FREEMAN, George John
Vignette portrait of a woman. Adelaide, circa 1864.
Albumen print photograph, carte de visite format, 104 x 64 mm (mount); verso with the imprint of ‘Geo. J. Freeman, Photographist. 97, Hindley Street, Adelaide, S. A.’; both print and mount are in very good condition.
A rare early example of a carte de visite studio portrait by George J. Freeman.
From Gael Newton’s excellent biographical sketch of Freeman in the DAAO:
‘George John Freeman … professional photographer and photographic showman, was born on 17 January 1843 in London, son of George Freeman, a trader in base metals, and Eliza, née Alderson. He arrived at South Australia on 3 January 1861 in the Countess of Fife , travelling with his father and step-mother Selina, née Hague. He had experimented with photography as a youth at Bayswater School and had perhaps followed this up with some professional experience in London, for almost straight away he established a photographic studio in Hindley Street, Adelaide, in partnership with another young photographic hopeful, Edward Belcher. Their partnership was to continue, on and off, for several years: at 97 Hindley Street from 1861 (although Freeman was sole proprietor from 1864) and opposite the Adelaide Town Hall in 1866-67 (called the Town Hall Photographic Gallery in 1867).
Freeman seems always to have been less interested in the bread-and-butter side of the photographic business than his erstwhile partner. Throughout his professional career he enthusiastically experimented with the latest processes and techniques, at times being as much a photographic entrepreneur as a practitioner. In December 1864, as a result of some ‘chemical experiments’, there was an explosion and fire in the cellar of the Hindley Street premises he had lately shared with Belcher; according to the newspaper reports he was knocked unconscious and suffered serious injuries to his face and hands.
The following year he produced the first double photographic portraits known to have been taken in the colony. The South Australian Register described one as ‘two portraits of the same gentleman, one sitting without his hat and looking upward, and the other standing, with his hat on looking downward. They are evidently portraits of one person … The thing is ingenious’. In 1874 the South Australian Advertiser applauded Freeman’s ‘triple portrait, showing the face of the Emperor of Prussia, the late Emperor of the French, and Prince Bismarck, all in one bust, having a common neck and cranium’ which the Register referred to as ‘a three-headed monster’.
From the early 1870s Freeman called his business (located in Rundle Street until 1882 and in King William Street in 1883-84) the Melbourne Photographic Company. The name suggests that Freeman may have previously visited Victoria; indeed, an otherwise unidentified firm of that name had been operating in the gold-mining town of Heathcote in June 1865 when it was reported that a young man had ordered six cartes-de-visite after posing in rags and tatters, chalked face and mournful expression in order to touch the heart (and pocket) of an uncle at home in England. By 1874, however, Freeman had more than a nominal link with Melbourne; his company was sole South Australian agent for the Art Union of Victoria and he published an album of Adelaide views in conjunction with Edward James Wivell, thought to be the Wivell who had been in partnership with H.J. Johnstone at Melbourne in 1857. (E.J. Wivell was secretary for the Melbourne Photographic Company until December 1878.) Freeman forged links with Johnstone as well. He frequently exhibited Johnstone’s paintings at the company’s gallery (lending three of them to the Chamber of Manufactures Exhibition of Art and Industry in 1877), as well as exhibiting Johnstone & O’Shannessy’s photographs of Governor Jervois (taken in Melbourne) in 1877.
During the 1870s Freeman was probably Adelaide’s leading fine arts entrepreneur. In 1873 he presented a ‘dissolving view and oxyhydrogen light’ show of morally-uplifting scenes from Illustrations from the Life of Christ (after Dor?), The Bottle and The Drunkard’s Children (both after Cruikshank) and The Pilgrim’s Progress . In August 1874 he presented an exhibition of British and colonial paintings and photographs in the Adelaide Town Hall which was, the newspapers assured their readers, ‘distinct from magic lantern pictures’. After the success of this venture Freeman opened a special picture gallery attached to the Melbourne Photographic Company’s studio and in October encouraged ‘colonial artists to send their productions for exhibition’. Here he exhibited the paintings won by South Australian subscribers to the Victorian Art Union and, later, the paintings offered as prizes in the art unions he organised himself.
Meanwhile Freeman’s reputation as an innovative and up-to-date photographer increased. The press reported every novelty; Freeman, according to the Advertiser , ‘like the Athenians of old, is always looking out for something new’. He experimented with luminous paint (to make photographs which glowed in the dark), glass transparencies (small-size for magic lanterns, large-size for windows), coloured sunsets and moonrises (‘the peculiar greenish tint observable in the moon’s rays is faithfully represented’), and instantaneous action photographs using Philip Marchant’s recently patented dry plates, assisted by flash powder. In November 1879 he debunked the new craze for ‘spirit photographs’ by demonstrating how these could be faked merely by partially pre-exposing the plate to form light patches or ‘spirits’.
Freeman took several views of Adelaide in 1875 for the South Australian commissioners for the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876. Two of his photographs were panoramas of the city: the first, 11 feet long (3.35 m), was taken from the top of the Advertiser building, the second, 6 feet (1.82 m), from Montefiore Hill. By 1877 he had a new ’22 × 18 inch [55.8 × 45.7 cm] camera’. With views taken by this camera he won a bronze medal at the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1878 and third prize at the Sydney International in 1879. He also exhibited views of South Australia ‘well calculated to give a clear conception of our progress in architecture and the character of some of our scenery’ at the Melbourne International Exhibition in 1880.
Freeman married Mary Sarah Goodhart on Christmas Eve 1876; they had five children. He no longer lived on the premises as he had in his Hindley-Street days; when a fire broke out in the Melbourne Photographic Company’s studio on 26 February 1879 he had to be summoned to the scene by his apprentice from his home in North Adelaide. A large number of negatives (uninsured) were lost in the fire.
Notwithstanding his continuing high profile in the South Australian press, Freeman moved his business to New South Wales in 1884. Still styling himself the Melbourne Photographic Company, he worked at Newcastle in 1884 (his photograph of the wreck of the Susan Gilmore was reproduced in the Sydney Mail ), in Reynolds Street, Balmain (1886 87), and in Church Street, Parramatta (1887 89). He had returned to Adelaide by 1892, where he set up a camera obscura entertainment at Glenelg Beach. He died in Adelaide on 5 April 1895.
During its heyday in Adelaide, the Melbourne Photographic Company outdid the declining studios of Townsend Duryea and Robert Hall. Freeman’s photographic career encompassed both devil-may-care showmanship and a business-like consolidation of the views trade. In the former, he resembled early travelling photographers such as Newland; in the latter, he was the South Australian equivalent of Melbourne’s Charles Nettleton and Sydney’s Charles Pickering, who exploited the emergent views trade of the 1860s to become the massive industry it was in the 1870s.