“A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words” -Alfred Charles Barker and his photography

When it comes to researching properties and places around Christchurch, we historians review and compare a wide range of resources in order to figure out exactly what was happening there during the 19th century. By far one of the most valuable resources we have are photographs – as the saying goes: “A picture is worth a thousand words.” When it comes to early photographs of Christchurch, there is one man to whom we are forever indebted: Dr Alfred Charles Barker (1819-1873). So, this week on the blog we thought we would give a wee overview of Dr Barker’s life in Christchurch and some of the amazing photographs that make up his legacy.

Photograph of Alfred Charles Barker with his camera in 1864. Image:Canterbury Museum, 1864.

The Barker family arrived in Canterbury on board the Charlotte Jane in December 1850, and Dr Barker was among the first colonists to come ashore. Barker selected Town Sections 717 and 718 (located on the northeast corner of Worcester Street and Oxford Terrace) as the site for his family home. In preparation for the family’s departure to New Zealand, Barker had purchased a consignment of timber with which to build a dwelling. But upon his arrival in the colony, he found that his timber had been sold. As an alternative, Barker purchased the studding sail from the Charlotte Jane and used it to construct a dwelling for his family on Town Sections 717 and 718. This early dwelling was affectionately known as Studdingsail Hall. Barker did a good deal of sketching during his first years of settlement in Canterbury, and some of his earliest sketches provide views of the exterior and interior of Studdingsail Hall. The outdoor stove being tended by the women on the righthand side of the sketch is also believed to a cooking stove taken from the Charlotte Jane (MacDonald, 1952-1964: B124).

Sketch by Dr Barker in January 1851, showing the Barker family’s first dwelling ‘Studdingsail Hall’. Image: Alfred Barker, 1851.

The Barker family’s residence was in close proximity to Christchurch’s earliest public building, the Land Office, which was located on the opposite side of Oxford Terrace, where the Municipal Chambers building currently stands. As such, the Barker’s home witnessed a number of important public events in the history of the fledgling township. For example, when rural land was first made available for selection by the Canterbury pilgrims in February 1851, large crowds gathered around the Land Office building and the Barker family provided hospitality to those who gathered. The Lyttelton Times records:

Dr Barker’s tent, which stands immediately opposite the land office, and is constructed of an immense studding-sail, formerly belonging to the “Charlotte Jane,” was remarkable for its seasonable hospitality (Lyttelton Times, 22/2/1851: 5).

Dr Barker was Christchurch’s first doctor, making Studdingsail Hall Christchurch’s earliest medical surgery. His practice is known to have been innovative, with Dr Barker being an early adopter of chloroform as an anaesthetic during surgery, as well as designing and building his own steam bath (Turner, 1990). Barker’s tent does not appear to have remained long on the property before he replaced or converted it into a more substantial timber dwelling. A sketch drawn by Barker in December 1852, shows the Barker family’s timber dwelling standing on the corner of Oxford Terrace and Worcester Street.

Detail from a photograph of Alfred Barker’s 1852 sketch of Christchurch, showing the Barker family’s timber dwelling (red arrow). Image: New Zealand Graphic and Ladies Journal, 1897.

Dr Barker’s early sketches of Christchurch show his artistic side, but it was not until 1856-1857 that he discovered what would be his lifelong artistic passion: photography. It is not clear exactly when Barker was first introduced to photography, but he is believed to have been taught the art by his friend Benjamin Mountfort, who was himself advertising as a portraiture photographer from April 1857 (Lyttelton Times, 7/3/1857: 9; MacDonald, 1952-1964: B124). Photography itself appears to have begun to take off in Christchurch in 1857, with the Lyttelton Times proclaiming in May 1857:

Photography has broken out like an epidemic among us. Quite unknown in the place a year ago, we have now a professional artist well known in the northern provinces, and another on the point of coming; two students practising the art, and, we believe, one amateur. Canterbury will now be able to look itself straight in the face (Lyttelton Times, 9/5/1857: 7).

It is possible that Dr Barker was the ‘amateur’ mentioned by the Lyttelton Times, but despite his amateur status, Barker appears to have been infatuated with the artform and began dedicating much of his time to his new hobby. It did not take long for Dr Barker to start losing interest in his medical practice, and by the end of 1858 he had given it up entirely (Turner, 1990). As photography had only just reached Christchurch in 1857, he had to get creative to obtain the equipment he needed. He is said to have built a camera from a tea chest lined with paper and with a lens barrel made from a large empty pill box whose lid was used as a combined lens hood and shutter (Early Canterbury Photography, 2008). When he couldn’t get his hands on the glass he required, he was known to cut panes of glass from his windows to make wet plates, and when he couldn’t get hold of the necessary gold and silver salts used in the photographic process, he use to melt down sovereigns, silverware, and cutlery to make his own (MacDonald, 1952-1964: B124). He even cut his own paper and treated it with egg white (Early Canterbury Photography, 2008). Many of Barker’s early photographs are domestic images – portraiture of his family and friends around his home and garden – and so he constructed a dark room in his home on Worcester Street in which to develop these domestic images (Turner, 1990).

Photograph of the Barker family playing croquet at their home in Worcester Street in the 1860s. Image: Alfred Barker, 1860s.

Photograph looking west along Worcester Street in 1872, showing Dr Alfred Barker’s house. Image: Alfred Barker, 1872.

It was not long before Dr Barker began to adventure out to take photographs around the Christchurch township and further afield. As the wet plate process required the images to be developed almost immediately after taking the photograph, he constructed a four wheeled buggy with a dark room on the back so that he could develop his plates wherever he might be. One story told is that when Barker was processing photographs in his mobile dark room in Sumner, the horse was startled and took off with him trapped inside. When the horse was finally recovered, he emerged looking like a Dalmatian dog covered with blotches of nitrate of silver (MacDonald, 1952-1964: B124).

Photograph of Dr Alfred Charles Barker and his homemade photographic trap in April 1869. Image: Alfred Barker, 1869.

Photograph of Dr Alfred Charles Baker at Cave Rock in Sumner with his photographic trap in 1867. Image: Alfred Baker, 1867.

Dr Barker’s extensive portfolio of photographs taken throughout his life has become a significant source of information for researching early Canterbury. Some of his most valuable images are the early photographs of Christchurch, which show how much the settlement has grown from a small timber township to a thriving city.

Photograph looking northeast towards the Victoria Street bridge in 1860. Image: Alfred Barker, 1860.

Photograph looking south over Cathedral Square on Market Day in 1871. Image: Alfred Barker, 1871.

Photograph looking along High Street in 1872, Image: Alfred Barker, 1872.

Dr Barker died at his Worcester Street residence in March 1873 (Lyttelton Times, 21/3/1873: 3). Shortly after his death, the Barker family moved away from the property, and the family’s household furniture and goods were sold off (Lyttleton Times, 16/4/1873: 4). Dr George Lilly Mellish temporarily took up occupation in Barker’s former premises, but in July 1878 the trustees of Barker’s estate decided to remove the house from the property (Press, 2/7/1878: 4). Dr Barker’s house was purchased for removal by Mr. Furhmann in July 1878, and was finally removed from the section in February 1879 (Lyttelton Times, 20/2/1879: 4; Press, 19/7/1878: 2). A photograph taken from the spire of the Cathedral in early 1881, shows Dr Barker’s former property after the removal of his house and garden.

Photograph looking west from the Cathedral’s spire in 1881 showing no buildings present on Dr Barker’s former property. Image: Wheeler and Son, 1881.

While Dr Barker’s photographs are an amazing resource for researchers today, they are not the only material left behind by photographers for us to view. The photographic process requires all manner of equipment, chemicals, and other sundries in order to produce an image, and these items also come to form part of the material culture of early Christchurch. Unfortunately to date, we have not encountered any of Dr Barker’s photographic equipment, but our archaeologists have encountered other examples of photograph material from time to time.

When excavating a site occupied by Mr Samuel Charles Louis Lawrence, photographer, in Oxford Terrace in 2013, out team encountered the usual material culture relating to Lawrence’s occupation of the property in the 1860s and 1870s: tea and table wares, food containers, alcohol bottles, personal hygiene items, pharmaceutical bottles, smoking pipes and shoes. But among these typical items, our team also found evidence of Lawrence’s photographic pursuits – a bottle made by R. W. Thomas who made all manner of chemicals and other sundries used in the practice of photography  – Check out the full blog on Lawrence’s site here.

R. W. Thomas bottle from the site on Oxford Terrace. R. W. Thomas operated as a photographic merchant from 1851 until 1894, becoming R. W. Thomas & Co. and then R. W. Thomas & Co. Ltd in the 1880s. Thomas sold all manner of photographic equipment, from dry plates, dark tents and cameras to the chemicals and products necessary for the development of the photographs. Image: J. Garland.

When excavating a well in Invercargill’s CBD a few years ago, our New Zealand Heritage Properties partners encountered a wide range of photographic equipment relating to a photographic studio which occupied the site during the early 20th century. The material includes parts of a wooden camera, bottles which held ink, glue, lubricating oil (possibly for the camera parts), and mascara (theorised to have been used for editing photographs as Victorian and Edwardian formulas generally consisted of coal and petroleum jelly, providing a thicker consistency than many inks), and glass plates (Check out the excavation here).

Timber camera components. (A) front and back of handmade camera component. (B) shutter mechanism closed (left) and open (right). (C) part of shutter mechanism. (D) front standard. (F) bone page turner/spatula. Image: N. Woods.

Selection of photography related glass vessels and blank plates in two sizes and materials (glass and porcelain). Bottles clockwise from top left: oval cross section bottle, ink, square cross section bottle, perfume/mascara bottle, cobalt blue chemical bottle top and small phial. Image: N. Woods.

Photography came early to Christchurch, with a number of studios being established from 1857. But one of the earliest and most dedicated amateur photographers was Dr Alfred Charles Barker, who took numerous shots around Canterbury between 1857 and 1873. His legacy of photographs is one of the most valuable resources we have to view early Christchurch, and we researchers are forever indebted to him. Thousands of his photographs are available to view on the Canterbury Museum website and we encourage you to check them out! But it is not just the photographs themselves which our early photographers have left behind, but also a unique material culture of photographic equipment that we are looking forward to uncovering more of in the future.

Lydia Mearns

Displaying Wealth and Status in Buildings: Part One

The act of showing off wealth and status through material is a concept that has been happening throughout human history. This does not necessarily mean that the person had the wealth and status they were portraying, instead some people just wanted to give the illusion that they were more well off than they actually were (known nowadays as ‘keeping up with the Joneses’). The Victorians were well involved in the concept of showing off their wealth and status to the public through how they decorated and organised their buildings both inside and out.

We see this in many of the Christchurch buildings we record. Depending on the person’s budget, a Victorian dwelling in Christchurch would have the street facing façade as the decorative exterior elevation (sometimes the sides of the dwellings also had decorative features – dependent on the view from the street and/or if the owner could afford to). Inside the dwelling, the decorative features were mainly focused on the rooms that guests would view and use (sometimes referred to as ‘public’ rooms).

Before we jump in let’s first familiarise ourselves with common features of a 19th century building. Luckily, I have prepared this one below (full disclosure this drawing is three different buildings I’ve recorded combined into one so I could show different features that we find on 19th century buildings in Christchurch. This is not a legit building…):

A diagram showing different decorative elements on 19th century buildings. Purely for educational purposes.

The case study in this blog today was a dwelling built for a member of the Ballantyne family, a wealthy family in Christchurch who established the well-known Ballantyne’s drapery business in central Christchurch. The land was purchased by Jessie Montgomery Ballantyne, the wife of Josiah Ballantyne, in October 1889. The Ballantynes appear to have constructed their residence on the section ca. 1892 and remained there throughout the remainder of the 19th century. The property was then sold by the Ballantynes in 1927. The dwelling was a two-storey timber framed weatherboard bay villa with a T-shaped gable roof clad in corrugated iron. Unusual for such a grand building, no architect could be found connected to the design of this dwelling.

So, with the background of the dwelling complete, I hope you are now thinking ‘what does a dwelling owned by a member of a wealthy family in the 19th century look like?’ Well, lucky for us, a fantastic photograph was taken of the building in 1898.

Photograph of Josiah and Jessie Ballantyne’s house in c. 1898. Image: Canterbury Museum, 1898.

Now, as a comparison, this is how the dwelling looked when I started recording it in 2020 (122 years later):

Photograph of Josiah and Jessie Ballantyne’s house in c. 2020. Image: J. Hearfield.

It may initially be a bit of a shock to see the state in which the grand house ended up, but when you look past the modifications, you can see many of the remaining decorative features the Ballantyne’s put into their home. I’ve compiled a few comparisons below to show these features.

If you ignore the tv dish, the hole and the plyboard in the right photograph – this gable hasn’t really changed! The highly decorative gable features circular designed carved bargeboards finished with rosettes, and decorative timber stickwork detailing. The first-floor triple sash window set had a traditional style architrave, a moulded flat pediment and decorative aprons. Very fancy.

Once again: ignoring the modern additions (this time modern material to stop the squatters from getting back into the building…). The bay window appears original with dentils under the roof and decorative aprons underneath the sills. The bay window featured three sash windows and it’s not super obvious in these two photos but above each sash window was a coloured glass leadlight window with a geometric floral motif reminiscent of the Art Nouveau style (I’ll post a photo of the windows below because they are beautiful).

The beautiful Art Nouveau style leadlight windows, photo taken inside the dwelling. Now, don’t worry, these windows were all salvaged prior to the demolition.

The same post just 122 years between the photos. The timber worked chamfered post was incorporated into the enclosed veranda and only one fretwork bracket remained for this post. Above the post you can see the fretwork lace still in situ.

The veranda and the balcony were extremely detailed with fretwork lace and brackets. It would have been very eye-catching for the public walking past. While the right photo is the west elevation of the balcony, it shows the original timber fretwork for the balcony, and it was the same as the street-facing elevation fretwork. It also shows that the original posts in the 1898 photo were still in situ, they were just incorporated into the enclosure of the veranda and balcony. This photo also shows the closed west wall of the balcony (the original leadlight window was removed prior to demolition but look below to see it before it was removed)

I don’t know about you, but I think this was the original leadlight window. A lancet-shaped window isn’t super common, let alone a lancet-shaped window with a colourful leadlight pattern for a balcony! This was also salvaged and is hopefully living a new life in someone’s home for the next 100 years.

The front façade of the dwelling was the first impression the public and guests would have had of the Ballantynes. Based on the exterior of their house, it appears image was important. As you can see from the images above, they put a lot of effort (and money) into the presentation of their home. This dwelling would have been very impressive to look at from the street. For comparison I’ve added below another historic photograph of another dwelling I have recorded in Christchurch, an 1880s dwelling owned by the Whitehead family.

Photograph of George James and Mary Ann Whitehead outside their house, Kilmore Street, Christchurch in c..1920. Image: Alexander Turnbull Library, 1920. Just a side note: this is actually one of my favourite photos I’ve come across because if you look real closely you can see George James Whitehead looking lovingly at his wife Mary.

This dwelling had decorative elements such as fretwork on the barge boards, fretwork brackets on the veranda and sash windows with decorative moulded pediments in a classical style. While these decorative features are nice, they are nowhere near like the conspicuous features the Ballantynes presented. George James Whitehead was a post-office clerk, so it’s likely the Whitehead family were more middle class and their dwelling gave the appearance of some wealth on the exterior but had a small simpler interior. Unlike the Ballantynes, who went all out on the interior of their home. However, I must stop here as this concludes Part One of this blog – to see how the Ballantynes decorated the inside of their home (well what remained of the original features) tune in next time.

Jamie-Lee Hearfield

References

Alexander Turnbull Library, 1920. George James and Mary Ann Whitehead outside their house, Kilmore Street, Christchurch. Whitehead, Henry Norford, 1870-1965 : Negatives of Napier, Hastings and district. Ref: 1/1-022247-G., Wellington, New Zealand./records/29948500

Canterbury Museum, 1898. Houses, Linwood, “Waverley” Worcester Street. Christchurch City Council Property File