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Tom Jack, aka The Ice King and Tom Thumb
, c.1880s

by Stewart & Co.

albumen photograph on carte de visite (support: 10.2 cm x 6.2 cm, image: 9.3 cm x 6.0 cm)

More images of this artwork

Stewart and Co. was one of many photography studios located in the thick of Melbourne’s leisure and amusement district, and portraits of performers of one description or another account for a substantial part of their oeuvre. This photograph is thought to show the stunt performer and escape artist Tom Jack, better known by his epithet ‘The Ice King’. Born Karl Breu in what is now the Czech Republic in 1884, the escapologist with the ghostly appearance grew up aspiring to be like his idol, Houdini, the embodiment of the adventure Breu so eagerly sought. Having learnt the intricacies of the trade and the art of cheating death, Breu developed a speciality in the sort of stunts that involved escapes from chains. Reports indicate that on one occasion ‘The Ice King’ nearly died during a performance in London when, having been flung from Tower Bridge into the Thames, he failed to loose himself from his restraints. At some point, The Ice King is said to have formed part of one of Phineas T Barnum’s several sideshow extravaganzas, interchangeably billed as museums, menageries, circuses or ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’, and in which he featured alongside one of the various dwarfs who styled themselves ‘Tom Thumb’. In light of this, it’s assumed that this photograph was created as a souvenir of the troupe’s visit to Melbourne. Research into this carte, however, has yet to reveal any mention of Breu ever being in Melbourne, and if he did come to Australia it would have been at least a decade after Stewart & Co. ceased operating at this Bourke Street address. The ‘real’ or original Tom Thumb – the American dwarf Charles Sherwood Stratton (1838–1883) – was of Barnum’s stable and was indeed in Australia in the early 1870s. Thirty years later there was still a waxwork of him (and of Chang the Chinese Giant) on display at the nearby waxworks alongside effigies of ‘The Bearded Lady, Madame Ghio’ and her son Esau, ‘The Bearded Boy.’

Photographer Robert Stewart (1838–1912) was born in England and came to Australia in the 1850s hoping to find work as an architect. He became a photographer instead and started working with Charles Percy Pickering in Sydney around 1859. By May 1862 he was self-employed, advertising that from his ‘New Photographic Rooms’ at 267 Pitt Street he was supplying ‘Superior Collodiotype Portraits artistically coloured and enamelled in elegant morocco cases, from 3s 6d.’ By January the following year he was offering ‘Portraits in every style of the art.’ During 1867 he relocated to an address on George Street and began branching into the sale of photographic equipment. By 1871 Stewart was in Melbourne and had established Stewart & Co, starting out in Russell Street and moving to 217 and 219 Bourke Street once business started expanding. In early 1880, the firm advertised that its cartes de visite could be had for three shillings and sixpence per dozen. By 1886, Robert Stewart had left the business, but it continued under the management of his brother Richard. The painter Tom Roberts worked as a studio assistant at Stewart & Co from the late 1870s until his departure for London in 1881. He later returned to the studio part-time. Stewart & Co subsequently moved to other addresses on Bourke Street and continued operation until the turn of the century.

Courtesy of John McPhee
Accession number: INSPECTION72.2018.3