State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 76 Spring 2005


Madeleine Say
John Hunter Kerr: Photographer

This Paper will attempt to describe what is currently known about the photographic images attributed to John Hunter Kerr. While there is definite information about the technical specifications of the photographic prints themselves, by whom and where they were printed is open to conjecture, and the conclusions presented here may change as further evidence becomes available.
John Hunter Kerr (c. 1821–1874) arrived in the colony as a young man of eighteen, but after some farming experience he returned home to Scotland and his family for two further years. He returned to Victoria in 1849 and with a business partner settled on the Loddon River in north-west Victoria. Kerr renamed the property ‘Fernyhurst’. The partnership did not flourish and they were forced to sell to an agricultural investment company in 1855. Kerr may have stayed on as manager until 1859, but by 1861, when he married Frances Murphy, he was living in the Wimmera region. In 1872 his memoir, Glimpses of Life in Victoria, was published in Edinburgh with eight leaves of illustrations. (It was republished in 1996 with an introductory essay that gives an excellent outline of his life and speculates that the book was actually written by his wife.)1
Kerr is well documented as a keen amateur photographer in both contemporary and historical sources. His newspaper obituary in the Argus described him as ‘possessing considerable taste and talent as an artist’, and identified the illustrations in Glimpses of life in Victoria as ‘copied from drawings or photographs taken by him’.2 Kerr's photographic talents are also described in his entry in the Dictionary of Australian Artists, Painters, Sketchers, Photographers and Engravers, in which it is mentioned that his photographic talents helped acquit a man accused of murder.3
The illustrations in Kerr's memoir were based on a number of sources, but many obviously followed the series of photographs now attributed to him. However, in recent publications on photography, Kerr continues to be unrecognised as the photographer for the series of photographs taken at ‘Fernyhurst’.
In 2004 a collection of three hundred nineteenth-century photographs on the Aboriginal peoples of Oceania was offered for sale at the 20th International Antiquarian Book Fair, in Melbourne. Listed, and illustrated in the catalogue, as no 27 was a salt paper print titled Groupe d'aborigines sous un campement, Australie avant 1860, (Group of Aborigines in Camp, Australia, before 1860).4 The photographer of this salt paper print is listed as ‘Anonyme’, although this image is instantly recognisable as one of the depictions of Aboriginal people at ‘Fernyhurst’ where Kerr lived from 1849 to the 1850s. The photograph's cardboard mount has been annotated with the word ‘Victorian’.
Confusion over the identification of Kerr as the photographer of this group of images has probably occurred for a number of reasons. Kerr was considered to be an ‘amateur photographer’ and there is no record known of him exhibiting or publishing images under his own name during his lifetime. Many of the known prints of his work are not contemporary with the date the photographs were taken, but were most probably printed later by other photographers or by commercial photographic printers.
These later prints, produced using photographic techniques not available when Kerr was
living at ‘Fernyhurst’, have contibuted to confusion regarding the date and/or name of the photographer. Often, the later prints have been signed by the secondary photographer/printer or collected in albums with the work of other better-known photographers to whom they have then, understandably, been attributed.

Thomas Chuck, photographer. John Hunter Kerr. n.d. LT 911, no. 99. La Trobe Picture Collection

Photographs which can be attributed to John Hunter Kerr

Images of the early white settlement at ‘Fernyhurst’, and photographs of the local Aboriginal population of the Loddon region, are known through two collections in the La Trobe Picture Collection. Other copies of these images, or variations on them, are also in the collection of the Royal Historical Society of Victoria and the Melbourne Museum.
The first collection is the Lang Album, which is a collection of drawings and photographs collected by Alexander Denistoun Lang (1814–1872).5 This album contains a total of 12 photographic prints, comprising: one true calotype, that is a salted paper print made from a paper negative, 10 salted paper prints from collodion wet-plate negatives, and one albumen silver photograph from a collodion wet-plate negative.
The subject matter in this collection includes identified portraits of the Lang family; the calotype print is an unidentified portrait of a ‘Port Phillip Squatter 1850’; and the silver albumen print shows a group of men in the garden of the Melbourne Club in 1860. The remaining eight images all show views of ‘J Hunter Kerr's station – Loddon plains’, the nearby gold diggings, or individual portraits of Aboriginal men. There is one print titled ‘A Corrorobby’ [sic].
There is enough circumstantial evidence to credit Kerr as the photographer of these eight images and to suggest that they were all taken at ‘Fernyhurst’ or close by. There is the testimonial of Kerr himself in his memoir Glimpses of Life in Victoria, describing his practice of photography.6 These photographs are recognisable as the basis of the illustrations in Kerr's book, and the same Aboriginal men appear in a number of the photographs. The image of the gold diggings is probably the strike at nearby Korong, which Kerr describes in his book. Two of the images show station buildings and are annotated on the verso of each print in a contemporary hand ‘J Hunter Kerr's Station-Loddon Plains. Victoria’ and ‘On J.H. Kerr's Station 1849’. It should be noted that the contemporary annotations give erroneous dates for the photographs.
It can be speculated that the portraits of the Lang Family and the squatter are by Kerr, but
there is no corroborating evidence. The album contains at least one image known to be by another photographer. This is the group portrait at the Melbourne Club by Jean Baptiste Charlier taken in 1860. Both Kerr and Lang were members of the club.7
The other collection which contains images of ‘Fernyhurst’ is an album of albumen silver photographs mounted on card and blind stamped ‘G.W. Priston, Melbourne’. At least three photographs in this collection are the same as images in the Lang Album, and as they are exactly the same size they are likely to have been made from the same negatives. Many of the other images are variations of the corroboree, or portray the same Aboriginal people in different poses but in similar settings. Four of these images are also the basis for the illustrations used in Glimpses of Life in Victoria.
The Priston Album also contains four photographs of Aboriginal people in a studio setting. These have the word ‘Queensland’ written on the back of the prints in a contemporary hand and are manifestly not by Kerr. G.W. Priston was a professional photographer and photographic dealer. From 1867 to 1879 he ran his business from a shop in Swanston Street.8 The provenance of this album is not entirely certain, but it has been part of the State Library collection since about 1878.

Photographic techniques used by John Hunter Kerr and later prints of his photographs

Kerr was living at ‘Fernyhurst’ from 1849 to the late 1850s, during the infancy of photography. Unfortunately, he did not document his photographic techniques, leaving only general references to his hobby.
Until the early 1850s the only photographic technique available to Kerr would have been the calotype photographic process, which used paper negatives and contact prints such as prints on salted paper. This process of photography was pioneered by the Englishman Henry Fox Talbot, who patented the process for professional use until 1853.9 The calotype was then recommended for amateur photographers because the materials required were readily available. Talbot's patent did not restrict amateur use. The main rival photographic process available in Australia at the time was the Daguerreotype. This was almost impossible for amateurs to use because of the expense and difficulty in obtaining the photographic materials required.10
Because of their fragile nature very few calotype prints are known to have survived. The only true calotype in these two collections in the La Trobe Picture Collection, is the image titled ‘Port Phillip squatter 1850’, which is printed on paper watermarked ‘Ansell/1839’. It cannot be ascertained with accuracy if Kerr was the photographer.
All other photographic prints in these collections were produced as contact prints from collodion wet plate negatives, using either salted paper or the albumen silver printing process. Use of wet plate collodian negatives was introduced to Australia after 1851, and this fact establishes the date of photographs of ‘Fernyhurst’ subjects as being from approximately 1853 until the late 1850s when Kerr left ‘Fernyhurst’.11
It seems most likely that Kerr used this photographic process to produce these images. He may, of course, have experimented earlier with the calotype process. Over thirty different ‘Fernyhurst’ images are known. It is an impressive achievement that Kerr was able to produce so
many photographs. He would have had to mix the chemicals for the photographic plates, apply them to the glass plates, and then take the photograph before the chemicals had dried. Exposure times would be shorter than for paper negatives, but still in the order of minutes rather than seconds per exposure.
Kerr was an amateur photographer and his photographs are far from technically perfect. His lack of technical skills may mar the quality of the images, but they do help identify the photographs as being by the same photographer.
Many of his images show a characteristic lens aberration, since he was unable to focus the entire image across the width of the photographic plate. As might be expected, Kerr has chosen to focus the centre of his image and leave the periphery out of focus. In many of his landscape images, there is a characteristic blur on the periphery. The same blur can be seen in the images of the corroboree and of the white settlerment, thus helping to identify them as all being taken by Hunter Kerr at or near ‘Fernyhurst’.
Kerr's photographic plates show all types of faults with the photographic emulsion. Fingerprints are clearly visible where they were held at the edges of some plates. In some images, the emulsion has cracked or been dislodged from the plate surface. This damage also helps to identify images in both albums as having been printed from the same photographic plate. One photograph shows a young Aboriginal man in possum skin cloak holding a rifle in a shooting pose. A copy of this photograph is present in both the Lang and Priston Albums, and identical emulsion damage is visible in the lower left-hand side of each prints. The print in the Priston Album has additional damage, as the glass plate had been broken before it was printed, and a hairline crack crosses the image.
In general, the prints in the Priston Album have greater evidence of emulsion damage, and many plates show cracking of the glass plate itself. Another photographic flaw is visible on at least three different images. The large black incursions into the images from the periphery may be due to the hood or cloth of the photographer's camera blacking out part of the image.
All photographs in the Priston album are printed using the albumen silver process. This dates the prints as having been made after 1860 when the process has become commonly used in Australia.12
It is impossible to know if Kerr made the later prints using this new photographic printing technique. Confirmation of Kerr as the printer of the earlier salt paper prints is confused by the information located on a set of prints in the Royal Historical Society of Victoria collection. These salt paper prints are almost exactly the same size, indicating they were contact prints produced from the same photographic plates. The Royal Historical Society of Victoria prints have been mounted on card which is inscribed ‘Corroborrie [sic] held at night / Fernyhurst Australia Felix/JHK’. The mount is signed by Eugene Montagu Scott. This has led to the assumption that Scott and Kerr collaborated on the ‘Fernyhurst’ photographs, and even to the speculation that Scott was the photographer of these images.13
Scott was born in 1835 and arrived in Victoria in 1856 or 1857, close to the time when Kerr left ‘Fernyhurst’. It is unrealistic to attribute this set of photographs to him as photographer. He may
have printed them later for Kerr, but the prints he has signed are salt paper prints and not prints made using the new albumen silver technique popular in the early 1860s when Scott operated a photographic studio in Collins Street west.14
It is possible that Kerr revisited ‘Fernyhurst’ with Scott in the 1860s to produce a series of images, particularly if Kerr were now considering writing his memoirs. This is entirely speculation, as circumstantial evidence points to Kerr having taken the images while living at Fernyhurst in the 1850s. Scott had moved to Sydney by 1866 to work for Punch Magazine. Therefore if a collaboration had taken place, it would have been before this date.
There is no evidence that Kerr exhibited any of his photographs during his lifetime. He showed about twenty items of natural history and ethnographic interest at the Melbourne International Exhibition of 1855, and photographs of carefully arranged displays of native tools and weapons are in the Priston Album. One of these images was engraved as the frontispiece of Kerr's memoirs, and presumably they were taken by Kerr himself.
The identity of the photographer who used the glass plate negatives to print both the salted paper prints and the later albumen silver prints in the Lang and Priston Albums is uncertain. Kerr may have produced the salted paper prints in the Lang Album, but the prints signed ‘E. Montagu Scott’ have always clouded this issue.
The later albumen silver prints may have been printed by Kerr, but the condition of the plates had deteriorated greatly in the years between the two printings, so that the images in the Priston Album show additional damage to the emulsion or the glass plate negatives themselves.
Currently there is no evidence that Priston bought copies of the photographs to mount and sell as a photographic dealer. This may have been the case, or he may have been in possession of the glass negatives himself and printed copies as required.
However, the fact that the negatives used in the Lang Album in the 1850s were re-used in the 1860s or 1870s is testimony to the importance placed on these images of early Victoria, even during Kerr's own lifetime.


I would like to thank Jane Hinwood, Photographic Conservator at the State Library of Victoria, and Allan Elliott and Ellie Young for their invaluable advice about early photographic techniques. I have relied greatly on their professional expertise, but any errors in this paper are my own.
I am also grateful to Elizabeth Willis, Senior Curator at Museum Victoria, who introduced me to the work of John Hunter Kerr, and to the conundrum of the Lang and Priston Albums.

Appendix 1: Photographs attributed to John Hunter Kerr in La Trobe Picture Collection

Lang Album

Album compiled by Alexander Denistoun Lang of sketches, watercolours and salted paper prints. Photograph from album gift of Mr Bruce Lang, 1982. 1 Calotype, 10 salted paper photographs and I albumen silver photograph. (Note-albumen silver print shows Melbourne Club, Melbourne 1860, by Jean Baptiste Charlier.) Library reference number: H82.277/1–12. LTAF 364.

Priston Album

Provenance uncertain, part of library collection from c.1878.
Collection of albumen prints of Australian aborigines taken from earlier glass negatives. c 1865–c.1875.
Mounts are embossed with G.W. Priston Melbourne.
Four photographs have ‘Queensland’ on the back of them in a contemporary hand in ink, and are prossibly the work of Richard Daintree. These are studio portraits of Aboriginal men and women with native implements or baskets. The other 28 photographs show aboriginal men and women outdoors in various settings, holding hunting weapons, wearing possum skin cloaks or performing ceremonial dances. Library reference number: H 30158/1-32. LTAF 366


John Hunter Kerr, Glimpses of Life in Victoria: by ‘A Resident’, Introduction by Marguerite Hancock, Carlton Victoria, Miegunyah Press, 1996.


Argus, 7 February 1874 p. 7.


Joan Kerr, Dictionary of Australian Artists: Painters, Sketchers, Photographers and Engravers to 1870, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1992. p. 424.


Les Premiers habitants du pacifique : Early inhabitants in Oceania, Rodolphe Chamonal, 2004. pp. 24–25.


Joan Kerr, pp. 447–448


John Hunter Kerr, Glimpses of life in Victoria: by ‘A Resident’, Introduction by Marguerite Hancock, Carlton Victoria, Miegunyah Press, 1996. p. 17.


Paul de Serville, Pounds and Pedigrees: The Upper Class in Victoria, 1850–80, South Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1991. See listing for members of the Melbourne Club.


Joan Kerr. p. 644.


Gael Newton, Shades of Light: Photography and Australia 1839–1988, Australian National Gallery, Canberra: Collins, 1988. p. 206.


Ibid, p. 14.


John Hunter Kerr, Glimpses of life in Victoria: by ‘A Resident’, 1996. See introductory essay by Marguerite Hancock.


Gael Newton, p. 207.


See: Joan Kerr, Dictionary of Australian Artists: Painters, Sketchers, Photographers and Engravers to 1870, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1992. pp. 704–5. And also: Judith Ryan, Joy Murphy-Wandin, and Carol Cooper, Remembering Barak, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne 2003. pp. 26–27, where in the text salt paper prints, are attributed to John Hunter Kerr but the image caption credits ‘Montagu Eugene Scott’ [sic] as the photographer.


Joan Kerr, pp. 704–5.