Robert Hunt: Australian Pioneer Photographer (1830-1892)
Curated by Geoff Barker, 2003
In 1854 Robert Hunt arrived in Sydney to take up the position of first clerk at the Sydney branch of the Royal Mint where he worked, apart from a seven year stint at the Melbourne Mint, until his death in 1892. Hunt, like many other gentlemen amatuers of the mid Victorian period, was keenly interested in new sciences, particularly botany, geology, and meterorology as well as the arts. While these pursuits took up time outside of their day jobs it also cemented their place Sydney's social circles. Hunt became an active member of the Philosophical Society of New South Wales and honorary treasurer for the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. As early as 1855 Hunt began to photograph Sydney Town, and over the next 30 years his passion for this new technology allowed him to build up a unique early record of Sydney's development. In these early years photography was expensive, especially as chemicals and equipment had to be shipped from the other side of the globe. However this did not deter Hunt and a dedicated group of Sydney amatuer photographers from taking up the new process.
By 1859 Hunt was accompanied by his fellow amateur photographers on trips around Sydney Harbour and the wilds of the Blue Mountains. In November 1858 one of his co-workers, the 24 year old William Stanley Jevons, described in detail their overnight photographic trip across the harbour on Hunt’s small skiff the Terror to photograph Willoughby Falls. It was here that Hunt took what Jevons considered one of his best works a photograph which depicts the water cascading over the sandstone cliff. Hunt must have agreed for he took almost identical views in at least two formats. One on a large glass plate, the other on the smaller stereo glass plate.
Hunt’s early work held by the Macleay Museum is made up predominantly of albumen prints, including many that are stereoscopic, although there are a few of his original wet collodion negatives in the collection. These images are among the earliest outdoor views taken in Sydney and reflect Hunt’s keen interest in the landscape and early European forays into the surrounding bush. In the early years he either carried his camera and equipment by hand, loaded it onto a horse, or packed onto his small boat to explore and photograph the numerous inlets around Sydney Harbour. Hunt was obviously fascinated by the harbour and took hundreds of photographs of the Sydney Harbour as well as the yachts and boats that sailed around it.
Yet this passion for the harbour was not all that kept Robert Hunt in Australia. Robert's mother had died before he arrived in Sydney but his father died around 1856 and this forced Hunt to bring his two sisters out from England to live with him in Australia. In 1857 he booked passage for them both and by August the 20th he was waiting on their arrival on the ship the Dunbar. Tragically the ship was wrecked when the captain mistakenly steered the ship into the Gap at South Head rather than the harbour entrance. All of the passengers were killed except for a man found alive in a hollow in cliff face some two days later. In the days following the disaster pieces of the wreckage floated into Sydney harbour along with the bodies of the passengers. Hunt wandered around the beaches and bays looking for traces of his sisters but only located a pillow with the letters "S.H." embroidered on it, which he kept thinking it may have been his sister Sarah's. Soon after Hunt took a photograph of the wreckage of the Dunbar in Sydney Harbour. But it was not until much later that he produced this photograph of the Gap, where the Dunbar was wrecked.
With his family dead, Hunt, unlike some of his contemporaries, didn't feel as tied to England. Instead he set his roots down in Sydney and in 1860 he married a local woman Mary Paul. Hunt seemed to have a very real appreciation of the lifestyle offered by Sydney and his photographs reflect this. He appears to have been a devoted husband and father, instilling his passion for photography in at least one of his children, William. Many of his photographs show him at ease with his family and friends picnicing at popular spots such as Lane Cove or Middle Harbour. Other excursions included a trip to Captain Cook's landing place in Botany Bay, visits to the Nepean River, and Mount Tomah and the Blue Mountains.
Throughout the 1850s and 60s many of his early images are taken around North Sydney and Sydney town. While Hunt photographed Australian trees and houses he also tried to imitate the artistic conventions, such as picturesque views, which were popular in England. While successful in producing works in this style, the clear crisp atmosphere of Sydney and the lack of pollution gave a clarity and level of detail missing in some British views. By the 1880s this was no longer the case as commercially produced dry gelatin glass plates became popular in both Britain and Australia. These plates produced highly detailed photographs with lower exposure times and this led to the popularising of larger prints with stereo and carte de visite formats becoming less popular.
Hunt however continued to take stereo photographs well into the 1880s and even some of his non-stereoscopic photographs appear to have been taken using a camera with a stereo back. This could hold a stereo sized glass plate but with the divider removed this created a panoramic format. The viewing of this format was catered for by the stereographoscope which became popular in the mid 1870s. These enabled viewers to look at stereo images through twin lenses or an elongated mono view through a single magnifying lens.
In the early years Hunt's passion for stereo photography was shared by his fellow amateurs and the collection contains stereo photographs by his co-workers at the Sydney Mint William Stanley Jevons and E.W. Ward, as well as works by his friends Matthew Fortesque Moresby, John Smith and John Rae. Alan Davies and Peter Stanbury in their book The Mechanical Eye in Australia, speculate that some of these may in fact be the same stereo photographs which Hunt exhibited at the photographic exhibition held by the Philosophical Society of New South Wales in December 1859.
Unlike many of his contemporaries whose photographs after the mid-1860s have not been located, Hunt's work has survived and continues into the 1880s giving a unique photographic view of Sydney and environs from the 1850s to the 1880s. There are few works in the collection from the 1870s, but this could be because in 1870 Hunt left Sydney to work at the Melbourne Branch of the Royal Mint. Hunt returned to Sydney in 1878 to take up the position of Deputy Master of the Sydney Mint and the albumen prints from the 1880s make up the bulk of material in the collection.
Throughout the 1880s Hunt's interest in the landscape and environs of Sydney was aided by the development of roads and communities around Sydney. During this period Hunt took photographs from many outlying areas of Sydney including Pittwater and Barrenjoey, Manly, The Spit, Thirlemere, Mount Victoria, Katoomba, Lawson, and Castle Hill. He also took many photographs in the lower North Shore near his house Summer and those of his friends, such as Honda in Shellcove harbour.
Typical of many Victorian gentlemen Hunt's interests ranged from the artistic to the scientific. Hunt used his camera in a more documentary manner as well. On the 3rd of October 1887 he photographed the Eight Hour March which workers undertook to highlight their demands for an eight hour working day.
Public work schemes also captured his attention and the collection contains images from the development of the Sydney water supply at Prospect, images of the construction of the Knapsack Viaduct, the Zig Zag railway, work on Northbridge, roads such as the Victoria Pass, Sydney Dry Docks, the Royal Botanical Gardens, and various railway stations. Private development of houses and hotels were also recorded by Hunt including; The Newport Hotel, Waratah house, the Great Western Hotel in Katoomba, the Clarendon Hotel in Manly, the Newport Hotel, Sherwood Grange, the Goodlet's Home, Cedarmore, Honda in Shellcove, Cobbity Church, the Free Public Library, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, and the Conservatorium of Music.
If all this were not enough it is obvious from Hunt's photographs that he had one other abiding passion and that was sailing. Perhaps this was one of the reasons Hunt was so attached to Sydney for scattered through his albums of photographs are ships and sailing boats on Sydney Harbour.
The earliest surviving photograph by Hunt is a stereo photograph of St James Parsonage in Macqurie St. (on the right) taken in 1855 from the Mint buidling. This photograph remains one of the earliest surviving outdoor stereo photographs of New South Wales. Hunt's commitment to photography continued unabated up until his death and thirty three years after he took this early photograph he returned to take photograph the machinery at the Sydney branch of the Royal Mint.
In 1859 Hunt, W.S. Jevons and E.W. Ward, took their first successful interiors of the machinery at the Sydney Mint and in 1892 Hunt returned to the task. Over the course of four weeks he photographed the Mint's machinery. This was no small enterprise for the exposure times for these photographs varied between 1 minute to 45 minutes depending on the amount of light available. These photographs have proved to be a unique record for historians and architects. In 2001 they were a valuable resource for the re-development of the Sydney Mint by the Historic Houses Trust.
Hunt's work as a photographer provides us with a unique look back in time. In a career longer than many professional photographers Hunt was free of commercial constraints. This allowed him create a truly individual view of Sydney as it grew into a city before his camera lens. This exhibition provides, for the first time, an opportunity to see the scope of Robert Hunt's vision and its importance to the cultural heritage of Australia.
Public Buildings, Hotels and Places
Robert Hunt photographed many of Sydney's well known buildings such as the, Government Post Office, the Free Public Library, and St. Mary's Cathedral after the fire of 1865. As a well respected member of Sydney society Hunt also had access to some of the less photographed areas of Sydney. This allowed him to photograph the naval installations at South Head as well as interiors at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and the Sydney Branch of the Royal Mint. Hunt photographic excursions also took him to more remote areas of Sydney. Because of this Hunt's photographs include rare early documents of places like the Newport Hotel, the Great Western Hotel at Katoomba, St. Augustine's Church, the construction of Cave House at Jenolan Caves and Little Manly Baths. Hunt's also took many landscape photographs of the Blue Mountains.
Nineteenth Century Photographs of Australian Houses
From the late 1850s until the 1890s Robert Hunt took pictures of houses and estates he visited. As a well respected member of Sydney Society Hunt was given ample opportunity to photograph the houses of friends and relatives. His amateur status and friendship with those he photographed meant his photographs often have a comparatively relaxed and easy going feel to them. Whilst many include the proud owners of the properties posed rather stiffly in front of their homes other simply contain children or show figures informally lying on the grass. Some of his pictures reflect the lack of constraints put on the amateur, as opposed to the commercial photographer. These include the relatively informal shots of Greencliff in the early stages of construction and the family and children lying in front of their houses.
Sea and Harbour views
Like other early settlers in Sydney Robert Hunt was struck by the picturesque nature of the many coves and inlets of Sydney's harbours and coast line. As the roads were limited in number Hunt used a boat to reach the bays dotted around the Harbour. This appears to have inspired a number of picnic trips with his friends and family. At first these were taken on his small boat the Terror but later it appears they were taken on the Mary (named after his wife?) and the Ariel. Hunt's keen interest in sailing, coupled with his passion for photography meant he was one of the earliest to record the remoter parts of Sydney's harbours as well as its popular spots. Many of these images reveal Hunt's artistic interests but not perhaps as consistantly as his bush views. As early as 1859 Hunt took journeys around the harbour for the express purpose of taking photographs and these resulted in some of Hunt's best work. Other sea views were the result of informal outings and family picnics these are more documentary in nature and, while fine photographs, most do not reach the heights of Hunt's best work.
Due to the lack of biographical information on Robert Hunt it is hard to know which area of photography he was most passionate about if any. But in my opinion his photographs of bush/landscapes are those most consistently of high quality. Whether Hunt paid more attention to the details of their composition or had an affinity for this particular kind of landscape and its picturesque heritage is impossible to say but these views seem to have given Hunt more scope to express himself artistically. The lack of roads and houses in the outlying areas of Sydney were a disincentive for many photographers to travel. This was particularly true for professional photographers who found it difficult to market photographs of places that were little known. Whatever artistic value they may have had images of unknown places around Sydney had little market value. Unlike his British counterparts Hunt could not follow well trodden paths such as the picturesque Wye River in Wales with its backdrop of ruins and carefully cultured landscape. In Australia the Nepean and Hawkesbury Rivers were instead banked with a wild array strange trees and shrubs. For Hunt this challenge appears to have concentrated his efforts and when coupled with the clear crisp Australian atmosphere in the blaze of summer the results could be as beautiful those produced by well known photographers in Britain.
Public works schemes
Robert Hunt appears to have approached the documentation of new Public works with the same zeal he took to his other photographic enterprises. From the mid 1860s Hunt began photographing Sydney's new bridges, railways, viaducts, dry docks and the development of Sydney's water supply. These photographs can be seen as a companion project to his photographic documentation of well known buildings such as the Sydney branch of the Royal Mint. Discovery of gold in Australia in the 1850s saw the rapid expansion of public works in Victoria and New South Wales. Hunt's photographs provide a unique insight into the development of public roads, railways and the water supply as it pushed into the hinterland of Sydney.
The photographs by Robert Hunt which chronicle events in Sydney are less common than other subjects. Even so he was able to capture some interesting activities which occurred around Sydney. These included the procession in support of the eight hour working day and the New South Wales Sudan Regiment c1885. Most of these appear to have been taken in the 1880s and suggests he may have found the speed of the mass produced dry gelatin glass negative (introduced to Australia in the 1880s) enabled him to capture more spontaneous events.
Boating and sailing
Like many Victorians steeped in the amateur tradition Robert Hunt was interested in a wide variety of activities. Whether it was public works or the arts Hunt's photographs were an expression of these interests and the large number of photographs of boating suggest it was an area Hunt was passionate about. From the 1850s Hunt owned boats and his love of Sydney and the harbour were no doubt linked to this passion.