Beattie: The Scottish explorer-photographer who captured Tasmania
Scotland features heavily in the history of photography. In 1842, just three years after the first photographs were taken in France and England, a Scottish university lecturer took the first calotype portrait, the first process to use a negative image to produce more than one print. The first colour photograph was taken in Scotland in 1861 when Maxwell successfully took a picture of tartan ribbon using red, blue and green filters. Throughout the 1800s Scottish photographers pushed the art of photography to new technical and creative limits. Annan famously recorded the slums of Glasgow in what is considered to be the first use of photography as social record. Meanwhile other Scots took their skills abroad to record major events such as the American Civil War and the Crimean War. One Scot who emigrated in 1878 was John Watt Beattie who became one of the most important explorer-photographers in Australia.
John Beattie Sr. had conducted a very successful photographic portrait studio at 75 George Street in Aberdeen, where he was a prominent and forceful figure in public life. He originally worked as a painter and glazer before opening his business in 1866. In 1870 his studio moved to the corner of Bridge and Guild Street near the railway station. His son, John Watt Beattie was born on 15th August 1859, and attended grammar school there. By 1865 Beattie and his family were living in Millburn Street, and they lived there throughout most of the 1870s, and where the 1871 Census lists the household as having two domestic servants. When he was well over 70 years old, and nearly blind, Beattie Sr. felt that his Scottish principles had been so outraged that he needed to turn his back on his native land, as a protest, and emigrate to Australia.
Professor Charteris, in his book 'When the Scot Smiles,' interviewed John Watt Beattie many years later to discover the background to this "...illustration of Aberdonian tenacity of principle...what it was that had brought him as far as 13,000 miles from his native land."
Beattie Jr. replied "My father emigrated from Aberdeen for conscience' sake. And this when he was over seventy-five too. He had been for many a year a leading elder in the West Free Church, Aberdeen, and few men were more respected in the city. But a new minister was inducted to the charge, against my father's vote, and his views on the place of instrumental music in Divine service proved more than my father could condone. Representations to the headstrong clergyman were fruitless. My father then took the only course open to a man of principle. He resigned from the eldership and later lifted his lines from the Church, joining, of course, another where the mode of worship was less outrageous. But the mere presence of this mischievous impostor in Aberdeen so weighed upon my father's spirit that he finally came to perceive that the city itself was not large enough to contain the two of them with any comfort to himself. And as the only way of escape, his thoughts turned to emigration to the Colonies. His decision came very suddenly. As his eyesight had failed, he relied on his family for reading aloud to him at night and I recollect very clearly that one night when I was seated with him at a table turning over the pages of a large illustrated book on Australia, he pointed to a full-page steel-engraving and asked me what might the subject be? I read out the title 'Sheep-rearing on a Victorian Station.' My father pondered for a moment, and then said in a firm voice, 'That's where we are going to, then!' And from this decision nothing could move him. I was deputed to spy out the land in advance. I came out to Melbourne equipped with introductions to the leading graziers in Victoria. I made my inquiries there and in Tasmania, and on every hand I was advised on no account to start in that business. Times were bad, and I would only lose money. I went back to Aberdeen and so reported to my father, who made no reply except to say that his mind was made up. For him it was now Australia or nothing. So the whole family of us came out, with this aged man leading, as it were. And we did buy our station in Tasmania. And the times were bad, as everyone had told me. And we did lose our money, as everyone predicted. All of it."
Upon arrival in Tasmania in 1878 at the age of 19, Beattie Jr. worked for a few years on the 320 acres his father purchased at Mount Lloyd, near New Norfolk on the Derwent River. They lived in an old home called Murray Hall and their farm labourers were old ex-convicts who had an enormous influence on his life. Although he didn't enjoy farming himself, Beattie Jr. could trace his interest in the penal settlements to those early days. "Those were the days when my soul got soaked in the lore of Port Arthur, all our working men being 'old hands,' and the romance of their experiences fascinated me."
Beattie Jr. soon learned the practice of wet plate photography from his father and in an interview with The Mercury newspaper in 1930, he said: "...then there came the wild freshness of my photographic wanderings into the beautiful scenic surroundings of New Norfolk and district. Bushland clearing was not to my taste. I photographed all around the countryside." In 1879 he joined his first major photographic expedition, which travelled by horse and cart to Lake St Clair in the central highlands. He used gelatine dry plates, which were a lot easier to handle than wet plates which required much heavy equipment to be carted about. This process enabled the bush-loving Beattie to travel to Tasmania's remote wilderness areas on foot, recording their scenic beauty.
In 1882 Beattie moved to Hobart and joined the studio of Henry and Joshua Anson, as manager. The brothers had opened their business in 1880 when they acquired the Riise & Barnett (Elite Studio), which itself had been established in the 1840s. By 1892 Beattie had bought the studio and its comprehensive large format negative collection from the Anson brothers and it became Beatties Studio, and traded as such until 1993, when it was said to be the oldest photographic business still operating in Australia. The announcement of the new photography business was printed in The Mercury on 25th June 1892. "J.W. BEATTIE - Having Purchased the whole of the Well-known Photographic Business, so long carried on by Messrs. Anson Bros., hopes, by strict attention to business and long experience in Photography, to continue to uphold the high reputation for Excellence in Photographic work, which the late firm have always maintained, and to merit liberal support and appreciation from friends and the public."
It wasn't long before the business expanded. The Anson studio had been a small part of the largest building in Elizabeth Street, three storeys of two large shops and upstairs offices. Gradually Beattie took over the whole building. The shops were turned into exhibition rooms, one for landscapes, the other for portraits and groups. His basement was used for making and mixing chemicals and sensitising printing papers. There was a large framing department, workrooms and darkrooms, the Beattie Lending library, the Beattie Museum of Van Diemen's Land relics, a huge studio where groups of 70 or 80 people could be taken, and access to a rooftop for sun printing. He later opened a studio in Launceston in 1894.
At every event of interest in Tasmania between 1880 and 1925, Beattie had a box seat and during those years he photographed every part of the island. The Mercury wrote he was "The Prince of Landscape Photographers in Australia - a man of outstanding personality, who has been a good friend to Tasmania." His professional landscape work was perfectly timed. The tourist industry was under way but Tasmania had no pictures to show the world its beauties. A handful of small prints had been made of the lowland areas, but it had been impossible to tackle this 'Isle of Mountains' with the wet plate process. Beattie and his use of the dry plate and willingness to trek hundreds of miles coincided with the tourist boom. He was a founder of the Tourist Association, formed to promote interest in the State, and in 1899 his photographs were used for a unique purpose - on the first full set of landscape postage stamps ever issued. They were engraved and printed by De La Rue and Co. of London, and their advertising value must have been tremendous.
One of his closest friends was Bishop Montgomery, (whose young son Bernard later became Field-Marshal Montgomery of Alamein), and at Bishopscourt, Beattie met the Right Rev. Dr. Wilson, Bishop of Melanesia. In 1896 Wilson invited him to come on a five months' tour of the south west Pacific in the mission steamer Southern Cross. They sailed to Norfolk Island and on to the New Hebrides, visiting many islands including Guadalcanal, Bougainville, and all the islands of the Solomons. Here Beattie made a complete coverage of the scenery and people of all those South Sea islands adjacent to Australia, eventually exposing 1,300 plates. He was ill for a long time after this journey with a skin disease and sores that were difficult to heal. The sales from these negatives though certainly surprised him. Lantern slides of them were shown in practically every church hall in the world for Beattie had taken the Mission Stations of all denominations. They went also to every scientific body in the world, and vast quantities were sold to Russia - as they told of a completely unknown world to them.
The steamer called at Norfolk Island twice on the voyage and Beattie was greatly impressed with it. The mild climate, natural beauty and the community life of the mission school for natives of the western Pacific all appealed to him. Some of his Norfolk Island photographs were of the former penal settlement at Kingston. There is no specific comment on these in his available diary fragments, but he presumably would have been most interested in the ruins, especially as there were close links historically between that settlement and the Van Diemen's Land penal colony. By the turn of the 20th century most Tasmanians were eager to forget their notorious convict past, but a that time Beattie was amassing a large collection of relics, paintings, documents and other memorabilia relating to the convict era. Beattie acquired some items from Norfolk Island for his historical collection, though not while he was visiting there. The objects were bought at sales of old government stores in Tasmania.
Also in 1896 he was appointed Photographer to the Government of Tasmania. His purpose was to inform the public, through his photographs and collections, of Tasmania's scenic beauty, fascinating history and potential for industrial development. Magic lantern slide shows were a popular form of public entertainment before the 1920s, and Beattie was one of the best known Australian outdoor photographers to deliver these illustrated lectures. In 1901 he had been elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Tasmania, addressing it on many occasions, and was asked to lecture during the Tasmanian Centenary celebrations of 1904. After his death from heart attack in 1930, one newspaper claimed he had been "the greatest living authority on Tasmanian history."
One of his lectures was reviewed as follows: "Beattie has lots of historically interesting material, and uses it to advantage. Rather pleasing to notice that he did not shirk the black spots in our history but was fair all round, though his denunciations of the 'free' press in Governor Arthur's time, the tyranny of certain jailers...and the inhuman annihilation of the aborigines, were evidently unpalatable to some lingering remnants of the old regime, who gnashed their gums in the semi-darkness of the Town Hall."
Unusually for the time, Beattie considered European settlement to have been an invasion of the Aboriginal people's land. His fascination for the Tasmanian Aboriginals led him to collect artefacts, photographs and sketches relating to the subject and in 1903 he wrote a paper for the Royal Society on native words of the Oyster Bay tribe. The convict era had a romantic appeal for too, but he consciously tried to emphasise historical accuracy rather than sensationalism in his portrayal of this aspect of Tasmania's history. Concerned at the lack of complete records of the history of the penal settlements, Beattie attempted to preserve any remaining objects, images or documents of possible relevance. For many years his magpie-like collection was a popular tourist attraction in Hobart. There was no detail of any convict settlement which missed the eye of his camera. He made up six different albums of the Port Arthur convict settlement and he always returned with some leg-irons, manacles, hand-cuffs, an original cat o' nine tails (for males or females), a batch of ticket-of-leave documents, magistrate's orders for floggings, or a collection of pewter stamped with the brand of the broad arrow. The Beattie Museum soon became an Art Gallery as well. He collected every print, drawing, and painting that he could find on early Tasmania, and his gallery became a storehouse of works of Tasmanian early artists. It was Beattie who also rediscovered Wainewright, the convict artist, whose life was written by Oscar Wilde in 'Pen, Pencil, and Poison.'
Beattie never lost interest in his native city, and the Weekly Free Press of Aberdeen constantly referred to the lantern slides and his advice on processing, sent to the Aberdeen Amateur Photographic Society. The same paper, in September 1905, wrote: "John Beattie gave the two official lectures on the history of the Colony at the Centenary Celebrations of Tasmania in 1904, and the same year gave the lecture on Tasmania to the Conference of the Australian Association for the Advancement of Science. Recently he had a fire in his premises that did minor damage, but it was made the occasion for an outburst of sympathy and an expression of the people's high regard for him. He was lured to the museum with his camera under the impression that he was to take a photograph, only to find a large gathering headed by the Hon. John Evans, Premier of the Island, who handed him a cheque for £80. Many high tributes were paid to his personal worth, his untiring efficient and self-sacrificing service on behalf of the Colony. The testimonial given so heartily and with such cordial good wishes is one of which Mr. Beattie might well be proud...as are his friends in Aberdeen, etc."
Beattie married a girl named Emily Cato, whose cousin Jack had joined the studio in 1909. Beattie and his wife had two daughters, Jean and Muriel, and lived in a large house on a steep hillside in North Hobart. From their home they had a magnificent view of mountains, valleys and waterways. At their rear was the 4,170 Mt. Wellington, below them lay the city, and beyond was a view right down the harbour to the Tasman Sea.
One morning in March 1912, Beattie saw from his balcony a strange ship lying out in the river and upon arrival at the studio he found his private office occupied by five sailors sitting around a small chest which apparently held some great treasure. It was Roald Amundsen with all the plates taken on his Antarctic expedition to the South Pole, and he wanted Beattie to personally spend all day and night developing them. Next day every paper in the world carried the headline - AMUNDSEN REACHES SOUTH POLE. His daughter Jean wrote: "I remember father coming home at night and saying how glad he was that it was all over successfully." There was not a plate broken, not a faulty exposure, nor an unprintable negative amongst them. He had made a perfect job of the most difficult of subjects. There had been no sun during the dash to the Pole and if wrongly handled the negatives could have been featureless, but Beattie got every subtle sheen and glimmer that gave modelling and form to the endless world of snow. As he bent over his dishes, he was the first man in the world to see a picture of the South Pole...the tent, the flag, the records left in that barren waste. After those plates of Amundsen's were developed, the staff then had to print thousands of copies.
Over the years Beattie's museum collection became bloated, with hundreds of artefacts locked away in storage, so in 1927 he sold his collection to the City of Launceston for £4,500, for eventual display in the Queen Victoria Museum. And when he retired he sold the photographic business to Frank Cane.
John Beattie and Jack Cato's father were lifelong friends. They both retired about the same time and visited each other several times a week. It was Beattie's turn to visit on 24th June, 1930 and Cato wrote in 'The Story of the Camera in Australia' (1955) "After talking to my father for an hour he left to meet his wife at a relative's home in Sandy Bay. Soon after arriving there he collapsed in a chair and expired in his wife's arms. John Watt Beattie was a fine man. Next day the Hobart Mercury published a column and a half obituary notice recording his great services to Tasmania. He was seventy-one years of age."
Beattie did not live to see the disaster which struck his studio three years later. In 1933 it was completely destroyed by fire. A few singed prints were all that could be rescued, and a great deal of the archive was lost, but the staff worked hard to save and rebuild it. Many of the negatives were stored off site and other images have been re-photographed from prints over the years. After the fire, Frank Cane bought an old studio in Collins Street known as McGuffies and Arch Stephenson (who had joined the studio in 1926 and took over the business later in 1930), and his son A.A. (Bill Sr.) Stephenson, who had joined in 1933, worked with their staff to save some photographs from the ashes while operating the business from the McGuffies studio until the first section of the Cat & Fiddle Arcade was completed, where it moved in 1934. Frank Cane, Arch and Bill Stephenson and Miss B Gislingham (the retoucher and colourist), through their dedication and long working hours, were responsible for the survival of Beatties Studio.
Many libraries had albums of his pictures, and the files of various publications contained many reproductions so it was possible to salvage a great number of scenic photographs of Beattie's work, and Arch Stephenson made negatives from them. His grandson, William Stephenson, who joined in 1955, continued to produce framed photographic enlargements of images taken by Beattie so there now exists an archive of over 4,000 negatives.
Beattie was an explorer-photographer who spent his life and earned his living on the mountain tops and in the valleys of a beautiful island - bringing back his magic pictures of lakes and rivers and far-flung peaks, which, in many instances, he was the first (white) man to discover. His personal love of wild country lay behind his numerous photographic journeys to remote areas: "I love the bush, and nothing gives me greater delight than to stand on the top of some high land and look out on a wild array of our grand mountains. I am struck dumb, but oh! my soul sings."
With thanks to Adrian Harvey & David Oswald, Aberdeen. (www.scottishhighlanderphotoarchive.co.uk)