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John Burton and Sons of Leicester, Nottingham,etc., 1860 on

I have done a lot of work on the Burton Bros of Dunedin, New Zealand over the years with many starts and stops, and to my surprise the results of my visits to Leicester and Nottingham were relatively disappointing, regarding tracking down the lives and seminal influences (and pictures of and by) Alfred Henry Burton (1834-1914) and Walter John Burton (1836-1880). I was expecting to find more local information on the family and was saddened to hear that their negatives, including significant large format pictures of Leicester etc, had been defaced to recycle the glass during World War I.  There are many other British colonial photographers I could mention but the Burton's are still a major interest. Consequently I would appreciate hearing from anybody with a shared interest in the Burton's (printers, stationers, photographers) of Leicester and the English Midlands.

Below is an item that accompanies a small set of Burton Bros NZ images on for those that are interested:

Burton Bros. A Portfolio of 11 South Island, New Zealand Views from the 1870s and 1880s                                            

The name ‘Burton Bros.’ has become synonymous with the archetypal Victorian colonial photographer in New Zealand. Like their contemporaries, who included Francis Bedford, Francis Frith, and James Valentine in Britain, William Notman in Canada, Samuel Bourne in India, William Henry Jackson in the United States, and J.W. Lindt in Australia, the Burtons headed a photographic company which ranged far and wide to gather signs of the bustling and conflicted human drama called colonisation.

            These photographers, so often overlooked as individuals with their own world view, were inextricably part of the bigger picture in which forbidding, scruffy, and frequently dangerous exotic backdrops were gradually changed into scenes of familiarity for pioneering immigrants who learned to adopt their new environment with a kind of fondness mixed with awe.

            The New Zealand Burton brothers were Alfred Henry Burton (1834‑1914), and Walter John Burton (1836‑1880), born in Leicester, in the English midlands. Both, along with their younger brothers Oliver and William (who stayed in England) were trained in the trades of printing, engraving, stationery, book selling, and newspaper publishing in their father, John Burton’s company.

            When Alfred, at 22, first arrived in New Zealand on 29 November 1856, it was to work in the lucrative printing trade in Auckland, where for two years from 7 February 1857, he printed the first 104 issues of the Auckland Weekly Register and Commercial and Shipping Gazette, under the editorship of David Burn. He knew Auckland as well as any man by the time he moved to Melbourne, where he continued to work as a printer for liberal newspapers. He had seen something of New Zealand’s characteristic landscape and experienced aspects of its unique Maori culture. When he finally returned to Leicester around 1862 it was to join his father in the founding of John Burton & Sons, Photographers of Leicester, Nottingham, Derby and Birmingham, during the period when photography gained immense popularity and commercial viability, due largely to the carte‑de‑visite portrait trade.

            Six years later, with a young wife and baby daughter,  Alfred left the family’s Nottingham photographic studio to join Walter (who also had a young family) in partnership at Dunedin, at the beginning of 1868. As for the majority of Victorian studios of the period, the carte‑de‑visite portrait was the mainstay of Burton Bros trade, but from the start they were keen to see more of their adopted country through the lens.  Few of Walter’s town and country topographic views have so far been identified, but both brothers worked outside of the studio during their partnership, which was dissolved by mutual agreement in 1876, with Alfred buying his brother’s share in the business, and taking on Thomas Mintaro Baily Muir (c.1852‑1945) as a partner.

            Because Walter, who had established his own studio, committed suicide in Dunedin in 1880, and we know from Alfred’s published accounts of some of his numerous photographic trips, it is reasonable to assume that a large number of the Burton Bros photographs were actually made by him, both up to, and especially after 1876 when their partnership was dissolved, and throughout the 1880s. Walter’s work was all carried out with the wet plate collodion method, and his death in 1880 more or less coincided with the introduction of readily available dry plates in New Zealand.

            After 1880, when Alfred Burton and Thomas Muir were partners, they also took on George Moodie (then in his mid‑to late teens) as a photographer. Consequently, a considerable number of ‘Burton Bros.’ photographs shall prove to have been made by George Moodie, and also Thomas Muir, as distinct from those made by Alfred H. Burton himself. To complicate the task of accurate identification and dating, the company acquired negatives from other photographers such as John McGarrigle (American Photographic Company), Frank A. Coxhead and AA Ryan, often retrospectively, over the years.

            The original Burton Bros. topographical catalogues, and many thousands of their negatives, which are held by Te Papa Tingira The Museum of New Zealand, Wellington, hold much of the evidence needed to work out exactly which photographer made a particular image. So too does the writing and ongoing research of Ronald Team, Hardwickii Knight, William Main, myself, and others, in this fascinating and frequently frustrating investigation.

            Thomas Muir and George Moodie officially took over Burton Bros when Alfred retired in 1898. They continued to reissue popular Burton images as prints and postcards, but under their name -  an understandable but confusing practice for researchers today. Basically, examination of the negatives and catalogues indicates that the majority of early Burton Bros photographs, from BB1 to around BB1100 were made by the wet plate collodion  process, which required the use of a travelling darkroom for instant processing after exposure. The remaining 5,000 or so whole‑plate (6 x 8 inch / 16.5 x 21.6 cm) Burton Bros. negatives were made on commercial dry plates. From 1868 to around 1890 the company mostly made albumen prints (distinguished by warm tones and very thin paper), whereas Muir & Moodie’s output from the late 1890s was predominantly in gelatin silver prints. Thus Burton photographs reprinted by Muir & Moodie are quite different from the early Burton prints.

            As the following notes on specific images show, not all of the photographs with the ‘Burton Bros.’ signature in this exhibition were made by Alfred H. Burton, the chief photographer of Burton Bros., Dunedin. Part of the joy of discovery, and indeed the pleasure of owning fine photographs, comes from progressively learning to discern the subtle nuances of content, form, tone, texture and documentation that make up the personal signature, or style, of each photographer. The differences may seem barely perceptible, but they are there. With art, as with affairs of the heart and mind, one must follow one’s intuition when it comes to enjoyment and deeper understanding.


John B. Turner, 24 February 2001. This background note was written to accompany ten Burton Bros., and one Muir & Moodie photograph, chosen by Dr Paul McNamara for the exhibition ‘Nicholas Twist / Burton Brothers’ at the McNamara Gallery Photography, 190 Wicksteed Street, Wanganui, New Zealand. The exhibition opened on Friday 1 March 2002 and ran for one month.


Notes on the Photographs:

The details in parenthesis (...) are transcribed from the original Burton Bros studio catalogue held by Te Papa Tongarewa The Museum of New Zealand, Wellington. They contain insights into the way the company identified particular pictures. While I have not retained the abbreviations and typographical style of their captioned prints and negatives, which are self‑evident, I have retained their catalogue spellings and abbreviations, and added exact or approximate dates when known.



  1. Burton Bros. 517: Rere Lake. (‘Rere Lake  Greenstones  reflexion’) c.1875.
  2. Burton Bros 1931 Glen Dhu, Lake Wanaka. (‘Glen Dhu, Lake Wanaka Aspiring centre: flax L: reflexions’) 1883.
  3. Burton Bros. 3075. ‘Muir & Moodie, late Burton Bros. Dunedin, N.Z.’: Hall’s Arm. (‘Hall’s Arm near Mouth looking up: framed ferns below. Sounds Jan: 85') Printed some time after 1898 by Muir & Moodie, this photograph was made in January 1885, most likely by Alfred H. Burton himself.
  4. Burton Bros. 4431: Mt. Earnslaw from Pigeon Island, Lake Wakatipu. (‘Mt. Earnslaw from Pigeon I. small cabbage trees frot.[front?]’ From the Lake Wakatipu series, 1886.
  5. Burton Bros. 4488: Pembroke Peak from Head of Milford Sound (‘Pembroke Peak from head of sou’ [sound].  March 1887. [It is interesting that the catalogue entry does not identify the man with the camera case in the photograph, but it appears to be Fred Muir, rather than Harold Burton (1869‑1901, Alfred’s only son, who lost an arm due to a gunshot wound in 1890, and died from complications after a fall from his horse in 1901. See Hardwicke Knight, Burton Brothers Photographers (1980), pp. 43, for caption to illustration of BB4787, 1888, for which JM Forrester identifies FMB Muir and Harold Burton.]
  6. Burton Bros. 4728: Mitre Peak, Milford Sound. (‘Sounds trip Jan.’88.... Milford: Mitre Peak Heavy tree over branch across’.) January 1888.
  7. Burton Bros. 5325: Bowen Falls, 340 ft., Milford Sound  is actually a Burton Bros. albumen print from a Hart Campbell & Co. wet plate negative. This photograph is from one of over 100 Hart Campbell negatives purchased by Burton Bros. and subsequently published as their own - a fairly common practice in the 19th Century. William P. Hart, a Queenstown photographer, was likely the first to photograph the Sutherland Falls (in 1883).
  8. Burton Bros. 5764: Preservation Inlet N.Z. (‘Preservation Inlet’). [It is not absolutely clear from Burton’s catalogue, but because they noted that BB Nos. 5701 to at least BB5715 were ‘Selected from Coxhead’s Negatives’ it is possible that this photograph was actually made by Frank A. Coxhead, or H. Coxhead, his brother. Of further interest is that Burton Bros., reissued it as a combination print which has had a separate sky printed in.]
  9. Burton Bros. 5767: Cuttle Cove Preservation Inlet N.Z.  is an earlier version (judging from lichen stripped from the large tree in BB5768), "similarly framed" but taken at a different date and season.]
  10. Burton Bros. 5768: Preservation Inlet. (‘Preservation Inlet [Upright’) [Please note that this might also turn out to be a photograph made by Frank A. Coxhead (or his brother). It is an albumen print made by Burton Bros., and the photograph appears to date from the mid‑1880s.
  11. Burton Bros. 5804: Sutherland Falls Milford Sd. N.Z. (`Sutherland Falls’) [This is most likely to be a photograph by Frank A. Coxhead. Tell tale signs include the difference between the writing of Burton’s number (5804) on the negative and the actual caption which is more like Coxhead’s, and the apparent partial erasing of a name under the ‘Burton Bros.’ signature. If so, and this seems very likely, it suggests that all Burton Bros. negatives from BB5701 to BB5804 were made by FA Coxhead and printed by Burton Bros. (The original Burton Bros. catalogue indicates that negatives BB5804 to BB5833, of the `South Seas (Henderson)’, so it appears that they were adding this run of other photographer’s negatives to their catalogue, some time around 1897.]

- John B. Turner, 24 February 2002.


This item was written to accompany ten Burton Bros., and one Muir & Moodie photograph, chosen by Dr Paul McNamara for the exhibition ‘Nicholas Twist / Burton Brothers’ at the McNamara Gallery Photography, 190 Wicksteed Street, Wanganui. The exhibition opened on Friday 1 March 2002 and closed a month later. BB5764 above was not exhibited.

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Comment by John B Turner on March 27, 2015 at 6:27

Geoff, I'm very sorry but have only just found your letter after all this time because I forgot that I needed to check my own home page. Don't have time to answer properly now so will do so later.

Thanks and Kind Regards,


Comment by Geoff Blackwell on July 4, 2013 at 11:21

Re Burton & Sons

Burton & Sons are of some interest to me as one of the families that opened studios in the East Midlands. They lasted in Nottingham for over forty years but I think a lot of time it was managed by Seward.   I do not think I can add a great deal to your knowledge but perhaps a little.


It seems that the Burtons initially lived at Southampton Street, Leicester, when the children were young.  The 1841 census record shows that there was a female of 25 years also resident, perhaps a servant or housekeeper. By 1851 they appear to be a family of some substance. They now live in The Hay Market (now very central). John Burton lists himself as  a Printer, Bookbinder and Engraver employing 3 men and 5 boys. 

Domestically, the other children, Oliver, Clara, John  and Agnes have been born and they employ a house servant and a nurse.


I am not sure how much you know of their commercial wok in Nottingham.

I have three “Burton” cdv’s. There is a problem in that there was another (unconnected) John Burton who also open a studio in 1863. I have two of his cdvs and they are crude - and   have the name “John Burton. Photo  Portland Road Nottm” stamped on the front with some sort of embossing stamp.  The other, which appears to be by “our” John Burton & Sons  has a fully printed back claiming to be patronized by various members of the Royal family as well as being “Sole Photographers to the Shakspere (sic) Tercentenary Festival 1864” . I have been able to confirm that they were appointed photographers to the Festival - it was obviously a very grand affair and Burton & Sons are listed as the “appointed”  photographers. (There is a digitised version of the F

Festival catalogue on line.)


There are two other examples of their cdvs in the Local Studies Library in Nottingham. 


I know little of their overseas work but I am aware that there is a least one image in the National Media Museum -  identified as Burton, Lake Hayes c1870


More generally, I am not surprised by your disappointment with what you found in Nottingham and Leicester.  I can only speak for Nottingham but there appears to be very little interest in the history of photography generally and little specialist literature except a very helpful body of work by Pauline and Bernard Heathcote. (I can give you full references  if you wish but there is only a relatively short paragraph about the Burtons.)


Comment by John Toohey on June 28, 2013 at 16:25

Here's a link to ten small photos published in the 1920s from 1880s negatives. They are credited to George Valentine though a couple look like they could have been by Burton.

Comment by John B Turner on June 28, 2013 at 9:57

Thanks Brett, appreciated. Will enjoy studying your blog as intend to start my own soon.

Cheers, John

Comment by Brett Payne on June 28, 2013 at 9:48

Hi John,

Yes, the material on Burton Bros in NZ was given to me and probably came from your work.  My own original research has been on the Midland studios, and I have done quite a bit more since writing that profile some years ago.  I've written a few more articles about the firm on my blog Photo-Sleuth, but a more definitive one on the exact dates of operation of the various branches and the card mount designs used is in the works, as I have accumulated quite a number of further examples.

Regards, Brett

Comment by John B Turner on June 28, 2013 at 8:32

Hello and many thanks Brett. Your Burton cdv collection is valuable and user friendly. Except for some of Alfred Burton's outdoors portraits from King Country, it is disappointing to see, generally, how un-ambitious Burton Bros were with their studio portraiture. They went much further (in every way) with their outdoor work. I note the myth that has persisted (perhaps started by me inadvertently, in Nineteenth Century New Zealand Photographs, 1970) that Walter was the studio man and Alfred did the out of studio work. There is evidence of some of Walter's early town and around work, and also of Alfred in the portrait studio. 

Thanks again, 

I look forward to getting to know more about your particular research areas.


Comment by Janet Oakley on June 28, 2013 at 6:34

Like Marcel, I think that it is coincidental that the Burton Bros photographic studio that operated in Dean Street Albury until 1895 had the same name as the New Zealand firm. There does not seem to be any connection between any of the photographers in New Zealand with Albury.

Comment by Brett Payne on June 28, 2013 at 6:30

Hi John,

Since Marcel has already posted the link to my web page on John Burton & Sons, there's no need for me to do so.  I will, however, reiterate my interest in the firm and in particular its activities in the 1850s, 1860s and 1870s, when it operated branch studios in a number of Midland towns.

Regards, Brett (in Tauranga)

Comment by John B Turner on June 27, 2013 at 3:43

Hi, and many thanks Marcel. The updating of info is certainly appreciated, as are the names of others interested in the Burton's work.

I'm interested to find out more about the actual work and contacts Alfred Burton had as a printer in Sydney, and another area of interest is that while many of their cartes have survived (as mediocre as most of them are as portraits) few of their large and highly competent portraits and their town views in England seem to have come to light. More's the pity.

Confirming that firms with the same or similar name are not the same, as with individuals, is a crucial aspect of our research. Many thanks. Look forward to keeping in touch.

Do you have any info on D.L. Mundy in Australia, by any chance? Or a Joseph Perry (c.1860s)?

Thanks again,


Comment by Marcel Safier on June 26, 2013 at 22:35

Hi John, I am in touch with a number of photohistorians that are interested in the Burtons. Ron Cosens and I for a start are interested in British photographers that worked in both Great Britain and Australia +/- New Zealand so that encompasses the Burtons and a number of others you would likely be interested in. Brett Payne who is on this forum is interested because of the firm's work in Derbyshire and Mark Gamble has been actively interested in Leicester photographers for a number of years and we have exchanged info in the past. Tony Rackstraw has already replied here and of course I should mention your good friend Bill Main. I have also met with Hardwicke Knight (RIP) and had interesting discussions with him. I have gathered together a good range of cartes de visite from the Burtons British and New Zealand studios and have studied the variety of mounts they have used. I have also decided that the "Burton Bros" studio that operated in Albury, New South Wales was in fact not likely connected, since I wrote the entry in Routledge's "Encyclopedia of 19th Century Photography". Cheers! Marcel

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