State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 76 Spring 2005


Mary Lewis
‘The most luxuriously furnished salon in Melbourne’:
Johnstone O'Shannessy's 1885 Studio

The establishment, which occupies the whole of the upper stories of Numbers 234 and 236 Collins-street, is the most luxuriously furnished salon in Melbourne, and besides several reception rooms, hung with interesting collections of art work, there are numerous private dressing rooms where clients can don fancy costumes with comfort and convenience.
Table Talk, 25 December 1891
A Set of ink and coloured wash architectural drawings of the premises of Johnstone O'Shannessy, leading nineteenth-century Melbourne society photographers, were discovered recently. They are of interest for a number of reasons: they throw light on nineteenth-century photographic businesses and technology; they illuminate the practice of the architectural firm Reed Henderson & Smart; they document the development of the Howey Estate; and finally, they record a specialised exercise in architectural design and planning.
If commercial success can be gauged by the size and opulence of a firm's building, Johnstone O'Shannessy had reached the pinnacle in 1885. Regarded as Melbourne's leading portrait photographers, the firm was patronised by prominent members of Melbourne society, governors and royalty.1
In 1884 Johnstone O'Shannessy commissioned the architects Reed Henderson & Smart to design their new premises at 55–57 Collins Street East on the north side between Swanston and Elizabeth Streets. (Street numbering changed in 1889, when the address became 234–236 Collins Street.) Popularly known as the Block, this section of Collins Street was famous from the 1850s as a place for the Melbourne elite to promenade. Nicholson and Son, pianoforte and organ importers, were at nos. 45–47 and Charles Troedel & Co. at no. 43, both firms having been there from the 1850s.
The drawings in question were located in the recently acquired A & K Henderson Collection. Anketell Matheson Henderson, the founder of the firm, was articled to Joseph Reed from 1869. He qualified as a civil engineer at Melbourne University in 1872, and after practising on his own for a period he entered into partnership with F. J. Smart in 1879. In 1883 Henderson & Smart joined Joseph Reed to form the partnership Reed Henderson & Smart. In 1890 Henderson left to establish his own firm. The partnership of A & K Henderson was formed in 1905 when his son Kingsley joined him. A. M. Henderson is likely to have worked on this building a year after he rejoined Joseph Reed's firm. Despite some ill-feeling, there was a division of the drawings at the time he left the practice, his share including a number of banks as well as Johnstone O'Shannessy's building.2
The new studio was built on land on the Howey Family Estate. Each sheet is signed on behalf of the owner at that time, J.E.W. [John Edwards Werge] Howey, who lived in England, by two men who held his power of attorney. The first signature, E. Baines, is possibly Edward Baines, a

Detail from drawing No. 3: Plan of third (top) floor. The floor plan showing the three major galleries under the glazed roofing and the dome or light well. At the rear are the rooms for toning and the solar camera. Reed Henderson & Smart Messrs. Johnstone O'Shannessy & Co Ltd / Collins Street East. 1885 Ink and coloured wash on cartridge paper. LTAD 108/130 No. 3


Opposite page top: Drawing No. 4: The section A B (south to north) shows the three transverse glazed gables over galleries 1 and 2 and part of the longitudinal glazed hip roof over gallery 3 at the rear. The detail is of the screen which runs north-south along the dark room and the change rooms adjoining galleries 1 and 2. The section C D (east-west) is looking north towards, the internal glazing through the light well space. LTAD 108/130 No. 4

Opposite page lower: Drawing No. 6 (detail): Façade of Johnstone O'Shannessy's Photographic Studio. A typical Victorian style which has elements from classical Greek and Roman architecture. LTAD 108/130 No. 6

wholesale ironmonger of 13 Little Collins Street East. The second signature, although not so clear, is likely to be that of Carl Ludwig Pinschof (1855–1926), Austro-Hungarian Consul, and partner in the firm Pfaff & Pinschof, importers and general merchants of 13 Little Flinders Street west (i.e. Flinders Lane). We know from a report in the Argus that the building cost £10,000.3 It is clear that the studio was built by the Howey Estate to the requirements of the tenant.
The story of the Howey Estate is a complicated and interesting one and worth a short digression. Henry Howey was a successful bidder at the first Melbourne land sale on 1 June 1837, acquiring lots 6 to 9 in section 12 for a total of £120. The area of nearly two acres (about 0.8 hectares) was bounded by Swanston, Collins and Little Collins Streets, and extended along Collins Street for about 40% of the block. Tragically, Henry Howey and his entire family were lost at sea the following year, and the property passed to his brother John Werge Howey. The latter found that large sums were to be made from leasing the land, and after establishing the terms and conditions for tenants he left for England where he lived the life of a gentleman in Herefordshire.4 The land could be leased provided the tenant erected a building of a stated value and kept it in good repair. After a period of twenty-one years the building would revert to the owner.5 After J. W. Howey's death in England in 1871 the property passed to his nephew Major John Edwards Werge Howey and then by entail to his sons. The Howey Estate is unusual in Melbourne in that is was owned and developed privately by a single family. It was finally wound up by a deed of release in 1972.6
Following approval by Howey's agents in December 1884, tenders were called in the Argus for ‘a large photographic premises and shop at Collins St., east for Johnstone O'Shannessy & Co. Ltd.’ The contract was signed by the builder, Charles Butler, in January 1885. Two descriptions appeared in the Argus, one in May and the other on October 1885, the day before the opening.7 According to the reports the building had an imposing façade. The ground floor was to be let as a shop, and a fireproof staircase led to a hall on the first floor, 34 ft long, 22 ft wide and 40 ft high (10.2 m × 6.6 m × 12 m) surrounded by galleries and with an ornamental glass roof. From the drawings this appears to be a light well rising from the first to the third floor. The new premises were appointed in the most up-to-date manner. In the vestibule on the ground floor was a telephone, a post box, writing material, newspapers and periodicals. The reporter believed the ladies would be delighted to find a decorative lift to the upper floors. The first floor waiting room gave a splendid view over Collins Street. On the second floor there were suites of dressing rooms and at the rear repairing, enamelling and framing rooms. There were three very large studio/galleries on the third floor. Between gallery 1 and 2 was an adjoining dark room and an area for changing photographic plates. At the rear of the building were the printing and toning rooms. In addition, there was ‘an ingenious contrivance for out-door printing when required’, of which there is no adequate explanation in the Argus report and no indication on the drawings.8
The founders of the firm were the artist/photographer Henry James Johnstone and Miss O'Shannessey. Whilst H. J. Johnstone's work as an artist is well known, very little has come to light about Miss O'Shannessy except that she had previously worked as a photographer. She is listed in directories as Miss O'Shaugnessy with her presumed mother Mrs E. F. K. O'Shaugnessy at 18–20 Madeline [Swanston] Street Carlton from 1862–63. H. J. Johnstone returned to England in 1880, so he would not have seen this splendid building. The firm remained in the building until 1905

Fratelli Alinari. The Portrait studio in Via Nazionale 8. Ca. 1900. Archivi Alinari, Florence. Interior view of the Fratelli Alinari studio ca. 1900, containing all the paraphernalia of the portrait studio, such as; backdrops, props, furniture, and a rather grande dame posing in a chair.

J.W. Lindt's studio “Ethelred” Hawthorn Melbourne. Ca. 1889. Albumen silver photograph Douglas Baglin Collection, H85.40/2 LTA 1554

after which they moved to Elizabeth Street.
Johnstone O'Shannessy became popular society photographers, taking portraits of members of parliament, archbishops, governors and their wives and royalty. The latter was represented, in the first instance, by Alfred Edward Albert, Duke of Edinburgh on his tour of 1867, the first royal tour, and secondly by the two princes, Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and George Frederick, later King George V, photographed in 1881.9
‘Specimens of highly wrought artistic photography’ were exhibited by Johnstone O'Shannessy at the Victorian Exhibition held at the Exhibition Buildings in connection with the London International Exhibition of 1872–73.10 The Picture Collection holds two fine photographs on milky glass (opalotypes) in red plush frames of the governor Lord Loch and Lady Loch taken in about 1888 (LTM 115, and LTM 114). Other group portraits of Lord and Lady Loch by Johnstone O'Shannessy were taken on the arcaded verandahs of Government House. One of them is entitled: Sir Henry Loch, Lady Loch, family & suite / also their Ex/cies [Excellencies] the governors of Tasmania and / South Australia with other friends. The group is very smartly dressed, the gentlemen in top hats, the ladies in elegant gowns. The photograph is part of the Victorian Copyright Collection and was registered on 19 October 1889.11
One of the most interesting features of Reed Henderson & Smart's design is the complete glazing of the roof over the galleries on the top or third floor, shown on Drawing No. 1. It is hard to imagine what effect this would have had, since no interior photographs have been found. However, a photograph of the interior of the Fratelli Alinari portrait studio gives an excellent impression of a glazed rooftop gallery space. The Fratelli Alinari studio was on the top floor of their building at 8 Via Nazionale, Florence. Like the Johnstone O'Shannessy rooftop galleries, the Alinari studio appears from the photograph to have a complete roof of glass, although it seemed necessary to have a series of blinds and curtains to control the light. Fratelli Alinari were best known, in the first instance, for their photographic copies of works of art and frescoes from famous churches. Later they became equally famous for their architectural photography and the luxurious portrait studio where they photographed kings, queens, popes, artists, politicians and military figures.12
Some other overseas studios were similarly luxurious, though not necessarily having glazed rooftops. Scholten's Gallery in St Louis, Mississippi, was described in 1884 as having a lower reception room with a gallery displaying many sizes and varieties of portraiture. The studio was filled with all kinds of accessories and ‘everything to produce artistic posing’. On the first and third floors were various rooms for mounting, burnishing, finishing, printing, silvering and retouching.13
The appearance of lavishly appointed studios indicates the rising status of photography in Australia as elsewhere. Lindt's studio at 7 Collins Street East was recalled by his apprentice Herman Carl Krutli, who must have first visited it in 1878 or 1879. He remembered the ‘rich crimson velvet pile carpet of the reception room’. Krutli posed for Lindt's first dry plate exposure in 1880.14 An interior view of Lindt's studio at the family home ‘Ethelred’ in Hawthorn shows the usual Victorian clutter but no glass roof.15 It is like gentleman's study or retreat filled with curiosities, rather than a set of professional rooms.
Two other studios in Brisbane and Sydney were also lavishly designed and fitted out to
attract clientele. Thomas Mathewson's new studio in Brisbane was enthusiastically described in 1889:
This is a palace of photography indeed, with its glittering entrance gallery lined with golden show frames and its luxurious waiting room that is like the salon of a patron of the fine arts.16
By 1898, the new Grouzelle Studio in George Street, Sydney, boasted a similar arrangement of richly carpeted and fashionably furnished lobby and reception room, dressing rooms and studio. The painted backdrops were imported from Paris and New York. It is noteworthy that Grouzelle had abandoned the idea of top lighting and replaced it by ‘a high and slanting side light, and in combination with a system of light breakers and diffusers’….17
The introduction of light into Johnstone O'Shannessy's building by various means, such as of glazing almost the entire top floor roof and the east wall of Gallery 3, the domed light well through three floors and the glazed internal partitions is evidence of the specialised design. The light well and the partitions can be seen in the sections on sheets 4 and 5. Artists’ studios regularly had areas of glazing on the roof of top floor but not usually the whole area. Grosvenor Chambers, Collins Street, built by the artist C. S Paterson specifically to accommodate artists, was designed by architects Oakden Addison & Kemp and completed in 1888. Tom Roberts occupied one of the top floor studios. The studios had south facing windows and skylights.
The arrangement and lighting of these studios have been a matter of special study by the architects. The lighting is all taken, as far as possible, from the south. The elevations of the windows are on principles laid down by Sir Joshua Reynolds.18
Natural lighting was preferred as it was simpler and cheaper. In 1885 a writer describes in the British Journal of Photography his experiments with limelight for taking portraits:
At first I tried three or four ordinary mixed gas-jets, connected by a number of rubber-pipes and Y-pieces to a pair of gas-bags. This arrangement, as might have been expected, proved very awkward in practice, as it was difficult to get all the burners properly regulated at the time when the exposure should have taken place.
I then had a special burner made for the purpose, to which the gases – coal gas and oxygen – were admitted through two stopcocks, by which they were regulated. The gases mixed immediately after passing the stopcocks, and then proceeded along a brass tube quarter-inch bore, and fifteen inches long. On this pipe, which was closed at the end, were soldered six brass nipples of a special pattern, with limelight holders attached, each of which formed a separate limelight, varying in power, according to the pressure of gas, from four hundred to eight hundred candles each. Thus there were six of the most powerful limelights controlled by a pair of stopcocks, which were connected in the ordinary way by rubber pipes to a pair of heavily-weighted gas-bags. This arrangement was the equivalent in illuminating power to an electric light of four thousand or five thousand candles’ power.
As it was obviously inconvenient to have this concern placed over the head of the sitter…19
This, apart from the inconvenience, can hardly have been conducive to a relaxed pose.
A collaboration between artists and photographers developed. Many artists were able to find work in photographers’ studios. Johnstone O'Shannessy engaged ‘the exclusive services of several
artists in miniature and oil paintings, whose productions have received the highest commendation from art critics’.20 These artists may have been accommodated on the first floor, where there are two rooms labelled artists' rooms (Drawing No.2). Placed next to them is a rear gallery which is marked ‘Show room to Let’. In 1887, Johnstone O'Shannessy's establishment was used for an exhibition of oils and watercolours for the British and Colonial Art Society.21 This show room may be where the exhibition was held. On the second floor there are another two rooms for artists, and these would most probably be for artists employed in hand colouring.
Artists worked with photographers, enhancing their images by expertly retouching and hand-colouring them. There are many examples in the Picture Collection of delicately hand-tinted daguerrotype and ambrotype portraits. Colouring albumen silver prints soon followed. George Alexander Gilbert, an artist of some distinction and a drawing master in Melbourne from the 1840s, hand-coloured a set of albumen silver views of Victoria by the geologist/ photographer Richard Daintree while both were employed by the Geological Survey of Victoria.22
With the rise of photography, portraits in oils became rarer and the miniature portrait painting gradually disappeared.23 One of the Library's most interesting collections consists of sixty-four portrait photographs of colonial governors, taken from oil paintings, hand-tinted and mounted in oval gilt frames. These were commissioned by Sir Redmond Barry and the Trustees of the Melbourne Public Library from the best photographers of the day. Johnstone O'Shannessy produced six of these portraits: William Bligh 1880; Sir Thomas Brisbane 1866; Sir Ralph Darling 1870; Sir Maurice O'Connell 1880; Sir Charles Fitzroy 1866 and Sir George Gipps 1870.24 Hand-coloured photographic portraits were increasingly preferred over poor quality oil paintings. It was obviously cheaper, with no need for numerous sittings. Cost had no doubt influenced Barry when he engaged photographers rather than artists for his portraits of governors.
The close consultation with the client had resulted in planning of offices and spaces by the architects to assist the work flow and facilitate the best management of the business. The Argus reported that:
every branch of the business have [sic] been carefully consulted in its design, and the result is a pervading completeness and attention to the smallest detail.25
Drawing no. 3 shows that the manager's office on the second floor was centrally positioned to allow for easy supervision of the work spaces on either side. Table Talk reported that ‘an expert superintends the management’ of Johnstone O'Shannessy.26
Separate rooms were dedicated to the various photographic processes: enamelling, framing and repairs on the second floor; and toning and printing on the top or third floor. Enamelling at this time would probably refer to a form of varnishing, ‘coating the print with a film of collodion to give it a brilliant surface’.27 The toning room contained a large sink-like bath measuring 7 ft × 3 ft 6 in × 6 ft (2.1 × 1.05 × 1.8 m). Another room adjoining the printing room on the top floor is labelled ‘solar’. This would be to accommodate a camera, probably one designed by D. A. Woodward, for the enlarging of negatives by sunlight. The early enlargers were often described as ‘solar cameras’.28 The room has a north-facing window which would have provided sufficient light for this purpose.
Two rooms were set aside for storage on the second floor. The one labelled simply ‘storage’ was probably for chemicals and the other labelled ‘lumber’ for furniture and equipment. There are three dressing-rooms and a ‘Girls Room’. There is also a ‘properties room’ on the third floor, no doubt for the fancy dress referred to in Table Talk!
The provision of the large and superior spaces for clients makes the planning of the premises a remarkable effort in public relations. At every stage the comfort and convenience of the prospective client was paramount, from the excellent facilities in the vestibule, hall and waiting room, to the three major rooftop studios, the dressing rooms, and the lift. It may be worth noting that at the rear of the building on each floor are what we would call today lavatories or toilets. They are either marked as WC (water closet) or EC (earth closet). The earth closet, a patent system of treated and re-useable soil, was on the top floor, probably because the Yan Yean water supply could not be relied upon at this height. On the first floor there is an internal room marked ‘Ladies Lavatory’, which is a wash room with to two basins. The terminology has changed.
Architectural drawings are by nature specialised. They tend to be used mostly by the profession, conservation architects, students of architecture, and occasionally by the owner of an historic building. However, quite often they can reveal more than just the style and details of a building. The drawings of Johnstone O'Shannessy's establishment document the photographic processes and technology of the time. They give us an insight into the workings of a large photographic business in the way that mere description cannot, and they reveal something of the growing status of the recently discovered art of photography within the community.


Jack Cato, The story of the camera in Australia, 3rd ed., [Brisbane?] Institute of Australian Photography, 1979, p. 57.


Miles Lewis,‘A House Divided: 1890–1918’, in Bates Smart: 150 years of Australian architecture, Fisherman's Bend, Vic., Thames & Hudson, 2004, p. 69. We have located thirty-nine country banks for the Bank of Australasia in the A & K Henderson Collection, MPL.


Argus, 25 May 1885, p. 5.


C.H. Bertie, ‘Pioneer families of Australia, No. 17 – The Howeys’ The Home, 1 June, 1931, pp. 21 & 65.


Ronald G. Campbell, The first ninety years; the printing house of Massina, Melbourne, 1859–1949, Melbourne, A.H. Massina, 1949, p. 117.


Nicholas M. O'Donnell, ‘Henry Howey : the pioneer of the Gisborne District’, Victorian Historical Magazine, vi, 2, December 1917, pp. 82–96. Miles Lewis, ‘The Howey Estate’, assessment of the significance of the Sportsgirl properties, February 1987, typescript, quoting from the ‘Howey Papers’ held at Melbourne University Archives.


Argus, 11 November 1884, p. 7; 28 May 1885 p. 5; and 27 October 1885 p. 11.


Argus, 27 October 1885, p. 11.


Victorian Patents Copyright Collection, envelope 7, H96.160/251–253, registered on 15 July 1881.


London International Exhibition of 1873 : the Victorian Exhibition, opened 6th November 1872 : official catalogue of exhibits, Melbourne, Msson, Firth M'Cutcheon, 1872, p. 9. Note that at the time the exhibitions were held in the wooden rotunda and annexes at the Melbourne Public Library built in 1866 for the Intercolonial Exhibition and not demolished until 1912 when the present dome was erected.


Victorian Patents Copyright Collection, envelope 28, H96.160/1810.


Susanna Weber and Ferruccio Malandrini, ‘Fratelli Alinari in Florence’, History of Photography, 20, 1, Spring 1996, pp. 49–56. The Picture Collection holds an album of full plate albumen silver photographs by Fratelli Alinara and Carlo Ponti of the buildings of Florence published by the Architectural Photographic Association in 1860. LTWEF 9.


Anon, ‘A visit among galleries’, St. Louis Photographer, November 1884, p. 363, quoted in Heinz K. Henisch and Bridget A. Henisch, The painted photograph 1839–1914: origins, techniques, aspirations, University Park, Pa., The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996, p. 164.


Marie McLardy, ‘Our oldest living photographer’, Australian Photo-Review, 54, September 1947, pp. 484–489.


Not precisely dated but 1884–1894.


The Boomerang, 24 August 1889, quoted in Julie Brown and Margaret Maynard, ‘Painter and photographer; Brisbane in the 1880s and 1890s’, History of Photography, 2, 4, October 1978, pp. 325–331.


Australian Photographic Journal, vii, April 20 1898, p. 84.


Australasian Builder & Contractor's News, 5 May 1888, p. 284.


British Journal of Photography, xxxii, no. 1314, 10 July 1885, p. 437.


Table Talk, 25 December, 1891, p. 14.


Catalogue of the exhibition at Johnstone O'Shannessy and Co's rooms, Melbourne 1887, Art Pamphlets, vol. 67.


LTAEF 52, dated 1859–1863.


Aaron Scharf, Art and photography, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, Penguin, 1974, pp. 42–43.


Christine Downer, ‘Photographs’, The first collections: the Public Library and the National Gallery of Victoria in the 1850s and the 1860s, Parkville, Vic., University of Melbourne Museum of Art, 1992, pp. 73–79. And Henisch & Henisch, op. cit. pp. 224–225.


Argus, 27 October 1885 p. 11.


Table Talk, op. cit.


E. J. Wall, A Dictionary of Photography, London, Hazell, Watson & Viney, 1889, pp. 58–59.


Wall, pp. 181–182; Robert Leggat, A History of Photography / from its beginnings till the 1920s, under Significant Processes, Consulted 1 August 2005[[15 November 2005]