WASHBOURNE, Thomas J.
[NATURAL HISTORY] Two platypus specimens [Ornithorhynchus anatinus]
Stereoscopic albumen print photograph (78 x 70 mm each image) on original pale yellow card mount, late 1860s, inscribed in contemporary hand in ink verso: “Platypus” and “Washbourne Photo”. (These inscriptions are in the same hand, quite possibly that of the photographer himself). Light foxing to both images, otherwise very good condition with excellent clarity and rich tonal range.
The travelling photographer Thomas Washbourne was prolific in his recording of life and scenery in the colony of Victoria. In the late 1860s he produced a well known series of images of Victorian Aborigines as cartes de visite for commercial sale, as well as a series of stereoscopic prints of Melbourne and surrounding regional areas. He is not recorded as working as a photographer after 1869 (Davies & Stanbury, 'The mechanical eye in Australia : photography 1841-1900'). The two platypus in this photograph are of course taxidermy specimens and are photographed in a museum cabinet, possibly in the Melbourne Museum (founded in 1854), which focused on natural history displays at this time. There appears to be no record of any extant photograph of a platypus – dead or alive – taken before this photograph by Washbourne. In fact, there appears to be no recorded photograph of a platypus specimen taken within ten years of this date. Furthermore, this photograph is not recorded in any Australian collection, making it an image of paramount symbolic importance.
The strange appearance and characteristics of the platypus confounded the scientists who first encountered sketches or specimens of the animal after its initial discovery in 1798. A pelt and sketch of a platypus were sent to England that year, and the animal was first described by George Shaw, keeper of Natural History at the British Museum, in his work 'The Naturalist's Miscellany' (1799). Shaw was so sceptical as to the genuine nature of the animal that he even attempted to separate the bill from the pelt to look for taxidermist's stitches. This specimen, the first to leave Australia, is still preserved in the British Museum.