OPINION: Yesterday Today with Alan McRae

SIGN OF THE TIMES: Photographer Beaufoy Merlin signed the back of this photograph. Merlin is well-known for chronicling life on the Hill End goldfields.
SIGN OF THE TIMES: Photographer Beaufoy Merlin signed the back of this photograph. Merlin is well-known for chronicling life on the Hill End goldfields.

This week’s photo is different to most weeks as it is the back of a photo and not the front, which usually shows the historic image. This size and type of photograph is known as a carte-de-visite, used typically by commercial photographers in the 1860s through to the 1880s. This is part one of a story in three parts.

The photographer who took this photo in Bathurst, Beaufoy Merlin, signed the back of the photo with his name. Merlin operated the American & Australasian Photographic Company with his friend Charles Bayliss  and was responsible for the massive number of images in Hill End and Gulgong that later became part of the Holtermann Collection.

The photos Merlin took during his Bathurst visit measure around 2¼ inches by 3½ inches. They were initially designed for people to use as a visiting card, but this soon went by the wayside and they were mass-produced around the world.

His glass negative plates measured 3¼ inches by 4¼ inches and were known as “quarter plates”.

Merlin liked to take people in his images as he probably felt they added to the photo’s information in the early 1870s. The same subjects would also purchase extra copies for family and friends as they were now relatively cheap – a shilling each.

Merlin would have to evenly paint his glass plates with a chemical mixture and then expose them inside the camera, all in total darkness, while they were still wet. He would process each image soon after.

The whole process had to be carried out within half an hour or so, before the silver nitrate crystallised. Merlin also carried a folding canvas darkroom tent in his horse-drawn photographic wagon.

Merlin was born Henry Beaufoy Merlin in 1830 in England to Frederick Merlin and Ann Merlin, who hoped their son would become a chemist. The young man had other ideas and sailed for Melbourne in 1849, before the gold rush. By the mid-1860s, Merlin was taking photographs and travelling around the Victorian countryside and goldfields in his photographic wagon under the name of the American & Australasian Photographic Company.

This set him in good stead as a professional photographer as he took pictures of local houses, businesses and landscapes. He presented at some time a sample photo album of his work to the Right Honourable Sir J.H. Manners-Sutton, who was greatly appreciative of his gift and his work.

In his travels, Merlin had met a young man, Charles Bayliss, who he trained in the collodion photographic arts. From their shop front at 324 George Street in Sydney, the men travelled around Sydney and country areas for almost the next two years taking mainly outdoor photos.

Later, Holtermann and Merlin met up in Hill End and established a relationship that would see Holtermann finance Merlin to take thousands of images to record life on the goldfields - in some cases, almost house-to-house and business-to- business.

Their basic studio at Hill End was established in Tambaroora Street. Merlin took photos in Gulgong first, it appears, before starting on Hill End later in 1872.

Merlin also took a large number of other photos for Holtermann’s proposed International Travelling Exposition, though he was never able to finish this dream.

Merlin photographed various businesses and buildings in Bathurst, both public and private, around December 1873, after which he visited the township of Orange.

He then went on to Dubbo before coming back through Orange on his way to Carcoar and then on to Goulburn on the road back to Sydney, arriving at the end of August.

This journey must have been a challenge for the photographer as he died within a month of his return to the Sydney metropolis. Merlin passed away on September 27, 1873, at just 43 years old.

Holtermann had Merlin’s able and capable photographic assistant Bayliss continue on his Great Exposition project.

- Alan McRae is from the Bathurst District Historical Society