Friday, 10 May 2019

Charles Spencer, Photographer (Part I)

Charles Spencer, probably taken c.1873-1876 by himself
Glass quarter-plate negative
Image courtesy of Auckland Library Sir George Grey Collection Ref. 1365-0368
When Charles Spencer set up his makeshift photographic studio in a tent adjacent to Thomas Wrigley’s Springwell Brewery at the corner of Spring and Willow Streets in April 1879, he had already made a name for himself as an adventurous explorer and skilled photographer of landscapes. Originally from Leicestershire, England, he emigrated to New Zealand with his family in 1861 and grew up in Thames, where his father Thomas Spencer and chemist John Hall owned a chemist and assay business. It is likely that he learnt something of the chemist’s trade at the firm of Spencer & Hall in his teens, but by early 1876 he was in Dunedin where, with a reputed stake of £1000, he became a partner in the already successful photographic studio of Clifford & Morris.

View along The Strand, Tauranga, probably taken Sep-Oct 1878 by Charles Spencer
Mounted albumen print credited to Series No 932, Burton Brothers, Dunedin
Collection of Te Papa Tongarewa Ref. O.034032
A year later, in July 1877, he and his younger brother George moved on to work for the even more well known firm of Burton Bros, and spent many months taking landscape views across the Southern Alps and up the West Coast. After this successful adventure resulted in the addition of a large number of photographs to the Burton Bros. portfolio, they were sent to the North Island to take further scenic views in the country between the Lake country and Tongariro. It is likely that Spencer’s first photographs of Tauranga was taken in September or October 1879 while employed by Burton Bros, and when he was en route to or from the Lakes district. The above view northwards along the Strand towards the Monmouth Redoubt, complete with characteristic “Burton Brothers” reference number and byline at bottom left, is one likely candidate.

Wedding party of Emily Stewart and Richard Surtees, Mount Stewart, Katikati
Photograph attributed to Charles Spencer, 12 Jun 1879
Image courtesy of the Stewart Family and Tauranga Library’s Tauranga Memories Kete
The decision to leave the employ of Burton Bros. and try his luck at portraiture and outdoor photographic work in Tauranga may have been made during a summer holiday spent back at his parents’ home at Parawai in Thames. His stay in Tauranga did not have an auspicious start. In late May, by which time he had installed a stove, no doubt due to the onset of winter, the tent burnt down, although he managed to save all his equipment and chemicals. He was back at work within three weeks, and managed to score a commission to photograph the wedding of prominent Bay of Plenty resident George Vesey Stewart’s eldest daughter Emily to Richard Surtees at Mount Stewart, Katikati, that same month.

Charles Spencer, c. 1879-1881
Carte de visite, probably taken in Spencer’s Tauranga studio
Courtesy of Elms Collection Ref. 2002.0170
In early September, Spencer took over the Hoyte’s chemist and druggist business on the Strand. By employing Henry Clayton, a pharmaceutical chemist, as manager he was able to use a room behind the shop, originally designed as a consulting room for visiting medical practitioners, as a temporary photographic studio, opened in early January 1880. A month earlier he had married Isabella Sellars, daughter of local resident and ship owner Captain Daniel Sellars, which presumably contributed to his decision to put down more substantial roots in Tauranga. The market for portrait sittings was clearly insufficient to occupy him full time, because by early March he was offering “all kinds of portraiture” and “views and residences to order” from a tent in Hamilton, and later in Cambridge. He returned to Thames in August, erecting his “monster tent” studio and offering his usual fare for some weeks.

Charles Spencer & his wife Isabella née Sellars, c. Summer 1882/83
Glass quarter-plate negative, probably taken by Spencer
Image courtesy of Auckland Library Sir George Grey Collection Ref. 1365-0344
In September 1880 took on the agency for the Universal Copying Company of San Francisco, which undertook “Painting Portraits from all kinds of Family Photos,” and promised that either he or his agent would “visit every town in the North Island.” The following month he retuned to Tauranga and, stating that he intends to settle there permanently, dissolved the partnership with Henry Clayton, intending to operate both the chemist’s business and his photographic studio himself. Clayton, in turn, was appointed general agent for the Colony and took over the touring. Spencer lost no time get involved with local affairs, becoming a member of the Templar’s local Lodge, and took on the additional agencies for Singer’s Sewing Machines and Hopkins’ Bee Hives. In addition to “portraits from 15s per dozen,” he offered “all kinds of outdoor photos as per agreement” and “views of the Hot Lakes,” via advertisements which appeared almost continuously in the Bay of Plenty Times until July 1882.

Ivy Kate Spencer, aged about 12 months, c. Summer 1882/83
Glass quarter-plate negative, probably taken by Spencer
Image courtesy of Auckland Library Sir George Grey Collection Ref. 1365-0349
On 9th October 1881 Isabella Spencer gave birth to their first child, a daughter they named Ivy Kate. The portrait above was taken when she was about a year old. Sadly she died only 20 months later, on 12th June 1883, and was buried in Tauranga’s Mission Cemetery, where she is memorialized on her grandparents gravestone.
[… to be continued]

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