[THOMAS ADAMS HILL]; GLENNY, Henry (1835-1910)
Photographic portrait of the explorer Robert O’Hara Burke
Mid-1860 [but probably published early 1863]. Albumen print photograph with hand colouring, carte de visite format, amount 105 x 63 mm, vignetted image 50 x 50 mm, recto of mount inscribed in contemporary hand ‘Bourke’ (sic), and verso inscribed in the same hand (with the correct spelling) ‘Burke’; no studio imprint; albumen print with faint line of oxidisation above the subject, else fine; the mount also fine, and free from foxing; [TOGETHER WITH] Photographic portrait of the Victorian goldfields photographer Henry Glenny. Albumen print photograph with hand colouring, carte de visite format, amount 105 x 63 mm, vignetted image 50 x 50 mm; no studio imprint, but attributable to Glenny himself; a few toning spots, else fine.
A rare portrait photograph of Robert O’Hara Burke, one of the most celebrated figures in the history of Australian exploration.
As early as 1857 the Royal Society of Victoria had begun to plan and organise an expedition which would seek to traverse Australia from south to north. With Burke as leader and Wills third-in-command, the Victorian Exploring Expedition set out from Melbourne in August 1860 and arrived at the Gulf of Carpentaria in February 1861. On the epic return journey, Burke and Wills were to perish at Cooper’s Creek. No fewer than six different search expeditions were mounted, and in April 1862 Alfred Howitt’s party successfully located and exhumed the remains of Burke and Wills, which were brought back to Melbourne, arriving there on December 29, 1862.
This portrait of Burke, published posthumously very early in 1863, is one of only a handful of photographic portraits that are known of the explorer. It is taken from an ambrotype photograph attributed to Melbourne photographer Thomas Adams Hill, which was taken just prior to the expedition’s departure in mid 1860. (Hill’s original ambrotype, along with its companion ambrotype of Wills, is held in the collection of the State Library of New South Wales). The National Library of Australia holds a carte de visite bearing a variant of the same vignetted image – but without the hand tinting – which was published by the Melbourne studio of Johnstone & Co. The State Library of Victoria holds a carte de visite with another variant of the same image, in oval format. The fact that several variants of the same image were published simultaneously suggests that the legal status of the sale rights of Hill’s images may have been unclear, with a number of Melbourne (and regional Victorian – see below) photographic studios seeking to turn a quick profit from the souvenir market.
Used as the basis for numerous engraved portraits and paintings that appeared in 1863 – part of a vast number of commemorative works created that included a wax works diorama and permanent monuments – Hill’s ambrotype portrait remains the most well-known image of Robert O’Hara Burke. Once the full, tragic story of the expedition became known, the fate of Burke and Wills gripped the public’s imagination like no other event was to do in the colonial era. However, photographic images of Burke and Wills which are contemporary with these events are very seldom encountered on the market, and very few are recorded in Australian public collections.
The present carte de visite of Robert O’Hara Burke came from the personal carte de visite album of Henry Glenny, a pioneer photographer on the central Victorian goldfields. Glenny had arrived in Port Phillip from Ireland in 1853, and opened his first studio in Castlemaine in 1857. By the early 1860s he operated studios concurrently in Ballarat, Kyneton and Castlemaine. His personal album contained portraits of the photographer and his family, as well as views of his Ballarat house and photographic studios. We offer the Burke portrait together with Glenny’s self-portrait carte de visite, also removed from this album. Both the Glenny portrait and the O’Hara Burke carte de visite were quite clearly vignetted and tinted by the same hand, a fact which points strongly to Glenny having pirated and published the Hill ambrotype image of Burke in order to market it to his goldfields clientele. Glenny – or, quite possibly, a talented artist assistant – added the hand tinting to elevate this “version” above the uncoloured cartes de visite of Burke being published by Melbourne competitors such as Davies and Johnstone.