be measured as much through subjective judgment as through formulae such as this one:

hyperfocus distance formula

Measuring acceptable sharpness:
Key: f is focal length, N is aperture, and c is maximum circle of confusion (blur spot)


The strongest and sharpest point of focus in this photograph of the young man (above) is at the image’s centre where his right hand rests on the carved crest rail of the dining chair. And at the very centre of that centre, the whiteness of his fingernails stands out. They are as white as the handkerchief sitting in his breast pocket.

Those fingernails were not tinted after printing. A smudge of red colour shows at lower right on the buff mount where the colour was applied to the drape after pasting down the print. A studio assistant may have painted the young man’s fingernails white prior to the sitting for cosmetic reasons, if they were permanently blackened working in industries such as gardening, coal mining, tanning leather and textile dyeing etc. Untouched, unpainted, his white fingernails might also suggest injury or disease of some kind. Particular diseases associated with total leukonychia, which is the whitening of the entire nail plate, are caused by the following:

1. an injury which has disrupted the horizontal layers of keratin, trapping air and resulting in reflection and lack of transparency. Nail-biting, knocks and bangs, and detachment of the nail plate are all injuries. Onycholysis results when the nail plate has been lifted from the nail bed.
2. heavy metal poisoning such as lead and arsenic
3. inherited or longitudinal leukonychia which can run in families
4. systemic illnesses such as liver cirrhosis, chronic kidney disease, heart failure, protein malabsorption, eg in colitis, protein-losing enteropathy, diabetes, iron deficiency anaemia, zinc deficiency, and hyperthyroidism
5. fungal infection due to the dermatophyte, trichophyton interdigitale.


This young man’s whitened nails might be the result of injury or regular exposure to chemicals from daily physical work involving lifting, if the creasing of his jacket sleeves especially at the elbows is any indication, rather than being symptomatic of systemic disease. His strong gaze and solid build suggest he was in good health. His creased sleeves on the other hand might be the result of lifting the two children (cdv below). The similarities between the two photographs suggest the young man and the two children were photographed in exactly the same studio set-up and probably in the same session. He would most likely be their father or guardian, in that case, and have creased sleeves on the day from constantly lifting and carrying his toddler daughter and four-year old son. And it was a special day.

cdv by Nevin & Smith 1868 Hobart Tas

Both photographs share these compositional and textual features:

1. the same thick carpet with large squares, floral pattern at centre and white edges
2. the same dining chair with carved crest rail and cabriole legs
3. the same drape to right of frame similarly coloured dark red.
4. the same stamp verso with the NEVIN & SMITH mark prepared especially for the Royal visit
5. the two photographs were taken by the same photographer in the same session
6. the same camera lens or depth of field calculation resulted in the same blurring of focus on the carpet in the foreground

Those similarities suggest the following contextual relations:

1. these children were photographed minutes apart in the same session as the young man suggesting his presence as their father or guardian
2. the day was a special occasion – these children and the young man made the trip to Hobart Town’s centre to see Prince Alfred and the Galatea  during the Royal visit.
3. the special occasion warranted a photograph taken at the NEVIN & SMITH studio during their visit as a keepsake and memories of a great day’s entertainment in town.
4. the mother of these two children and wife of this young man (if still with the family) may have been photographed at NEVIN & SMITH’s as well in the same session, raising the possibility that her photograph, if extant, is yet to be identified.

State Library of Victoria
Studio portrait of two children
Author / Creator Nevin & Smith, photographer.
Date [ca. 1867-ca. 1875]
Accession no: H2005.34/2004
Accession no: H2005.34/2004A
Gift of Mr John Etkins; 2005.

Aftermath of the Royal visit
Two events in February 1868 coincided to change Thomas J. Nevin’s photographic practice. The dissolution of his partnership with Robert Smith meant that he would no longer use the two studio stamps and labels advertising the business they conducted from Alfred Bock’s former studio, 140 Elizabeth St. Hobart Town, under the name “NEVIN & SMITH” from 1867 to February 1868.

One of those studio stamps was a simple cartouche which has survived by descent in family collections on both versos of a vignetted portrait and a full-length portrait of Elizabeth Rachel Day, Thomas Nevin’s fiancée (they married in July 1871). The other stamp which featured the Prince of Wales’ blazon of three feathers and a coronet, banded with the German “ICH DIEN” (I Serve) to mark the Royal visit in 1868 became obsolete once the celebrations were over. So, from March 1868 until early 1876, Thomas Nevin used one of Alfred Bock’s more recent designs with minimal changes as his most common commercial stamp which was applied to the versos of all portraits of private clients. For portraits of public servants and their families, for mugshots of prisoners, for landscapes and townscapes he produced under government contract for the Hobart City Council, a colonial government Royal Warrant stamp with the Royal Arms insignia was designed for him using his initials, T. J. Nevin, by government printer James Barnard.

When these the two unidentified women (below) visited Thomas J. Nevin at his studio, 140 Elizabeth St. Hobart in the months following the Royal Visit, he positioned them on the same carpet and posed them with right hand placed on the same chair as he posed the young man in the NEVIN & SMITH portrait (at top) but with the addition of books opened on an occasional table in front of the drape. In both of these cdv’s of a younger and an older woman, the drape at right of frame was spared the heavy dark-red colouring. While the cdv of the older woman was enhanced with delicate tinting in pink, the cdv of the younger woman escaped any sort of enhancement. No strong blurring of the foreground is evident in any of these cdv’s taken by Thomas Nevin after ca. 1870, suggesting he had acquired better cameras, lenses, and improved technique in how to use them.

National Gallery of Victoria Catalogue Notes
No title (woman wearing a bonnet with a pink bow), carte-de-visite (1865-1867)
T. NEVIN, Hobart
Medium albumen silver photograph, watercolour
Measurements 9.5 × 5.8 cm (image and support)
Place/s of Execution Hobart, Tasmania
Inscription printed in ink on support on reverse c. AD ALTIORA / CITY PHOTOGRAPHIC ESTABLISHMENT / T. NEVIN. / LATE / A. BOCK. / 140 ELIZABETH ST / HOBART TOWN. / Further copies / can be obtained at / any time.
Accession Number 2003.395 Department Australian Photography Credit Line National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Presented through the NGV Foundation by John McPhee, Member, 2003

Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery Collection
TMAG Ref: Q2012.28.28
Full length cdv on plain mount
Subject: Elizabeth Bayley, second wife of Captain James Bayley of Runnymede, New Town, Tasmania
Photographer: studio portrait by Thomas Nevin late December 1874.
Verso with studio stamp: “Ad Altiora” above Kangaroo emblem, T. Nevin late A. Bock encircled by belt printed with “City Photographic Establishment” and address below, “140 Elizabeth St. Hobart Town”. In italics below: “Further Copies can be obtained at any time”.

Thomas Nevin’s use of a newer lenses, which allowed shorter focal range and a larger image of the face and hands without sacrificing clarity, became his trademark when he commenced the photographing of prisoners with Supreme Court convictions on contract for the Colonial Government in early 1872. His portrait of Sarah Crouch, wife of Under-Sheriff Thomas Crouch, taken about the same time foreshadowed the format he would use for producing mugshots. The newer lenses meant he could position her closer to the camera without blurring either foreground (her hands) or background.

By the time Alfred Barrett Biggs visited Thomas J. Nevin’s studio for a portrait ca. 1873, a few changes in decor had taken place. The thick carpet was gone, replaced by a thin tapis patterned with lozenges and chains that was bunched untidily against the back wall rather than smoothly laid. Behind Biggs, low on the back wall the rectangular outline of an object which had recently been removed had not been cleaned off. The same dining chair remained, now positioned to the left of Biggs in front of a new floral-patterned damask drape drawn back to reveal a floor-to-ceiling backsheet painted with a tiled Italianate terrace overlooking a wide cart path next to a stream disappearing to low mountains at the horizon. The delicate tinting with gold applied to Bigg’s fob watch by Nevin’s studio colourist in this portrait, however, differed markedly from the heavy-handed daubs of dark red applied to several other of his portraits including the NEVIN & SMITH portraits of the young man and the two children (at top). This heavy daubing in dark red appears on a dozen of Nevin’s cdvs and is thought to have been applied after purchase, or even later, by collectors in the belief that strong colour would enhance their viewing, more so if they were to use a stereoscope for a 3D effect.

Alfred Barrett Biggs ca, 1872-4 (ca. 45 yrs old)
Photographer: Thomas J. Nevin, City Photographic Establishment, Hobart (verso stamp)
Source: Archives Office of Tasmania
View online:

The Tasmanian Times Special Edition ran a lengthy report on each stage of the Duke’s tour around Hobart. Thomas Nevin’s colleague Samuel Clifford produced a fine series of stereoscopic and album prints of the day, which he advertised for sale on the 26th February 1868.


Landing in State, “instantaneous,” stereoscopic and album.
The Landing, 10 x 8.
The Galatea, 10 x 8, stereoscopic and album.
Emblematic Arch, 10 x 8, stereoscopic and album.
State Carriage, with Outriders und Orderlies, cabinet!
The Duke’s Saddle Horse, album.
H. R. H. His Excellency, and Company at Government House’, 10 x 8.
S. CLIFFORD, Liverpool-street, Prize Medalist [sic] at Melbourne, and highest Award at New Zealand.

Advertising (1868, February 26). The Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 – 1954), p. 1.

Citizens Arch 1868 Duke's visit, S. Clifford photo

Emblematic Arch, 10 x 8, stereoscopic and album.
Photographer Samuel Clifford 1868
Archives Office of Tasmania Ref: PH30-1-31


In this order the procession moved away under the Emblematic Arch, erected by the Citizens’ Reception Committee. This was declared on all sides to be a novel and striking feature in the various symbols of welcome offered to the Prince, and very successfully carried out. The piers were built up of tun butts, used in our whaling trade. The arch itself being composed of a main and two smaller arches, surmounted by bales of wool, pockets of hops, cases of preserves, bundles of shingles, leather, and bark used in tanning, sheaves of wheat, and a variety of the other products of the colony. Above the whole the jaw bones of a sperm whale. The side openings were crowned by two whale boats manned by the proper number of hands dressed in whaling costume. The whole of the arch was embellished with our beautiful ferns and flowers. On the side to meet the Prince’s view was the legend ” Welcome to Tasmania,” and on the other side was “Welcome Sailor Prince.” The top of it was decorated with flags. The whole line of the procession from the landing stage was also decorated with flags. Every halting place or stoppage was taken advantage of to loudly cheer our Royal visitor, who courteously responded to the same by bowing. Along the wharf and up Murray-street were several commodious stands tastefully decorated, and filled with well dressed people who all cheered lustily as the Prince passed. The procession moved slowly upwards from the wharf amidst continuous cheering, between two lines of Military who kept the route clear from the landing stage to the arch in Murray street.

THE STATE LANDING. (1868, February 1). The Tasmanian Times (Hobart Town, Tas. : 1867 – 1870), p. 3.