Lighthouses in the spotlight
The ABC Radio National program Off Track is on my regular listening list. Each week Ann Jones interviews all sorts of ratbags and obsessives. She catches the intimate voice of her subjects, along with the sonic atmosphere of the places they inhabit, and assembles radio pieces that teleport the listener there. Magic.
To mark the centenary of the Commonwealth Lighthouse Service Ann Jones has made a program with a focus on the Queensland timber-framed, iron-clad towers that I am so fond of.
I got to be one of Ann’s subjects this time. I met her beside the Brisbane River at the Queensland Maritime Museum and we talked lighthouses. She wove our conversation in with the sounds of Double Island Point and the voices of Lyndon O’Grady, Jack Duvoisin, Col Gladstone, and Glenn Wiggin, and made a wonderful show, if I may say so.
Marks of use
It’s an ordinary woodworker’s smoothing plane, a tool used by joiners, cabinetmakers, shipwrights and carpenters. Its job is to remove thin shavings of wood to produce a finished smooth surface. It might look crude, but is actually a highly evolved and capable tool, composed of a wooden body, a wooden wedge, and a steel blade.
I know the history of this particular example because it belonged to my grandfather, John Victor (Vic) Marquis-Kyle (1897-1981). I remember, as a five year old, watching curly pine shavings streaming out of the plane, and the sweat dropping off Pa’s chin. I associate this tool with him—this emotional connection has stayed with the plane since it came into my hands in the 1970s.
As a lad, Vic was apprenticed to a cabinetmaker in Brisbane and this plane was probably part of his initial kit of tools, acquired (I’m guessing here) around 1910. He marked the top of the plane with his initials, VK, with chisel cuts. Probably later, he added more prominent marks with letter punches—similar marks appear on many of his other tools.
He finished his apprenticeship during the Great War, and promptly joined the navy. He never returned to the cabinetmaking trade but he did continue to work with tools and to develop fine skills in a good number of other trades and crafts.
Vic’s plane shows the marks of long use. It is made of beech, a hardwood favoured by European toolmakers. The name of the maker—John Moseley & Son of London—is barely readable on the toe of the plane beneath the hammer-bruises.
The cutting blade of a plane like this—called the plane iron—is held in place by a wooden wedge. To tighten and loosen the iron, and to adjust the projection of the iron (and the thickness of the shaving), the worker uses a small hammer to tap different parts of the plane. Vic’s plane shows the marks of taps on the front and back of the body, on the iron, and on the wedge. I have contributed to those marks, to a small degree.
Some collectors put a high value on old objects that are in ‘mint’ or ‘as new’ condition. But some artefacts are culturally valuable for the opposite reason: they are worn and marked with evidence of having been used, or of being changed to suit new patterns of use. Connoisseurs use the term patina for the aesthetic quality of the marks of use. You don’t need to be an expert to enjoy the sight of these marks, but a little explanation can help.
Some old buildings have gone through many changes of use, and the physical evidence of those alterations is part of their cultural significance and can be used to tell engaging stories.
The Mercy Heritage Centre, within the campus of All Hallows School in Brisbane, occupies Adderton, the house built for Dr Fullerton in the 1850s—one of the best houses in the town at that time. The house was taken over by the Sisters of Mercy in the 1860s and became part of their convent and school. Successive additions and alterations have been made there, to bring the building to its present state. One of the items on display in the heritage centre is an area of internal wall whose paint has been meticulously stripped back to show remnants of the interior decoration from various times. This is a wonderful glimpse of the taste of the different periods.
Benjamin Disraeli, flipped
I have often admired some portrait photographs of Benjamin Disraeli, the British politician, wearing a natty velvet jacket. The pictures were taken in 1868 by William and Daniel Downey and published in various formats and by various processes.
I was pleased to add one of these to my collection. It’s a fine Woodurytype carte-de-visite, published by John Murdoch with proper acknowledgement of, and probably payment to, the original photographers. I mention these niceties because pirate copying of celebrity portraits was rife in the Victorian period.
When I looked at it and compared it with other photos from the same session I noticed something odd about the sitter—his hair is parted on the wrong side and he’s looking in the opposite direction. I guess there was an error in the process of making the reproduction, but I am surprised it wasn’t discovered and fixed.
With a mistake like that, it could be worth a fortune. No, probably not. But I am still happy with this quirky picture, and happy to imagine the scene when the photo was taken—with the help of this contemporary account:
It is just sixteen years ago, Mr Daniel Downey told us, since his brother and himself were called to Balmoral for the first time by order of Her Majesty; and although no one will deny that the firm has enjoyed opportunities which others have not been so fortunate as to secure, it must be remembered that it is not everybody who knows how to make good use of an opportunity. At that time there was no accommodation to be had near the Castle and grounds, and the brothers were glad enough to shelter themselves and their apparatus in a labourer’s cottage. But they did not want for personal comforts, for hardly had they arrived than the Prince of Wales, knowing of the strait the photographers were likely to be in, drove over in a waggonette to see them, and good-naturedly sent up provisions and wine at once for their especial behoof. The reception turned out to be one of good omen, and is likely to remain in the memories of Messrs Downey many a long day.
Everybody has seen the portrait of the late Earl of Beaconsfield in a black velvet coat taken by Messrs Downey. It was not an easy portrait to secure, and it was taken, it appears, some nine years ago at Balmoral, when the ex-Premier’s name was not Beaconsfield, but Disraeli. The Messrs Downey had just completed a spell of work at the Castle, and had made arrangements for a few days’ tour in the Highlands before returning to Newcastle. Accidentally the Premier ran down to have audience of Her Majesty, and the brothers had to be recalled from their pleasuring on purpose to photograph Benjamin Disraeli. Back they came, and in the morning Mr Disraeli walked into the improvised studio in a coat of azure blue and light trousers. They tried and tried again, but the photographs did not please. It had been difficult before to persuade the Premier to sit for his portrait, but he resisted all importunities the next day. Lady Churchill did all she could, and only when the stubborn First Lord heard that it was Her Majesty’s keen desire to secure a portrait, did he consent to sit once more. Unfortunately, it was a dull rainy morning, and the natty velvet jacket in which he was now arrayed was a source of constant anxiety to Her Majesty’s Chief Minister; a few rain drops might spoil its gloss beyond redemption, and this care, together with the long exposures necessitated by the dull light, again prevented the photographs being successful. The fruits of the second day were no more satisfactory than those of the first. As to suggesting further sittings on the third morning, it was more than any who valued peace of mind dared do. There was the Premier still at Balmoral, walking about the grounds, but who was to ask him? At last, Lady Churchill plucked up courage, and spoke once more to the First Lord of the Treasury. He was obdurate at first, but in the end he consented to give five minutes, but only five minutes. He appeared again in the velvet jacket, and in a very bad humour; but the negatives secured on that occasion have become famous. Hundreds of thousands of prints have been circulated, and the negatives have been printed in silver, carbon, enamel, and both woodburytyped and collotyped. It was some time afterwards before the Messrs Downey consoled themselves for the loss of that Highland holiday of theirs, but they seem now, at any rate, to have quite got over the disappointment.
[H Baden Pritchard, The Photographic Studios of Europe (London: Piper & Carter, 1882), pages 21–22]
I’m the kind of guy who uses a controlled vocabulary to keyword his photos. This means that I use consistent words to describe things. Am I sadly obsessive? Maybe, but there are benefits.
There are about 75,000 images in my Lightroom catalog—some scanned, some born digital. I have assigned keywords and other useful metadata to almost all of them. For keywords I use the Getty Research Institute’s excellent Art & Architecture Thesaurus, the Australian Pictorial Thesaurus, and my own controlled lists of terms for projects, places, people, and specialised subjects.
Give me a few seconds and I can find images marked with rustication (99 hits), or thermae (35 hits), or Lucy Marquis-Kyle (1,873 hits). As I add new images and metadata the whole collection gets richer.