John Smith's early photos

The photo below often appears in articles on the history of the University of Sydney. It was taken in the late 1850s, as the Main Building neared completion. On the left, a stonemason is carving a gargoyle in the shape of a giant frog. You could easily miss the real frog, the one he is using as a model, draped over the nose of another gargoyle (circled). John Smith is seen on the right, watch in hand, timing the exposure, while an assistant, off camera, uncaps and caps the lens.

A stonemason carves a frog gargoyle, based on a real frog (inset)

A stonemason carves a frog gargoyle, based on a real frog (inset)

The University had a modest beginning in 1852. The three foundation professors were the only academic staff, in a single Faculty (Arts) and in the first year they taught a total of 24 matriculated students, all male. The Act of 1850 hadn't banned women but they were not exactly encouraged to enrol for Matriculation. In this matter, John Smith, foundation Professor of Chemistry and Experimental Philosophy (Physics), was well ahead of his time. From the start, he gave public lectures on chemistry which were "open to ladies as well as gentlemen"; and 30 years later he would be prominent in the push to admit women to the University.

Smith's contributions to the University and the Colony were the subject of fascinating lectures given by Bob Hunter and Richard Collins during celebrations to mark 150 years since the University's Inauguration. Born the son of a blacksmith in 1821, Smith was a product of Scotland's famously classless education system. At the age of 30, he was appointed to the Sydney Chair and, for over 30 years, he contributed professionally to the life of the Colony, especially in the fields of education and water supply. He was, at various times, President of the Council of Education, Chairman of a Royal Commission into the supply of water to Sydney, a Trustee of the Australian Museum, a Member of the Legislative Council and a Director and Chairman of the AMP Society at a time when that organisation's main concern appears to have been providing social security.

Exposure times of 30 seconds or more meant fast-moving subjects were blurry

Exposure times of 30 seconds or more meant fast-moving subjects were blurry

In his spare time, Smith was a pioneer of exceptional skill in the new art and science of photography. Mostly, he used the wet collodion process in which a collodion emulsion carrying the light-sensitive silver salts was spread on a glass plate just before the photo was taken. Exposure times were typically half a minute or more and occasionally someone moved (photo above).

We think of the people at this time as a sombre lot and that is how they usually look in photos. But the slowness of the photographic plates was at least partly to blame. Try holding a smile for 30 seconds.

John Smith self-portrait outside the Northern Vestibule

John Smith self-portrait outside the Northern Vestibule

In the photo above, Smith, again timing the exposure, stands outside the doorway to the Northern Vestibule next to the Great Hall. Carved on the ornate lintel is a Latin motto which reads voluntas arcus, facta sagittae ("The will is the bow, the deeds are the arrows"). Today, the doorway is still in place but not the motto. This was the motto of John Woolley, the University's first Principal and Classics Professor. It is said to have been chiselled off at the direction of Woolley's successor, Charles Badham, when he tired of constantly being asked to translate and explain it.

In 1881, the University Senate approved the admission of women and, the following year, the establishment of three more Faculties (Medicine, Law and Science). Both moves had been fiercely resisted. Arguing against a Science Faculty, Badham conceded that "we shall want cooks, chemists and geologists" and that "some vulgar men decidedly prefer chemistry to Greek". But, he said, "the curriculum which will best repay the Colony … belongs more or less directly to the Classical Chair. The object of education is to teach men and women to think". By then, Smith's Chair had been renamed the Chair of Experimental Physics and responsibility for Chemistry formally handed over to Archibald Liversidge.

Smith died in 1885 and, in time, even the memory of his photographs was lost. In 1955, however, Professor Le Fèvre came across two plate negatives and several prints during a clean-up of his office in the old Chemistry (now Pharmacy) Building. He correctly guessed their origin and gave them to the University Archivist, David Macmillan. Responding to an article about the find in the Sydney Morning Herald, two students contacted Macmillan to say they had seen a box of glass plates in the basement under the stage in the Wallace and many of these turned out to be Smith's. Most of the plates carried pairs of images, for stereoscopic viewing, and having two versions of each photo made restoration and the production of quality prints a good deal easier.

Without in any way underestimating Smith's achievements during a long and active professional life, it is fair to say that he is best remembered today for the photographs. There are 400 glass negatives in the Smith Collection, showing not only stages in the building of Sydney University but everyday scenes as well, of family groups in their homes and on bush and harbourside picnics. These photos are a time machine, taking us back to an Australia of crinoline dresses and stove-pipe hats.

The Le Fèvres

R.J.W. Le Fèvre, seen here speaking at the opening of the present Chemistry Building in June 1960, was Head of School at Sydney University from 1946 to 1970. He and his wife, Cathie, herself a DSc, were a formidable team, honoured in the profession for their application of physical measurements, in particular of electrically induced double refraction (the Kerr effect), to the study of molecular structure and conformation.

Both the Le Fèvres had wide interests. Cathie was a talented artist and, in later years, found herself involved in social issues. She was the first woman to be elected to the Council of the Australian Academy of Forensic Sciences. The Prof had been fascinated all his life by church architecture and by the choral music, history and rituals of the church. His interests ranged, as he once put it, "from the sacramental to the excremental". He had "a subtle, gently wicked sense of humour", to use a colleague's words, and an appealing, sometimes unexpected turn of phrase. Wise. Witty. He had style.

RJW Le Fevre

RJW Le Fevre

RJW Le Fevre lecturing

RJW Le Fevre lecturing

Cathy Le Fevre

Cathy Le Fevre

Sources

  • Thanks to Geoff Barker, Curator of the Macleay Museum's Historic Photograph Collection, who also located the photos I wanted from the University Archives.
  • D.S. Macmillan, Professor John Smith, Aust. Photo-Rev., 63 (12) (1956), 720; Professor John Smith and the Beginnings of Photography in Australia, Proc. Roy. Aust. Chem. Inst., 26 (8) (1959), 343.
  • R.J.W. Le Fèvre, John Smith, First Professor of Chemistry in Australia, Proc. Roy. Aust. Chem. Inst., 26 (8) (1959), 348.
  • K. Burke, Early Photographic Processes and the John Smith Collection, Proc. Roy. Aust. Chem. Inst., 26 (8) (1959), 354.
  • Ever Reaping Something New. A Science Centenary, Eds. D. Branagan and H.G. Holland, University of Sydney (1985).
  • Professor John Smith, Ed. R. MacLeod, Sydney University Monographs No.3 (1988).