[ST. HELENA] Ste. Hélène. Tombeau de l’Empereur / St. Helena. The Emperor’s Tomb.
Paris : Chamray, Photog. Editeur, 25 Avenue Montaigne, [c1870]. Albumen print photograph, cabinet card format (168 x 112 mm, mount), verso with later inscription in ink: ‘This photograph was brought from St. Helena in 1852, by Frederick Banks. He was on his way to Australia & New Zealand in the “Great Britain” (Captain Grey) on her first voyage to Australia, the first steamship to go there. Fred took willow twigs from the spot & they were planted in Australia & on the banks of the river Avon in Christchurch New Zealand. I.M.B.’; the albumen print is in very good condition; the mount has a softened top right corner, but is clean and free from foxing; [together with] a carte de visite portrait dating to around 1880 by Wheeler & Son, Christchurch, of a bearded gentleman identified verso in the same handwriting as that on the cabinet card as ‘Frederick Banks’ (Banks settled in Christchurch and owned the magnificent residence known as Wildwood); in good condition.
An interesting pair of nineteenth century photographs with a St. Helena association.
The writer of the inscriptions on the back of the mounts is almost certainly Isabel Banks, wife of Frederick Banks. Her inscription on the back of the photograph of Napoleon’s tomb contains two errors. Records show that the SS Great Britain did indeed carry a passenger by the name of Banks on its maiden voyage to Australia and New Zealand in 1852, and that in the South Atlantic the ship was obliged to detour back to St. Helena to take on more coal. However, the captain on this voyage was a Captain Matthews (although it is worth noting that the first mate was a John Gray, and that he did later receive a promotion to captain).
The second error in Isabel’s inscription is the fact that this view of Napoleon’s tomb cannot possibly date to 1852. The albumen print was not in common use until the late 1850s, and the cabinet card format not until the 1870s; furthermore, the fashion worn by the ladies in the photograph dates the image to the 1860s. We suspect that Frederick Banks must have acquired the photograph at a later date, probably on a subsequent voyage to or from Europe. It is evident that the photograph was taken (by an unidentified photographer) on St. Helena at some point in the 1860s, and reproduced by the Paris studio of Chamray during the 1870s.
Despite the inconsistencies in Isabel’s inscription, the view of Napoleon’s tomb is of a significantly early date for a photograph taken on St. Helena. In the image we can clearly see the willow tree alongside the railings protecting the tomb. A number of others aside from Frederick Banks have laid claim to having taken willow cuttings from Napoleon’s tomb on St. Helena and planted them in Australia and New Zealand, among them the colonial civil servant William Balcombe (1777-1829), at whose residence, The Briars, Napoleon had lodged while his quarters at Longwood were being prepared. Balcombe was Colonial Secretary of New South Wales from 1824 until his death in 1829. In 1846 the youngest of his five chidren, Alexander Beatson Balcombe, who had settled in the Port Phillip district, took over the run Chen Chen Gurruck, or Tichingorourke, on the Mornington Peninsula, changing the name to The Briars.