05 January 2015

The mystery bonny babe of brisbane

A few years ago during a Mother’s Day trip to a hidden antique shop in the Sunshine Coast hinterland, I came across a wicker basket of old photographs. Each photo (a little larger than a credit card) was sealed individually in a plastic sandwich bag and marked at the attractive price of $5. Along with my raspberry scones and tea I purchased two prints, both of chubby babies donned in the day’s attire which no doubt reflected the wealth of the families to which they were born. These little babes in their sandwich bags have been stowed in my pyjama draw for some time now, with the promise of a sketch in the future; a promise finally fulfilled this week.

I chose the younger of the two babies as the image was less tarnished by time and the baby’s subtle smile seemed to offer a slightly rebellious nod towards the stern poses and expressions more familiar to portrait photography of that era. I’ve only offered up a modest sketch in Derwents using a minimal pallet and coarse pastel sketch paper to keep in tune with the simplicity of the original image. Drawing in such a small scale presented a challenge as Derwent colours refuse to sharpen to a fine point. I admit to cheating a little with the eyes by introducing my Progresso Graphite pencils for extra detail. 

Drawing portraits is quite an intimate process which is made easier by knowing a little background on the subject’s personality or quirks. Of course this would not be the case for this young sitter from the past, however a little research did unfurl a small narrative behind this baby. 
Queen Street Brisbane in the late 1800s

The photograph was taken by prominent Brisbane-based photographers John and Thomas Matherson who owned Matherson & Co which was based in now popular Queen Street in central Brisbane between 1870 and 1889. Although the photo did not come with a date, I estimate it to have been taken in the early 1880s based on similar photography presentation of the time. This era saw Brisbane grow as a commercial city with trams and the world’s first publicly available electric street lighting. As such, our baby likely came from a family employed in architecture, engineering or commerce. Originally Ipswich was marked out to be Queensland’s capital which is interesting given Matherson & Co moved their business there in 1890; narrowly escaping the Queen Street floods in 1893. The photograph itself is known as a Carte as it was printed from a glass negative and mounted onto cardboard and then produced in sets of twelve to make them convenient for swapping or sending overseas. Possibly there are 11 more of my bonny baby across the world somewhere. This style of photography was popular with the middle classes and represented one of the first times babies could be photographed with greater ease and in greater clarity. New camera technology and a faster shutter speed had finally caught up with baby’s restless nature. Subjects also started to be photographed with props that reflected their wealth, hobbies or personality. Our bonny baby is clearly holding a treasured toy but as it’s obscured by a chubby hand I can’t determine what it is (though most probably a small boat, animal or doll made of tin). Something else which leaves me pondering is the baby’s gender. Both boys and girls were dressed identically during this period – lace, flowers, bows and all. Unfortunately this would complicate things in the search to uncover the complete identity of this little one, but I do admire how the attire of the 1880s was more about practicality than signifying a rigid gender division.

That’s where the search ends for now. A small sketching project has momentarily brought to the fore a little life from long ago which will only ever be known as the mystery bonny baby from Brisbane. Perhaps serendipitously in 130 years’ time, my baby portrait from the early 1980s will be found protected in a sandwich bag in a wicker basket in the nook of an antique shop for $5, purchased by an inquisitive artistic over raspberry scones and tea.    

A lucky find in the year 2112

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