The woman in the white dress is an all too common photographic trope. She is a romantic figure, but does that ideal reflect on the lives of the men who created her?
Andrew Eskind, who kindly encourages my blog posts from time to time, recently contacted me seeking information about an Australian photographer, saying he was…
“…reasonably confident that Brooks, Thornley and Thornley, J. Brooks are the same individual from Sydney participating in 1890s Salons in Paris, Hamburg, Brussels, etc. Which is the proper name? Might you have life dates, pob/pod, by chance? 5 exhibits (that we know of) from 1896-1900 implies reasonable continuity of interest. So many of these salon exhibitors were semi-serious amateurs.”
Eskind is Editor/Project Director, with Greg Drake, Co-editor at the Photography Database, so useful to me for dates, that began as a series of reference books beginning with Index to American Photographic Collections in 1982, updated as International Photography, George Eastman House Index to Photographers, Collections, and Exhibitions in 1998, and incorporated in the cataloging system at George Eastman House. Eskind and Drake co-edit it as it continues to build on their more than 40 years of research.
To oblige a researcher of such caliber, I turned first to my reference books only to find nothing, but a search of the Library of Australia online collection turned up 367 newspaper editions with at least mentions of him, the earliest being 1893, also a few magazines, and links to images. In Newspapers.com were a few overseas papers who make reference to him. Of course Gael Newton has beaten me to him in her review of The Falk Studios: The Theatrical Portrait Photography of H. Walter Barnett. He takes the stage briefly in her footnote;
“Walter Barnett cut his ties with the Sydney Falk studio around 1900. The studio had been run since 1897 by the British chemist turned photographer from Melbourne John H.S. Brooks-Thornley (1868-1936) firstly in partnership with Barnett’s financiers Aaron and G. Louis Blashki, then as owner from 1901 until circa 1920.”
That he was a British migrant to Australia can be only obliquely confirmed with the one reference to his chemistry background, in Proceedings of the Chemical Society, London of 1890 in which it is noted that Certificates were read for three members including “John Brooks Thornley, Ivanhoe Terrace, Ashby
de-la-Zouch,” the latter being a town in the heart of England in North West Leicestershire. In that same year he used that qualification in his first employment in Australia at the chemical works of Felton and Grimwade.
Though one of the partners was Alfred Felton whose interest in art prompted the Bequest in his name that supported purchases for the National Gallery of Victoria, this was a forbidding industrial empire. The company produced pharmaceuticals and leeches, laboratory glassware and a range of chemicals, most grim being ‘bi-sulphide of carbon’ used for pest fumigation and in vulcanising rubber, but with toxic effects so drastic that one factory had to install bars on its windows to prevent workers with the psycho-neurosis it caused from leaping to their deaths.
Little wonder that Brooks-Thornley (1868–1936) pursued other interests, perhaps encouraged by the other partner’s son Harold William Grimwade, a year younger than he, whose photography was displayed, as the The Age of 6 June 1893 reported, “at the Freemasons’ Hall, Collins-street, in aid of the Hospital for Sick Children and the Austin Hospital” beside those of “Messrs. J. Brooks, Thornley,” (the article confusing the hyphen in the reporter’s notes for a comma). Brooks-Thornley was one of The Working Men’s College (now RMIT) Photo Club exhibitors at that show. Clearly he had opted for an education in photography there in order to spread his wings. The State Library of Victoria dates this picture 1896 and though the date doesn’t appear with the dashing signature, below the latter he writes ‘For Copyright’, so perhaps 1896 is the date he submitted the picture, and the others discussed here, for registration.
A woman dressed in white walks into an unspoilt Victorian landscape along a creek. It is apparently blocked by a large boulder. Was it that feature that prompted the title The Quarrel? Or had the picture been planned around the idea? The figure walks away with her back to us, turning slightly to show a firmly set jaw outlined against the dark waters. Does she face across the creek the one who inspired her wrath, or is does the camera lens serve as that person’s eyes?
Feasibly Brooks-Thonley’s accomplished composition could be one he exhibited at the Vierte Jahresausstellung der Gesellschaft zur Förderung der Amateur Photographie (Fourth annual exhibition of the Society for the Promotion of Amateur Photography) November 1896 in Hamburg, one of five international salon catalogues between 1896-1900 in which Andrew Eskind found Brooks-Thornley’s name. Previously, on 15 April 1895, he had won a first prize for an ‘Art Picture’ in The Intercolonial Photographic exhibition at the Gordon Technical College here in Geelong.
Women in white dresses somehow unblemished by the rugged bush surroundings appear in near-contemporary works by Australian Heidelberg School painter Tom Roberts. Two of them form a pair.
A Summer Morning Tiff develops the same theme as The Quarrel, but is more complex, as a painting better permits. Here we see both protagonists, connected only by the trace of a bush track through summer grasses. She, rather red-faced, cocks her head sulkily. He, making a wounded departure, grumpily cinches the horse’s girth strap. The dog, that symbol of faithfulness, stands between, undecided on whom to set its allegiance. The saplings themselves seem to vaccilate.
A much larger painting from the following year is here in the Castlemaine Art Museum (a big favourite with visitors). In it the same couple reconcile, she still hurt and reluctant, as he draws her close. Embers of evening light glow through the trees, the cooling forest a balm to inflamed emotions. Her dress remains unsullied.
Though the 10 years separation in dates makes it seem likely, would the photographer have seen the paintings and so drawn inspiration from them? As Newton notes, he had taken up his position at Falk Studio in Sydney, which he was to own and manage from 1901.
The white dress certainly was popular at this time, especially for Australian women because it suited them in a hot climate, but their mise-en-scène above signifies so much more at this time due to the precedent of Whistler’s iconic Symphony in White, No 1: The White Girl (1862), or Woman in White, which engendered many imitations and had aroused controversy over whether its symbolism represented the goddess or the “fallen” woman. Its effect was amplified in the popular reading of Wilkie Collins’ recent mystery novelWoman in White, published 1860. Whiteness, of clothing or of race, was of course associated then with perfection and virtue, but always at the risk of corruption; Whistler’s auburn-haired woman, with broken blooms at her feet, may be ‘deflowered’, but stands triumphant over the pelt of her male ‘victim’.
There is a corresponding appeal of seductiveness, romantic wistfulness or victimhood in these other photographs that Brooks-Thornley made at the end of the century, all conveyed in the figure of the woman in white, and the flowers, crushed in the hand of the subject of Jilted.
A version of the above titled more innocently In Unreproved Pleasures Free, and of Goodbye below, won him £20 (equal now to $2,600) in the April 1898 Australian Town and Country Journal competition where it is described as “the result of true artistic feeling in connection with photography” the work of “an amateur photographer, of 56 Margaret-street, Sydney,” though we know by then he was managing a professional studio; choosing financial incentive over integrity is to prove irresistible to him.
The latter image exposes another connection between the photographer and the painter Tom Roberts, who had been able to successfully make Reonciliation so large (though only half the scale of Whistler’s masterpiece), because barely augmenting painting sales with work as a photographer’s assistant, he took commissions to paint the vast theatre ‘act drops’ that covered the stage at intervals in the performance. Falk Studios was operating in both Sydney and from 1895, in Melbourne. As Gael Newton describes, they were the go-to for actors seeking suitably theatrical portraits and representations of their performances, 1,600 of which survive in the Falk Album. Perhaps as a result of contact with that clientele, Thornley-Brooks’ most elaborate image also conveys the sense of the theatrical narrative not only with the scenario of The end of the book but also in its part-artificially-lit Victorian indoor setting which is created in his studio.
The Sydney Morning Herald informs readers on 7 March 1899 that Falk Studios represents;
“some of the most recent advances in the art of photography. The premises have lately been renovated and extended, one well-appointed studio being set apart for the use of the new manager, Mr. Brooks Thornley. The apartment, which is furnished practically in drawing-room style, has been so arranged that the scheme of colouring is harmonious throughout. This department is devoted to the production of the lamplight pictures, which the company has lately successfully produced. It was explained to those present that these pictures, which are noteworthy for their generally excellent effect, besides their originality, have obtained in London and Paris the higest awards. Amongst the exhibits which attracted considerable attenion were some dainty little easel portraits, and there were a number of miniatures and medallions. The latter device became extremely popular in the United States. Three new processes of photographic production were explained. Mr. Brooks Thornley was thanked by the visitors”
Under his ownership the Studios attracted celebrities; the Australasian photo-review of June 1901 reports that their portrait of “Her Royal Highness The Duchess is one which the Princess herself very much favoured.”
Eagerly building on his booming reputation, Brooks-Thornley’s second business, in Melbourne, was opened by the Lord Mayor in September 1909. Eliding his hyphenated monicker the prosperous businessman called it “Broothorn” Studios and commissioned quarters for it more glorious than of its companion in Sydney;
“The studios themselves and their decoration, designed and carried out in their entirety by a Melbourne firm of architects and decorators, are calculated to make for all that is enticing and to the comfort of the sitter. The woodwork of deepest-violet blends into the old gold and brown tints of the wall coverings to a fashion that is as artistic as it is daring in its conception. The stained glass work, also that of a Melbourne firm, it would be difficult indeed to surpass in its design, or the rendering of its colours. The main ‘operating” room is as far removed from the conventional studio as can well be imagined, and except for the presence of the camera and a background or two, might easily be mistaken for a comfortable lounge. In addition, an orchestrelle is there to discourse such music as may befit the occasion. With the strains of “The Voice that Breathed O’er Eden’ echoing down the corridor, what bride could help but to wear again the expression of dreamy ecstasy which so commended her looks to her envious sisters and friends on that happiest day of all?”
It specialised in ‘photo-drawing’ in which The Argus found it “difficult to distinguish where the mechanical process of depicting by light began, and where the line and colour work of the artist ended.”
It is here in his career that despite supervising “all sittings under his personal direction” that our photographer abandons his talent, opting for a ruthless pursuit of wealth and fame, and given his notoriety, one may follow his inverted ‘Rake’s Progress’ in some detail through the press. Frequently in the law courts, he becomes litigious. Appropriately for a businessman wanting to corner the market, he invested as a partner in The Great Peak Silver Mining Company at Yerranderie but got out before a rolling strike in 1927 destroyed the business and left a ghost town. He was a committee member in 1912 of the Associated Employers of Professional Photographers of N.S.W., a precursor to the Australian professional association, but a trip to visit American studios necessitated his being an apology in their meetings. He returned with determination to raise his profits to US standards and to install the latest in electric lighting in his studios.
Brooks-Thornley was more active in the Automobile Club of Australia in 1913, but tragedy struck on 15 June 1914 as he traveled as passenger, in his chauffeured car with Ethel Warwick, leading lady in Sealed Orders at Her Majesty’s Theatre and once a model for Whistler.
They collided with a motorcycle and sidecar. The motorbike driver, a city jeweller, Alfred Pratt, suffered a broken arm and leg and was dragged along under the wheel of the car while his ten-year-old daughter Eleanor was catapulted from the sidecar and hurled against the doorway of a bank at the corner of the intersection suffering severe internal injuries. There were several witnesses, including two policemen, who in court belied statements of the chauffeur and the owner of the car who denied they were traveling at speed and over the centre of the road. The chauffeur was fined the current equivalent of $1,077.37.
The incident does not seem to have softened his stony heart as his next action in court was to take all the tools of trade of his seamstress for default in rent, just as he had fired and had fined one employee leaving him financially unable to return to his family in England. After that photographer’s replacement quit to move on to the studio of Charles Kerry (President of the Professional Photographers of NSW whose meetings Brooks-Thornley then avoided), he enforced a £300 bond barring him from any photographic work for two years. He pursued a widely publicised and fierce suit against his brokers over their dealings in his Malay tin mine shares, eventually having the initial judgement against him overturned in the High Court.
By 1918 and indulging in many a social whirl he was wealthy enough to make a grand show of bidding 139 guineas (now worth $13,259.29) at a Red Cross charity auction of the American flag.
At 53 he quietly married New Zealander Kathleen Mulholland in 1921 and the two spent their time in travel and social events at Sydney’s The Ambassadors restaurant before a messy divorce on the grounds of her adultery five years later. She sold her possessions from their flat in harbour-side Tarana at prestigious Pott’s Point, but her alimony was never settled. In the meantime with others he started Walder Real Estate but appears less frequently in the press. Truth newspaper shows him at a regatta in the guise of an overstuffed, but unsatiated and humourless, cigar-chomping capitalist.
He traveled often, again to America, and through Asia where he collected antiques and curios, summing up the experience in a brief 1934 interview;
“China—Lovely place, most interestIng: sorry I did not have the time to remain there for a longer period. Japan—best country I know of—that is to keep out of. It is a d——— rotten hole.”
It was in Java that he snapped this image;
Does it signify some suppressed but indelible regret over the maiming of a little girl for which he bore some guilt, having required his chauffeur to speed so precipitously in his haste to see friends in Sassafras? Was she dressed in white?
Notices appear in May 1936 announcing: “DEATHS : BROOKS-THORNLEY.–May 3. at Buckhurst, Point Piper, John Hamilton Scot Brooks-Thornley aged 68. By request, privately cremated May 4.” That was followed by two-line memorial notices from a Thelma Naunton, then manager of Broothorn and two years later when, on 2 February 1938;
“Four mysterious explosions sent flames leaping 100 ft. through the Broothorn photographic studios in Albany court, Collins street, Melbourne, on Tuesday afternoon. Two men and a girl and three firemen were injured. In a few seconds, a film storeroom, at the rear of the main reception room, was blazing fiercely. One blast of flame and fumes swept the entire length or the reception rooms, shattering a number of windows, and hurling three firemen to the floor.”
It was on 22 April, the date of this post, that in the year of his death John Hamilton Scott Brooks-Thornley, wrote his will, leaving property in New South Wales and personal estate in Victoria of a gross value of £21,149 (worth $2,082,259.61 now) to his brother (much younger and also a chemist) and “other relatives and friends.” His goods and chattels, including a staggering array of antique Asian artefacts and furniture, Buddhas and lacquer screens, sold at auction from his apartment in Buckhurst in Point Piper.
Brooks-Thornley had relinquished management but not ownership of Broothorn Studios in the late 1920s and it retained that name well into the 1950s. In 1934 it produced this photograph of Jessie Brookes dressed as the ‘State of Victoria’ for celebrations of the centennial of the state. ‘Victoria’ was named in honour of the Queen and is the name of the Roman goddess of victory, but the silver and white dress Brookes is wearing, designed and made by women of course, is charged with male symbols, from the phallic structure of Government House painted on the skirt (and painted again in colour over the monochrome print by the retouchers at Broothorn, all women); the aboriginal shields and boomerangs of the green cape; and the ‘crown’ — one of the string of electricity pylons that still disfigure the landscape of the state.