January 30: Atmotic

Date #30The merest atmotic mist of metallic vapour is all that is the image on a daguerreotype plate. Through that how may we perceive character,  persona, temperament and identity?

Between paragraphs touting for investment in an ‘East India Cotton Company’ and complaints over non-remittance by police of reward warrants, this brief article in the Sydney newspaper The Australian of 15th May, 1841, announced the arrival of photography in Australia;

Joubert & Murphy
Advertisement. The Sydney Herald, Friday 26 Mar 1841, page 1

At the stores of Messrs. Joubert and Murphy, an interesting trial of the advantages of the Daguerreotype was made on Thursday, at which we were present, and received the politest attention at the hands of the gentleman who conducted the experiment. Our readers will be aware that this instrument is the recent innovation of M. Daguerre, a Frenchman who, after many years’ study, has succeeded in perfecting it. By means of the transmission of the sun’s rays upon a plate of glass [sic] lined with a chemical solution a faithful picture is formed, upon a small scale, of any landscape required. This picture remains permanently fixed until erased and may be copied for the purpose of lithography or engraving. On the occasion we refer to, an astonishingly minute and beautiful sketch was taken of Bridge Street and part of George Street, as it appeared from the fountain in Macquarie Place. It would be worth the attention of any curious reader to ascertain when the instrument will be next used, for the purpose of witnessing its apparently miraculous effects. 

The photograph of Bridge Street has not survived (a rather curious picture of that Sydney street from 25 years later records the aftermath of a nitroglycerine explosion).

Bridge Street explosion, 1866, by unknown photographer, Albumen print,
Unknown photographer (1866) Bridge Street, after an explosion demolished the building at centre of frame. Albumen print.

Didier Joubert was a French-born Sydney merchant and importer, engaged in a dispute with customs over seizure of a shipment of French wines, and later accused of ‘blackbirding‘. He was the French connection in the daguerreotype‘s colonising of this outpost at the furthest point from Paris; more distant than its previous advance on 17 January 1840, when Louis Comte had demonstrated the medium in Rio de Janeiro.

R. Derek Wood has discovered that Comte traveled there aboard the French frigate, L’Oriental. It had left France at the end of September 1839 on a ‘Naval School Expedition’ in the charge of Captain Augustin (or Auguste) Lucas, who had support of the Société d’Encouragement pour l’Industrie Nationale. François Arago had announced the Daguerreotype at the Academy of Sciences on 19 August 1839,, news of which ‘Light Pictures’ appeared in Australia in The Colonist on 1 Jun 1839.

Colonist 1839

Amongst his demonstrations Daguerre presented his technique on Wednesday 4 September 1839 at the Société. Most likely Lucas and/or Comte attended, and consequently took a daguerreotype camera aboard their ship, along with a newly released issue of the Société’s Bulletin containing full details of the process and instructions.

Ironically, Capt. Lucas’s own demonstration in Joubert’s wine shop of this marvellous new invention, despite advance news of it in The Colonist, was attended by a sole reporter; the one who wrote an article that was embedded amongst more trivial news on the second page of The Australianand no scientist was present. Some surmise that Sydney’s population was distracted awaiting the imminent arrival (delayed by repairs until 2 June) of the biggest steamship yet seen there, the 260-horsepower, 500 ton, £30,000 Sea Horse. They would have to wait more than eighteen months for another daguerreotypist, in the person of the enterprising son of a wealthy London Jewish family George Barron Goodman —whom David Coombe believes may eventually have faked his own death.

Henry King (c.1887-1900) The Royal Hotel at 142 George Street Sydney, with Dymock’s book arcade which moved there in 1887

Goodman was well prepared to impress; he had a colonial licence bought from Richard Beard who in July 1841 had purchased from Daguerre exclusive monopoly of the daguerreotype trade in England, Wales and the British colonies for £1,050. The first Australian photographic portraits were made by Goodman within six weeks of his well advertised arrival on 5 November 1842 at the Royal Hotel, George Street, Sydney out on “the leads”; on the flat roof open to the sky.

Wolcott mirror camera 1841. (a) case with  (b) concave mirror (c) focussing/framing window, (d) plate holder, (e) plate

Thanks to a blue-glass studio erected there, and the use of a newly invented Wolcott apparatus, customised for portrait work, that projected the subject’s image via a concave mirror onto 6.3 by 5.5 centimetre plates, his exposures were a short five seconds. The blue glass reduced the glare for the subject and since the plate was most sensitive to ultraviolet/blue light, exposure time was unaffected.

Despite the severe economic depression then prevailing, he was able to charge a guinea, affordable to his wealthy, and even middle-class clients, who would pay that much for a hat or a box at the theatre. However, from a population of then only 30,000 he had mined the richer stratum of society in 8 months and moved to Hobart on 24 August 1843, returning to Sydney less than six months later to market ‘new, improved’ gold-toned portraits. Meanwhile, as Gael Newton demonstrates, artists like Conrad Martens and Thomas Bock were on much reduced incomes, and the latter took up photography in an attempt to compete—unsuccessfully, as it has been hitherto understood—with Goodman who according to Alan Davies, had a “cash register for a brain.” Investigation published in September last year by Elisa deCourcy however, discovers that the self-taught Bock was continuing in his portrait photography well after Goodman’s departure from Tasmania.

Peter Rae (2014) Alan Davies at the State Library of New South Wales with a Frank Hurley photograph of Antarctica. Sydney Morning Herald, 3o May, 2014

To Davies, who until 2014 was curator of photography at the State Library of NSW, we owe the identification of the earliest of Goodman’s portraits to have survived. Proudly, Davies reports that through diligent deduction “we transformed an unknown photo into Australia’s oldest surviving photograph – three months older than we had before.”

Bland Unretouched
George Barron Goodman (1845) Dr William Bland, ninth plate daguerreotype in Wharton case 7.5 x 6.3 cm. State Library of New South Wales

Davies’ notes in the Library catalogue from 1993 read:

This daguerreotype is the earliest known surviving photograph taken in Australia. It is probably that mentioned in the Sydney Morning Herald 14/1/1845, page 2, top column 5. Stylistically, it matches the Lawson daguerreotypes [See Location Numbers: MIN 142, MIN 155, MIN 157, MIN 158, MIN 323, MIN 345 Mitchell Library] two of which are dated in a contemporary hand 3/5/1845. It would appear to be a product of Goodman’s new studio at 49 Hunter Street, Sydney (see SMH 5/8/1844), before the introduction of hand colouring (see SMH 9/1/1845) and before the introduction of decorative backgrounds (see SMH 25/4/1846). It was probably produced between November 1844 and early January 1845

[Dr William Bland, ca. 1845 - portrait]
Retouched, reversed version: George Barron Goodman (1845) Dr William Bland, ninth plate daguerreotype in Wharton case 7.5 x 6.3 cm. State Library of New South Wales
Dr William Bland an early land holder in Ashfield, New South Wales
Unknown photographer (before 1868) Dr William Bland as an early land holder in Ashfield, New South Wales

The subject is misnamed—he was anything but ‘bland,’ which may be clearly seen once the typical daguerreotype grey-bronze cast that dates its appearance is digitally removed, refreshing it to a more ‘modern’ contrast ratio. I have also taken the liberty of flipping the mirror-image daguerreotype so that it reads ‘right-way-round’ — the Wolcott camera mirror would do that automatically had it taken this picture, but the size of Bland’s portrait indicates it is from a standard camera, not from a Wolcott, the maximum plate from which was a tiny 5.8 cm sq. That this orientation is correct may be confirmed from the identical pose in the picture of an older Bland c.1868 (left)

The result is to be confronted by the intense gaze of a convicted murderer.

On 7 April 1813, Bland had shot and killed Robert Case, the HMS Hesper‘s purser in a duel on Cross Island in Bombay Harbour, was charged with “wilful murder” and sentenced to transportation to Hobart for seven years as a convict.

Such was the transient and capricious situation in colonial Australia that identities could be transformed, and histories ignored. On arrival in January 1814 at the convict settlement, Bland, who had trained with his father, an obstetrician, and had qualified with the Royal College of Surgeons of England as a “surgeon’s mate” in the Royal Navy, impressed the Lieutenant-Governor Thomas Davey when received at Government House. Within six months he was in Sydney where Governor Macquarie granted him his freedom.

This is a man who projects a high self-opinion, habitually convivial and not politically cunning, if one is to judge by the upturned lips, but with a readily-riled temper as the pugnacious brow and thickened nose might indicate—altogether with his unruly white hair, he projects a terrier-like demeanour! I’d like to have met him. His fiery personality may be as easily read from his 11 October 1849 letter to the ‘illiberal Liberal‘ Robert Lowe that he hastily scrawled in response to another perceived insult to his name, with a suggestion, despite being then sixty, that he would challenge him also to a duel.

Letter from William Bland to Robert Lowe, 11 October 1849Letter from William Bland to Robert Lowe, 11 October 1849

Fortunately Bland’s challenge came to nothing before Lowe returned to England in January 1850 where, after tangling with Queen Victoria in 1876, his career ended.

Bland had become politically active as early as 1821, attending meetings of emancipists in the Australian Patriotic Association. As Patrick D. Thomson notes, care was always taken in the colony to refer to ex-convicts like him as ’emancipists’, a favourable connotation in the sense of their conferring liberty on others. Bland accordingly adopted the cause of instituting a jury system and a representative assembly.  However, influenced by a greedy and ruthless ‘squattocracy’ he opposed attempts to preserve large areas of crown land. Petitions he signed demanding representative government and trial by jury failed in 1830 and 1833, but these were finally acceded to in 1842, when Goodman made his portrait. Bland was an elected to the NSW Legislative Council in 1843 and in 1849 as member for the City of Sydney.

A generous philanthropist and supporter of free education, Bland, as a free citizen, was proposed in 1849 as a member of the first senate of Sydney University. When the bill to found the university was introduced in the Legislative Council, with the list of nominees for the senate attached, it was Robert Lowe who spoke vehemently against allowing management of the university by ‘former convicts,’ in direct and insulting reference to Bland, and prompting his letter above. The bill was passed, though without the list of nominees, and when the senate appointees were proclaimed on 24 December 1850 Bland’s name was not among them.

As a doctor he regularly treated Caroline Chisholm “without expectation of fee or reward,” and his interests were many; first president of the Australian Medical Association; contributor of articles to the Australian Medical Journal on ‘Bites of Venomous Snakes of Australia’ and on ‘Dislocations’; successful in removing cataracts and stones from the bladder; operating for a then rare cure of an aneurysm of the subclavian artery on which he published the Lancet; and improving surgical instruments.

Bland  published on Suppression of Spontaneous Combustion in Wool Ships on 27 March 1843 whereby ‘carbonic acid gas’ (CO2) was to be circulated throughout the holds of the ships to prevent fires. Inspired in 1851 by reports on ballooning in The Sydney Morning Herald of problems of managing ascents and descents and navigating through the air, he published drawings for ‘The Atmotic Ship’ (‘atmotic = ‘of the atmosphere’). A balloon filled with hydrogen was to be propelled by sails, and in later versions, by four screw propellors, two driven by steam, and the other two somehow ‘by their impulsive effects against atmospheric pressure’. A model of the of the Atmotic Ship (designed to be 60 metres long and able to lift 1½ tonnes) was shown at the Crystal Palace in 1854.

Seven views of the Atmotic Ship / invented by William Bland, March 10th 1851; drawn and lithographed by W .L. Hutton.
Front elevation of the ‘Atmotic Ship’

His innovation was  that instead of deflating or reinflating the balloon, the gondola contains a “sliding ballast”, which the operator would move to the front, back or centre of the airship to thus effect an ascent or descent. His drawings show the gondola—and thus the whole assembly—tilting (though the inevitably alarmed passengers are left out of the pictures). That such shifting of weight and tilting of the craft by pulleys would in any way affect its motion up or down seems to be as likely as flying by pulling on one’s bootlaces, in defiance of the laws of physics. Nevertheless he campaigned unsuccessfully for its adoption in letters to various emperors, governments and royalty until the end of his life.

Some context is always useful, but I contend that this remarkable, nonconformist character can be read in Goodman’s masterful portrait, through the phantasmic patina of the daguerreotype. Though his image precedes Douglas Kilburn‘s 1847 daguerreotypes of First Australians, as our first photographic image of a convict and colonist Australian, Bland as a subject is felicitous.

3 thoughts on “January 30: Atmotic

  1. Thanks James, Another wonderfully informative and entertaining article. Re mention of the “Lawson daguerreotypes”, do you have any info about them? All best for this New Year and beyond. Kind regards, John Turner

    On Mon, Jan 30, 2023 at 7:22 PM On This Date in Photography: by James Mcard


      1. Many thanks James.

        Very informative. I was wondering about the Lawson and Insley names and possible connections re the Lawson Insley dags written about by Bill Main in our 1993 anthology. Scans attached. There is always so much to find out. Ah, the joys of being an armchair detective when dead ends can excite us as much as new discoveries. Have you met Bill?

        All best,


        On Wed, Feb 1, 2023 at 3:06 PM On This Date in Photography: by James Mcard


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