The discovery in a Sydney garden shed of a trove of 3,500 glass plate photos from the 1870s Australian goldrush – today known as the Holtermann Collection – was made possible by an inquisitive photography magazine editor acting on a hunch.
In 1951, Keast Burke, editor of Australasian Photo Review, wrote to Sydney’s Mitchell Library enquiring about Bernhardt Holtermann, a name associated with several 19th century photographic panoramas he’d seen in the building. Librarian Phyllis Mander Jones replied that Mary Holtermann, the daughter-in-law of the German immigrant who made his fortune during the Australian gold rush in the 1870s, lived in the leafy suburb of Chatswood and might have his photographic plates.
The garden shed, it turned out, was stacked with a cache of 3,500 glass plate negatives in cedar boxes and smaller ones in lacquered tins. At least one case held a number of huge glass plates measuring 90cm x 160cm, among the largest ever found from the 19th century. The negatives, which lay undisturbed for nearly 80 years, were donated to the Mitchell Library in 1952 by Bernhardt Holtermann’s grandson, Bernhard, CORR, and became known as the Holtermann Collection.
An interactive presentation by State Library of New South Wales can be found here.
Although the glass plates were unidentified, Keast Burke work out that the smaller quarter- plate negatives had been taken around Hill End, in the central west of New South Wales where Holtermann had made his fortune during the goldrush. Burke spend the next two decades trying to work out what the photographs were about (the glass plates were negatives with writing in reverse). A mix of miners, shopfronts, portraits, family homes and landscapes, the collection was a rare glimpse back to the towns and people of the past.
Burke also discovered that the photographs weren’t taken by Holtermann, but by Beaufoy Merlin and Charles Bayliss of the grandiosely named American and Australasian Photographic Company (A&AP.Co) – both men were from the eastern counties of England.
Merlin took up photography in Victoria in 1864. Within a few years he developed his own style of photographic documentation, systematically record as many buildings as possible in the towns he visited. His photographs were distinctive – somewhere between candid snapshots and formal portraits – in that they captured groups casually standing outside their shops and homes. Others were passers-by.
By 1869, Merlin had a young assistant, Charles Bayliss, and attracted by reports of the riches to be found in Hill End, they moved to the goldfields in March 1872 and opened a studio on Tambaroora Street.
Throughout 1872 the A&AP Co documented Hill End and its people. One of the residents photographed was the newly wealthy Holtermann, a partner in the Star of Hope mine where the world’s largest specimen of reef gold, weighing 286kg, was uncovered. Merlin and Bayliss were able to photograph the gleaming specimen above ground on 19 October 1872, before it was crushed to extract its riches.
Holtermann became the Merlin and Bayliss’s patron, but tragically, Merlin died from pneumonia the following September, so it was left to Bayliss to document towns for an exposition that Holtermann was sponsoring. Bayliss toured Victoria the following year before returning to Sydney in 1875 and began making giant panoramas of the city from the tower of Holtermann’s mansion overlooking the city’s great harbour.
The resulting panoramic collections were not unlike traditional Chinese hand scrolls from centuries earlier – sort of 19thCentury European versions of the 12thCentury Qing Ming Scroll depicting a city landscape said to be of Kaifeng, the Northern Song capital. The panoramas and the ancient scroll were produced by masters of the their craft who were commissioned by wealthy patrons. Both projects depicted ordinary citizens going about their daily lives.
Perhaps also interesting is that both of the Chinese and Australian “lost” treasures were rediscovered just three years apart, the Holtermann negatives in 1951 and the Qingming scroll in 1954. The Holtermann negatives were rediscovered 100 years after the “wet collodion process” was discovered by the English sculptor and photographer Frederick Scott Archer. The process, though cumbersome by today’s standards, allowed photographers to produce a permanent negative from which an unlimited number of copies could be made on paper.
For all its trouble, wet plate photography is still popular today as an authentically artisanal practice, as most of the equipment including the camera and chemical emulsions can be made by hand. Even the art of simple lens-making is centuries old (optics was a frontier in modern physics).
This story first appeared in Prestige Hong Kong.