Skip to main content

A Sydney lady and her seven children
, 1870

by Henry B. Merlin

albumen photograph on carte de visite (support: 10.3 cm x 6.3 cm, image: 9.8 cm x 6.0 cm)

On loan to the National Portrait Gallery

More images of this artwork

Photographer Henry Beaufoy Merlin first came to New South Wales from his native London in 1848. During 1853 he was the proprietor of the Royal Marionette Theatre, which gave a number of ‘inimitable performances of The Burlesque of Bombastes Furioso’ in Sydney and then Maitland.‘ A variety of novel entertainments’ were also included in the price of admission (three shillings for a box seat or one shilling for the pit), such as a ‘Panorama embracing views of Constantinople, Cornwall, and the Arctic Regions, with the Squadron in search of Sir John Franklin.’ The proprietor, one Sydney paper noted, was ‘an enterprising man.’ Between 1855 and 1859 he exhibited various panoramas in Sydney. By 1866, having briefly returned to London, he was working as an itinerant photographer in Victoria. There he went into partnership with Charles Bayliss, the duo subsequently trading as the American & Australasian Photographic Company despite having no association with America. As of May 1870 they had expanded to New South Wales, advertising offices in Little Collins Street, Melbourne and at 11 Barrack Street, Sydney. An ad in the Sydney Morning Herald in September 1870 stated that ‘The American and Australasian Photographic Company have now commenced to Photograph every House, Shop, Store, Public Building and Private Residence in Sydney’ and that they planned to do the same for other towns in the state. ‘The proprietors of this enterprise believe that in these colonies Photography has not had that scope which might be expected from an art so important, and yet so universal in its application to the requirements of taste and industry.’ The same ad claimed that the Company had, by way of a fleet of portable studios, already photographed ‘almost every building in Melbourne, as well as in every town of any importance in Victoria’.

By December 1870, Merlin also had opened rooms in George Street, where an ‘efficient operator’ could supply cartes de visite at ten shillings and sixpence per dozen. In August 1871 the studio was described as ‘one of the marvels of the city.’ Its ‘elegantly fitted up’ rooms were decorated with reproductions of famous paintings and featured several desks ‘for the reception of portfolios, which form a complete pictorial description of the colony, embracing views in Braidwood, Yass, Goulburn … suburbs of Sydney’ and numerous other places, ‘to which will shortly be added the scenery of the Western Districts’ which were then being visited by the firm’s ‘travelling corps’. In addition, the studio displayed a ‘very numerous selection of cartes de visite comprising most of the celebrities of the colony; family groups and exquisite portraits of children (plain and coloured) posed in the most effective manner and executed in the highest style of art.’ The Company later opened an outpost in Hill End, where, in October 1872, Merlin was commissioned to photograph a stonking, 145-kilogram slab of gold extracted from the mine belonging to Bernhardt Otto Holtermann, a German prospector. The Holtermann Nugget turned out to be the world’s largest known specimen of reef gold, and Merlin’s portrait of it alongside its mind-blowingly fortunate finder is one of the most memorable images of the Australian gold rushes. Holtermann and Merlin soon afterward determined on the creation of an ‘International Travelling Exposition’ which was intended to promote Australia to a worldwide audience via the exhaustive photographic documentation of the New South Wales and Victorian goldfields. The project was completed by Bayliss following Merlin’s death, from pneumonia, in September 1873. The 3500 surviving negatives, now held by the State Library of New South Wales, represent only a fraction of what the American & Australasian Photographic Company accomplished, but nevertheless constitute one of the world’s most comprehensive archives of nineteenth-century frontier life.

Private Lender
Accession number: LOAN2018.24.10