Sunday, December 10, 2017

Every picture tells some story ...


Now that I’m not currently working on getting a new book out, I, for the first time in many years, have time to … well, indulge the odd lazy, nineteenth-century fancy. If something catches my eye as I waddle round my literary domain, I can spend a day or two looking into it – well, you’ve seen my recent posts. A piece of music, a book … they all have some sort of a tale to tell, and they can all start me off on a little adventure.

Today it was a photo. This morning I was strolling through the pages and pages of cartes de visite to be found on eBay, pictures of places and people of other times. More often than not, insofar as the people are concerned, unknown, unidentified, nameless. I’m not looking to buy these days, but I like to look. And this one took my fancy. A little boy in his best Sunday suit and his somewhat overweight sister from Melbourne, Australia.

 What often happens with photos is that, when the photo-ed folk and their family are gone, they get disposed of. So where there is one, you can sometimes find more. So I looked, just in case. And, yes! There are three of these two children, all with the same dealer. And one of a whiskered man. Same photographer. Same chair. Clearly, the same session. And there is one of a lady. Different dealer, different chair … but same photographer, same year … No, they’re not dated or identified but the photographer is. And a sad story is his.

John Gaul was born in Alvar, Banffshire, Scotland in 1831, the second son in the family of maltman, John Gaul, and his wife née Ann MacIntosh. We can see him, in the 1851 census, working as a cabinet-maker in Banff. On 8 May 1857, he married Miss Jessie Gossip, soon after, their first son, Joseph, was born, and the year after they left Liverpool for Australia and a new life. On the ship’s manifest, John was listed as ‘labourer’, but he clearly had other ideas. They arrived in Melbourne 29 April 1860, and within no time John, ‘artist’, had set up a pianoforte tuning and accordion business, then a studio of ‘The Photographic Art’ at 112 Douglas Parade. And 22 July Jessie gave birth to a second son, Alexander William, ‘at the home of Captain [Joseph] Dalgarno’. 112 Douglas Parade. The child died at 18 months. But there were two more to come. Finally, in 1866, John Gaul upmarketed. He moved his studio 95 Swanston Street, the address shown on our photographs. But he didn’t stay there for long. By the next year, he had shifted to larger premises in the same street. So, we can date our photos precisely to 1866.

 Then it all went wrong for John. Jessie died, aged only 34 at their home at 22 Regent Street, Fitzroy. A few weeks later, John took on a partner in his business, and within two years he himself withdrew. His brother, Alexander [MacIntosh], who had also emigrated and who was a printer in Carlton apparently helped him out, until he got into money troubles too, and he and his family re-emigrated to New Zealand where he died in 1903.

John too went to New Zealand. With a new wife, Margaret née Dillon. And presumably at least some of his three surviving children. He died there, in Colombo Street, Christchurch, 27 November 1876 – 25km from where I sit now -- where he had established a studio. It was believed to be suicide.

So, poor John Gaul ‘artist’ apparently didn’t have a very long career as a Melburnian photographer. Five years or so in Williamstown, one year of glory at no 95, and then a bit longer down the road. But he took some photos there which have survived. The State Library of Victoria has a handful. And then there are these. I guess these folk went back to England, and took their Melburnian photos with them …

I should dearly love to know who they were. Dad would make a lovely understudy for Abe Lincoln.

PS I find that someone else has delved into the Gauls and in considerably more detail than I, and with a fine selection of his Christchurch photographs:

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