Item #131026 A matching pair of vintage hand-coloured cartes de visite portrait photographs [circa 1861] of the ill-fated explorers Robert O'Hara Burke (1821-1861) and William John Wills (1834-1861). Burke and Wills.
A matching pair of vintage hand-coloured cartes de visite portrait photographs [circa 1861] of the ill-fated explorers Robert O'Hara Burke (1821-1861) and William John Wills (1834-1861)

A matching pair of vintage hand-coloured cartes de visite portrait photographs [circa 1861] of the ill-fated explorers Robert O'Hara Burke (1821-1861) and William John Wills (1834-1861)

Original albumen paper photographs (image size 88 × 59 mm), mounted on plain card as issued (105 × 63 mm); identifying surnames have been written in ink in the same hand on each verso at an early date (and their connection added later in pencil).

The portrait of Burke has a few tiny marks in the top background, and the mount is a little foxed in the margins; the portrait of Wills is in near-fine condition.

When compared with all other examples of portrait photographs of either explorer in the public domain, this matching pair - delicately hand-coloured and skilfully vignetted to the head and shoulders - has little if any competition. And significantly, they are fresh to the market ... However, when it came to collate the available reference material, the more information we discovered, the more anomalies, errors, and gaps in the story we brought to light. The following notes present the most pertinent of them, and our educated guesses are an attempt to clear a path through them.

Tim Bonyhady, in his detailed study of the expedition, 'Burke & Wills: From Melbourne to Myth' (1991), reproduces individual portraits of both Burke and Wills, taken by the Melbourne photographer Thomas Adams Hill shortly before the expedition set out on 20 August 1860. The portrait of Burke is reproduced on page 29. The caption states it is an ambrotype (described by the Society of American Archivists as 'an underexposed, underdeveloped, wet-collodion negative on glass that, when viewed with a dark background, appears as a positive image', almost invariably found cased or framed), held in the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales: 'The only known photographic portrait of Burke taken before the Victorian Exploring Expedition left Melbourne. Burke gave this ambrotype to Richard Nash, the Victorian Government Storekeeper, who was responsible for Burke's finances during the expedition'. This item is indeed in the SLNSW, but it is catalogued correctly as a daguerreotype (a unique cased image on a silvered copper plate), the precursor to the ambrotype. Both forms of image production were soon to be made obsolete by paper-based photographs able to be mass-produced from negatives. The portrait of Wills is reproduced by Bonyhady on page 48; it is described accurately as an ambrotype, also held in the SLNSW. The digitised image online shows clearly that the original is delicately hand-coloured ...

An obituary of Thomas Adams Hill, published in the Melbourne 'Age' on Tuesday 8 June 1897, contains much useful information: 'DEATH OF DR. T.A. HILL. There died in Adelaide on Wednesday last at the age of 70 years Dr. Thomas Adams Hill, who, in the early days of this colony, was one of its best known residents. The deceased was born in London, and was a descendant of Sir John Hill, of Shropshire Hills, and Viscount Hill, who, after distinguished service in the field, was appointed commander in chief of the British army in 1828. Dr. Hill arrived in Victoria in 1852, when, through the influence of Lieutenant-Governor Latrobe, he was appointed medical officer of Canvas Town, as South Melbourne was then named. Not long afterwards [apparently in 1855], he took over the business of a daguerrotypist [sic] at "No. 3 Bourke-street," and amongst his assistants were many who subsequently attained some fame in the world of art. In 1870 he disposed of the business to Messrs. Scott, Johnstone and O'Shannessy, and proceeding to England and the Continent, he returned in 1875 in the ship "Lady Jocelyn," and shortly afterwards took up his residence in Geelong.... Shortly after 1883 he went to reside in Adelaide, and his death was the sequel to a long and painful illness. The body of the deceased, which was embalmed in Adelaide, was brought to Melbourne and will be interred in the St. Kilda Cemetery to-day'.

Davies and Stanbury ('The Mechanical Eye in Australia', 1985) record Hill at 3 Bourke Street until 1863, with Johnstone & Co. there in 1863-64 (and as Johnstone, O'Shannessy & Co., from 1865 to 1886). The National Portrait Gallery adds more to the story: 'Thomas Adams Hill was one of several photographers who emigrated to Victoria in the 1850s. Arriving in Melbourne around 1855, he worked with Townsend Duryea and Archibald Macdonald before setting up his own practice in Collins Street in 1856. Moving to a studio next door to the GPO on Bourke Street, in 1858 he advertised the implementation of various improvements, his services including daguerreotypes and ambrotypes as well as hand-painted photographic miniatures on ivory. For a while he worked in partnership with Montagu Scott, who was employed "to facilitate the execution" of this "new style of PORTRAIT, combining the brilliancy of an oil painting with the invariable accuracy of a photograph" [with eleven advertisements to this effect appearing in three newspapers in Melbourne and Geelong between 29 February and 12 April 1860]. Hill is perhaps best known as the creator of the photographs of Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills which were taken shortly after both men had been appointed to the Victorian Exploring Expedition. Soon after their deaths were confirmed, "The Argus" [Friday 15 November 1861] reported that "we have received two excellent photographs, on a small scale, one of Burke and the other of Wills, which are now on sale at Hill's Gallery, next the Post-office, in Bourke-street." Hill's photographs of the explorers subsequently became the basis for the many commemorative portraits issued in the wake of their deaths'.

The deaths of Burke and Wills were not confirmed in Melbourne until late on Saturday 2 November 1861. The first advertisement for photographs of Burke and Wills was placed the very next Friday, 8 November, in 'The Argus', by none other than Thomas Adams Hill: 'Messrs Richard [sic !!!] O'Hara Burke and W.J. Wills. Leaders of the Exploring Expedition. - Mr Hill begs to inform the friends of the above gentlemen, and the public generally, that copies may be obtained at his establishment, 3 Bourke-street east, next Post-office, where large oil painted photographs will be on exhibition in a few days, previous to being forwarded to the Royal Society, England'. Bonyhady notes that by '14 November, five different pamphlets had been published in Melbourne containing the diaries' of the explorers, and that for 'more than three years, this preoccupation expressed itself in all conceivable media: in pamphlets, books, music and medallions, lavish mezzotints and oil paintings, pantomimes, waxworks and dioramas' and more. However, underwriting each and every one of the pictorial representations of both Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills are the portrait photographs taken by Thomas Adams Hill in Melbourne on the eve of the departure of the expedition.

The production quality of the matching portraits we have for sale, especially with their finely executed hand-colouring (which we have seen on only one other example we have been able to locate, a portrait of Burke), leads us to suggest they were produced in the studio of the photographer himself. The hand-colouring was clearly a speciality of Hill's gallery, and there is no question that these two painted vignettes owe much to the traditional miniature. The negatives from which the portrait photographs were printed would have been produced by photographing the original daguerreotype or ambrotype (or ambrotypes - there are two slightly different portrait photographs of Wills): Hill would have had unique access to them. The style of vignetting and colouring of these images may suggest that they date from after Johnstone acquired Hill's studio (see the fine portrait of Ferdinand von Mueller, 1864, held by the SLNSW, P1/1209), but comparison with Hill's output is difficult given the scarcity of cartes de visite known to date from his tenure of the studio. Even a cursory inspection of reproductions of the daguerreotype of Burke in Bonyhady, or online at the SLNSW, make it abundantly clear why all later photographs based on this image are vignetted. The decision to produce a matching portrait of Wills is an artisitic one, not one born of necessity.

The City of Melbourne Art and Heritage Collection contains an inferior uncoloured example of this portrait of Burke, with his surname written in ink on the verso by the same hand that inscribed our photographs. Comparison with numerous authenticated examples proves conclusively that the CMAHC is in error when it states it is 'believed to be the handwriting of the explorer himself'. During our research, we have also discovered yet a third example of this portrait with the identical inscribed surname (another hand-coloured version found in an album once belonging to Henry Glenny, active as a photographer in regional Victoria in the 1850s and 1860s). We have yet to find authenticated samples of the handwriting of Thomas Adams Hill, but we will not be surprised to discover that he has identified the subjects of these portraits in his own hand ... [2 items].

Item #131026

Price (AUD): $17,500.00