James Findlay’s album of Victorian High Country Views, by Sallie Muirden
Landscapes from the James Findlay Album AL-71, RHSV Images Collection, c.1888.
The thirty landscape photographs in the Findlay album were taken by the renowned photographer Nicholas John Caire (1837-1918). They are a series of interconnected photographs, presumably all taken on one trip to the Victorian Alpine region along the Ovens River Valley. Places featured are Bright, Wandiligong, Porepunkah, Eurobin Falls, Mount Buffalo, Harrietville, St Bernard, Mount Hotham, Mount Feathertop and Mount Smythe.
Who was Nicholas John Caire?
He was Australia’s finest and best-known landscape photographer of the period. He was also commercially successful. He emigrated with his parents and siblings from Guernsey to Adelaide as a young man. Initially employed in the family business as a hairdresser, by the age of 30 he commenced his photographic career making studio portraits. A few years later he moved to country Victoria and made a name for himself photographing the town of Bendigo (1875). He also made long and arduous journeys to Gippsland, the Otways and North East Victoria, later publishing his sets of prints called “Views of Victoria” and selling them in large numbers to great acclaim. Caire’s passion was exploring dense mountain forests, gullies and waterfalls. During the 1880s the transition from wet to dry photographic plates eliminated the need for a mobile darkroom, assisting his explorations. Victoria’s rapid rail and road expansion also helped Caire reach remote locations. A train line to Myrtleford was operational from 1883 and a coach road to Mount Hotham had been completed the same year. Caire made multiple excursions to the places he loved and often in the company of friends. It is probable the two travelling companions who appear in five of the photographs below were Caire’s friends.
Who was James Findlay and how did he come to have a Caire album dedicated to him?
In 1890 James Findlay (1819-1905) and his son of the same name, were living at Towong Station, a pastoral run in the Upper Murray Valley, very close to the town of Corryong. James Findlay senior was a keen native plant collector; he had been a close friend of the naturalist Baron von Mueller. The album he/his son received came with the dedication: “To James Findlay Esq. with pleasant recollections of our visit to Tawong (sic) Station and Mount Kosciusko, March 1890.” While we don’t know the names of Findlay’s visitors, we do have three (carte-de-visite) portraits on the front page of the album, taken by Melbourne photographer, Louis Grouzelle. Presumably these men were Findlay’s visitors. While neither Mount Kosciusko nor Towong Station feature in the album that isn’t surprising. In 1888 very few people owned cameras or knew how to use them. What better way to retrospectively celebrate a trip to the Australian Alps than to buy an album of Caire’s stunning views of the Victorian High Country and send it as a thank you gift.
How do we know the location of the photos?
N.J. Caire scratched the locations on the glass plate negatives so purchasers and other viewers of his photographs would know where they had been taken.
What do the photographs depict?
This is Bright township from Tawonga Gap, taken from an elevated position looking down over the Oven’s Valley. The silver-haired, balding gentleman in the foreground is probably Nicholas John Caire. He was aged about 50 when these photographs were taken.
SNOWBALLING ON MOUNT HOTHAM
Up on the snowline at Mount Hotham, Caire’s companions indulge in a mock snowball fight for the camera. Both appear underdressed, without coats, gloves or snowshoes. The stocky bearded gent wears a bowler hat with a silly white feather. His companion wears a brimmed and dented hat. There is an echidna lying in the snow between the men. Is it possible the animal was put there deliberately as part of the staging?
EUROBIN FALLS, MOUNT BUFFALO
As they climb the lower slopes of Mount Buffalo, Caire and his companions visit the famous Eurobin Falls. The massive granite rock-face, steep escarpment, spilling water and boulder-strewn creek are all captured in one impressive sweep by the photographer. The small figure of a man balancing on the edge of a boulder can almost be overlooked in the face of such natural beauty.
THE HUMP AND THE HORN, MOUNT BUFFALO
Front and centre in this photograph is The Hump, at 1695 metres. It’s one of several spectacular rock formations near the top of Mount Buffalo. One of the travellers has just completed a pencil sketch of the “Hump” while on his right, almost out of the frame, is his bearded mate, hands on hips. The men’s horses graze on the flat grasslands of the high plain. The Horn, Mount Buffalo’s highest peak, is unmistakable in the far distance.
THE CATHEDRAL, MOUNT BUFFALO
In the distance we can see the Cathedral rock formation with its monolith perched on top of a granite tor. In the foreground a man on horseback is enclosed inside an area of twisted and fallen snow-gums. These photos are carefully constructed scenes, little stories in themselves. Curator and photographic historian David Millar notes that “People do not dominate Caire’s landscapes. Often they do not appear at all. Yet when they do, they fit into the landscape in a small, even if integral, part of nature.”
THE HORN, MOUNT BUFFALO
The travellers have reached the summit! The rocky little mountain at the top of the big mountain is “the Horn”, the highest peak at 1,723 metres. The men are photographed standing in the middle of a vast boulder-strewn plateau. They appear as tiny insignificant beings. Yet their inclusion also changes the meaning of the landscape, reflecting Caire’s transformation of the natural world into the more personal realm of art.
A print of the Mount Hotham ‘Snowballing’ photo is also in the collection of the State Library of Victoria. The same photo also appears in an album compiled by Henry G. Turner (1831-1920), held in the SLV and digitised online. The Turner album includes 19 of the same landscape photographs that appear in the Findlay album. However, it does not include the six photographs presented in this blog. While these six almost definitely would have appeared in other albums and books of views created during Caire’s lifetime, the six (and another three in the Findlay album not included in this blog) may only survive in the James Findlay album held in the RHSV Images Collection.
Australian National Botanical Gardens. Biographical entry on James Findlay (1819-1905). Australian National Herbarium. Published 31 May, 2011. https://www.anbg.gov.au/biography/findlay-james.html
Carmody, Jean. Extract from Early Days of the Upper Murray (Wangaratta: Shoestring Press, 1981) reproduced as a preface to the digitised James Findlay manuscript compilation of handwritten musical tunes. Published 1 June, 2002. http://www.folknow.com/findlay/
Cato, Jack. The Story of the Camera in Australia. Melbourne: Institute of Australian Photography, 1977.
David P. Millar, Nicholas John Caire: Photographer 1837-1918. Monograph on Australian Photographic History, No. 2 (Sydney: AGNSW, 1980), p. 7.
Millar, David P., Nicholas John Caire: Photographer 1837-1918. Monograph on Australian Photographic History, No. 2. Sydney: AGNSW, 1980.
Pitkethy, Anne, and Don Pitkethy. N.J. Caire Landscape Photographer. Rosanna: Anne and Don Pitkethy with assistance from Kodak (Australasia) Pty Ltd, 1988.