A matter of perspective

Early photographs are the best. They encompass everything from the utterly absurd to the momentous to the mundane. They provide us with a window into the past that is rare and wonderful (especially from an archaeological perspective), putting faces to names and shapes to cities. We are indebted to those who took them, the pioneers and innovators who experimented with chemicals and light and hid under big black sheets in an attempt to freeze time into a single frame. Yet, most of the time, they’re no more than a name scribbled on the back of a photograph, if that. We so very rarely get to meet these photographers, to look behind the images in front of us to the people through whose lens we are now viewing the past. Father Christmas from Gimblett collection CCL.

A wee while ago now, we excavated a site on Oxford Terrace with several phases of occupation and activity, including the 1870s-1880s use of the section by a commercial bonded warehouse. We excavated rather a lot of artefacts from the site, some of them associated with the bonded warehouse and some of them associated with the occupation of a cottage on the section from its construction in 1851 until the mid-1870s. Over the decades, this cottage was occupied by a range of people, including a butcher and tailor (but not a candlestick maker). Just one of these occupants, however, was responsible for most of the material culture we found in association with this phase of activity on the site. Through a combination of product types and manufacturing dates (and historical records), we were able to trace the assemblage back to Mr Samuel Charles Louis Lawrence, photographer extraordinaire and resident of Oxford Terrace from the mid-1860s until the early 1870s.

An old photograph of Oxford Terrace west, showing the 1851 cottage (the building with a verandah) and a photograph of the site as we excavated it. Image:

Mr Charles Lawrence, as he was known professionally, arrived in New Zealand in the 1860s and promptly set himself up as a photographer on Oxford Terrace West, next to Walton and Warner’s bonded store. We know that he offered a variety of photographic styles such as carte de visite, cabinet, miniature and “every description of picture taken in the most artistic style” (Southern Provinces Almanac, cited by Canterbury Photography). He appears to have become quite successful: he was advertised as “photographer by especial appointment to his excellency Sir James Fergusson” in 1873 and moved into larger premises, known as the Central Photographic Rooms, on High Street in 1874.

He was something of an innovator as well, as evident from a legal dispute described in the newspapers in 1888. Lawrence took F. H. von Schoeneberg to court for the sum of £25 over patent claims to a new camera front that they had developed together. As one account of the court case stated, “they had drunk laager beer over it, and talked religion over it, and the existence of God or a hereafter had been denied over it” (Press 18/05/1888: 6). As a side note, he appears to have been involved in another unrelated court case in 1871 regarding a group of photographers breaching the Distillation Act through the home use of stills to distill water for their photographic enterprises. They were let off with “the understanding that they were to memorialise the Commissioner of Customs for licenses” (Star 18/08/1871: 3).

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The artefacts we found at the site of Lawrence’s cottage included many of the types of artefacts that we find on domestic sites all over the city – such as tea and table wares, food containers (condiments!), alcohol bottles, personal hygiene items, pharmaceutical bottles, smoking pipes  and shoes,  as well as slightly more unusual artefacts, like decanters and toothbrushes. Some of the material reflects the 1860s-early 1870s date of use and discard, with manufacturing dates ranging from the late 1850s through into the late 1860s. Some of it provides evidence for the presence of children at the site: we found several pairs of children’s size gaitor boots (ankle boots with elastic sides), which could easily have belonged to Charles Lawrence’s children (although, being difficult to date, they may have belonged to earlier residents of the site).

Selection of artefacts likely to have been associated with Charles Lawrence's occupation of the site. Image: J. Garland.

Unfortunately, what the assemblage didn’t really provide was material culture related to Charles’ photography business, with one exception. The only evidence we found of his photographic pursuits took the form of bottle from London based firm R. W. Thomas, who made all manner of chemicals and other sundries used in the practice of photography. We could speculate about the rest of the artefacts found – perhaps some of them could have been used to serve refreshments to or entertain clients who came to the Oxford Terrace house to have their photographs taken. We don’t know. Maybe some of the artefacts could have been used as props in his images, everyday objects used to make the studio staged photographs seem more real.

R. W. Thomas bottle from the site on Oxford Terrace. Image: J. Garland.

Fortunately for us, several of Charles Lawrence’s photographs have survived. Some of them are accessible through the Alexander Turnbull Library collections, others through the Canterbury Photography blog. They show a range of figures from a long since lost Christchurch, some of them known to history, some of them now just faces without names. They capture men, women and children looking off into the distance, staring inquisitively, uncertainly, decisively at the viewer, posing artfully against plinths, armchairs and walls. They do not, however, include any of the artefacts that we found on the site, in a turn of events that is disappointing but not surprising.

Photographs taken by Charles Lawrence in the 19th century. Notice the same arm chair and table popping up in different images, along with the same curtain, arranged in different ways. The different styles of clothing are also fascinating, although perhaps not indicative of everyday life (one would wear one's best to have a portrait taken, after all). Images: Canterbury Photography.

The photographs themselves are interesting artefacts of life in 19th century Christchurch, though, when you look at them closely. The people in them are fascinating, from their clothes – spanning fashions from the 1860s into the 1870s – to their hairstyles, their expressions, their poses. There’s even one example of the classic ‘Victorian ghost mother’, in which a mother sits, covered in a rug for the sake of (ineffective) camouflage, holding on to a child in order to, presumably, stop it running away.

In which a child sits on the lap of a 'camouflaged' figure. Image: Canterbury Photography.

If you look closely enough, you can even see behind the scenes of the image, to the parts that make up the sum. Maybe because I’ve been looking at them with the photographer in mind more than the subject, thinking about his premises on Oxford Terrace and the process behind these images that he’s taken, it’s easy to see the pieces that make up the image. You can see the same props popping up in different images, the same plinth, the same balustrade, the same armchair. You can imagine the studio – perhaps not the carefully framed room visible in the images, but a collection of separate elements, artfully arranged to create the illusion of a whole when viewed from just the right angle. You can even imagine Mr Lawrence with his camera set up, directing his subjects to stand or sit just so, before capturing their likenesses with glass and chemicals and light.

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Charles Lawrence continued to work as a photographer in Christchurch until the 1880s, when he went bankrupt and moved to Ashburton. He died there in 1891. He is survived by the footprint he left behind him in the archaeological record and the faces of the past that look back at us through his lens. One man and his camera, connecting present to past and past to present with the click of a shutter.

Jessie Garland

Our thanks to Natasha Wells, for pointing us in the direction of the Canterbury Photography blog, and our thanks to the author of that blog, who kindly allowed us to use some of Charles Lawrence's photographs in this post.