# 29755


[SPIRIT PHOTOGRAPHY] Six studio portraits of actors in costume. Castlemaine, Victorian goldfields, 1869-71.

$2,500.00 AUD

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Six albumen print photographs in carte de visite format, 102 x 64 mm (mounts), versos with the highly decorative imprint of ‘W. G. Cearns, Photographer, Mostyn Street (one door from Market Square), Castlemaine‘; one of the backs also bears a caption in ink which identifies the actor on the front as ‘John Brown’; three of the prints have some minor spotting, otherwise all are in fine condition, as are the mounts.

An intriguing suite of studio portraits, probably of actors in a travelling theatrical troupe. They were taken by a professional photographer working on the Victorian goldfields about whom precious little is known, but who, it seems, was a pioneer of spirit photography in the Australian colonies. Contemporary newspaper reports from 1869 (see below) would suggest that W. G. Cearns was among the earliest – and very possibly, was the first – practitioner of spirit photography in Australia. However, none of Cearns’ spirit photographs, produced while he was an assistant at Charles Wherrett’s Castlemaine studio in 1869, are known to be extant. The enigmatic Cearns is also highly obscure: he is not mentioned by Davies & Stanbury (Mechanical Eye), and we have not been able to trace any other photographs with Cearns’ own Castlemaine studio back mark in Australian collections.

We know that W. G. Cearns was active as a photographer in Hong Kong, in partnership with Wiebeking, in 1866 and possibly 1865. This partnership was officially dissolved on 24 September 1867.

A shipping notice in The Australasian, 28 September 1867, records that W. G. Cearns arrived at Hobson’s Bay, Melbourne on the barque Ino on 21 September, having embarked as a cabin passenger at Foo-chow-foo on 6 July.

Cearns then spent some time as a photographer in Hobart. The following advertisement was published in The Tasmanian Times, 19 November 1868: ‘W. G. Cearns Photographer, 22 Elizabeth Street. New Lenses, Cameras, &c., just arrived by last English Mail.’

However, the business did not prosper and Cearns fell into financial difficulties, to the point where he could no longer manage to pay his rent, resulting in the forced sale of his equipment and other contents of his studio. This notice appeared in The Mercury, 2 February 1869: ‘This Day, TUESDAY, 2nd February. Redpath agst. W. G. Cearns. GEORGE BURN Will sell by auction, at the mart, Elizabeth-street THIS DAY, the 2nd inst., at 11 o’clock, under distraint for rent, SUNDRY CHEMICALS, 3 show frames, a number of photograph portraits, colors, head rest, counter, matting, background, iron rods and sundries. Terms-Cash.

He must then have returned to Victoria by the middle of 1869, as an article in the Mount Alexander Mail, 15 September 1869, reports on Cearns’ spirit photographs, produced during his time as an assistant to the Castlemaine photographer, Charles Wherrett. Two days later, in the same newspaper, an even lengthier article appeared headed Spiritual Photographs at Castlemaine. The Melbourne newspaper, the Weekly Times, deemed the Mail story worthy of comment in an editorial a few days later, on 18 September 1869: ‘Spiritual photographs at Castlemaine, says the Mail, continue to attract the attention of our local savants. The operator (W. G. Cearns) by whom they are taken, has been narrowly watched, and the studio of Mr. Wherrett examined ; but, to the curious, the mystery of the process still remains unsolved.’

A short time later Cearns evidently left Wherrett, and we find him working under his own name, with a studio in the centre of Castlemaine. The following advertisement appeared in the Mount Alexander Mail, 13 January 1870: ‘Now open: Cearns’ New Portrait Rooms, Mostyn Street. One door from Market Square.’

Cearns continued to advertise in the Mail throughout January, February and March 1870.

On 26 August 1871 a funeral notice appeared in the same newspaper: ‘Members of the Light Horse are requested to attend the funeral of the late Mr Cearns tomorrow. Mr Cearns, photographer, formerly of Mostyn-street, died yesterday morning. Being a member of the Volunteer corps, he will be buried with military honors. The deceased for some time suffering from consumption. The Volunteer band meet this evening for practice.

It may not be mere coincidence that Cearns’s former employer in Castlemaine, the photographer Charles Wherrett, moved to Tasmania after Cearns’s death and opened a studio in Hobart Town in 1872; perhaps his move was in response to advice from Cearns, who had possibly impressed upon Wherrett that Hobart was a place full of lucrative commercial opportunities. (Cearns had perhaps kept the account of his own dismal business failure in Hobart to himself).