Information and discussion on all aspects of British photographic history
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 www.photoforum-nz.org 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.
- 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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