[Possibly Frederick FRITH, 1819-1871]
Ivorytype portrait of Laura Lilias Scratchley, wife of Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Scratchley, Melbourne, January 1863.
This masterful portrait of the beautiful Laura Lilias Scratchley, sister of Thomas Alexander Browne (the author ‘Rolf Boldrewood’), was created when she was 19 years and 4 months old, soon after her marriage to Lieutenant-Colonel Scratchley of the Royal Engineers (later Sir Peter Scratchley, colonial administrator). It is an extremely rare Australian example – the earliest known – of a photographic process that demanded over-painting by an artist of the highest calibre, in order to achieve the effect of a delicate portrait on ivory.
[Melbourne : possibly Frederick Frith], January 17 1863. American ivorytype, full plate size, 215 x 170 mm, overpainted salt-print and backing paper between two sheets of glass (still sealed, perfectly preserved); original papered backing board (now separated) with contemporary inscription ‘Lily / Jan. 17. 1863. 19 4/12’ and later identifying caption by a descendant of the sitter; original gold-painted moulded plaster and wood frame (separated).
Laura Lilias Brown (1843-1917) was the youngest daughter of Sylvester and Elizabeth Brown, and was born on her father’s property, Hartlands, at Heidelberg, near Melbourne, in 1843. Her older brother was Thomas Alexander Brown (later Browne), who was to write Robbery under arms under the pseudonym Rolf Boldrewood. ‘Lily’ married Peter Scratchley (1835-1885), military engineer, at St. John’s Church, Heidelberg, on 13 November 1862. Scratchley had arrived in Melbourne from England in 1860, with the rank of Captain. He was responsible for making recommendations concerning the improvement of defences in Melbourne and Geelong, and was made Honorary Colonel of the newly-formed Victorian Artillery. The portrait of Lily was made in Melbourne on January 17 1863, and her gold wedding ring is deliberately shown by the artist. Scratchley sailed for England with his young Australian bride at the end of 1863. However, the couple would return to Australia in 1878, when Scratchley became Commissioner of Defences for all of the Australasian colonies. Lily became Lady Laura Lilias Scratchley when her husband received his knighthood in June 1885, just prior to his untimely death while serving as Commissioner for the Protectorate of New Guinea.
During the 1850s and 1860s, in Europe, North America and also Australia, there was a vogue for overpainted photographic portraits which led to a bewildering number of processes and patents. The many processes that involved the overpainting of a paper print made from a wet collodion negative often had their own variant techniques, and one term could, rather confusingly, describe quite distinct processes. This is the case with the ivorytype. Originally patented by the English photographer Mayall in 1855 to describe his process of overpainting a positive image on natural or imitation ivory, the term was also used later in the same year by the American photographer Wenderoth in his patented ‘American ivorytype’. In this process, a paper salt-print is affixed to a glass sheet and overpainted using dense colouring. Another glass sheet is then coated with melted wax and the painted salt-print is pressed onto and smoothed against its clear waxed surface. When held to the light the resultant image is translucent. A variant technique involves the use of a second sheet of light-coloured backing paper (as in the present example), or a second, uncoloured, paper print, to create a luminous, three-dimensional effect.
The earliest Australian advertisement mentioning ivorytypes we can locate is from April 1863 (E. de Balk at Turner’s Portrait Gallery in Geelong). In November 1863 Thomas Glaister in Sydney advertised ‘IVORYTYPES. Those beautiful pictures, which, for softness of colouring and brilliancy of detail have been hitherto unequalled, are now being produced, for the first time in Australia, at this favourite gallery.’ The portrait of Lily pre-dates these advertisements by a clear margin. However, the ivorytype process was already familiar to some Melbourne photographers. In mid 1862, when the entrepreneurial American photographer Charles Wilson attempted to obtain a patent in Victoria for the sennotype, a process he falsely claimed to have “invented”, he was successfully challenged by Batchelder & O’Neill, William Perry and Frederick Frith, on the grounds that the sennotype was merely another name for ivorytype – ideed it was, the process being virtually identical to the American ivorytype. None of the charlatan Wilson’s sennotypes has been identified; but examples by Hobart photographer Alfred Bock, to whom, along with Townsend Duryea (Adelaide), he sold the “rights” to his process, are known. In Melbourne’s The Age, on 18 August 1862, a notice appeared advertising sennotypes by artist-photographer Frederick Frith. Frith had recently arrived in Melbourne from Hobart Town (where his brother Henry was also a professional photographer), and had worked briefly with Wilson before opening his own studio. He was highly skilled in the art of overpainting photographs, having used various techniques since 1855. Wilson publicly stated that Frith had ‘never obtained any of my chemical secrets, and the pictures which he and his brother [Henry] … palm off on the public are not true sennotypes, but base imitations’. Contrary to Wilson’s slur, Frederick Frith was unquestionably one of very few artists in Melbourne in January 1863 capable of producing this portrait of Lily. We can only speculate as to whether the artist would have referred to it as an ivorytype or sennotype.
There appear to be no other photographic portraits of Lily in public collections The portrait of ‘Lady Scratchley’ by Debenham of London held by the National Library of Australia (#PIC/7322) is incorrectly identified as ‘Laura Browne, sister of Rolf Boldrewood’. It is in fact a portrait of one of her two daughters, taken around 1890.