Friday, 12 July 2019

Charles Spencer, photographer – Part II, The Rotorua Connection

Sunset from White Terrace, Rotomahana, N.Z. (32)
Albumen print (161 x 209mm) by Charles Spencer, c.Mar-Apr 1881
Frances Fenwick’s Album of New Zealand Views, Te Papa Tongarewa, Ref. O.027200

From November 1880 Charles Spencer operated a small but neat photographic studio from a light wooden building behind his chemist’s shop on the Strand. Over the preceding year he had found it necessary to offer his services widely throughout the Bay of Plenty and Waikato. This included photographic excursions to the Rotorua and the thermal attractions of the Pink and White Terraces at Rotomahana, which he had first visited in the summer of 1873-1874, when still in his teens. A very successful trip in March-April 1881 met with cooperative weather and resulted in several dozen “remarkably clear and well-defined plates.” Prints soon appeared for sale in his chemist’s shop, in C.G. Carter’s stationer’s on Wharf Street, and further afield.

Lake House Hotel, Ohinemutu, Rotorua
Albumen print (160 x 210mm) by Charles Spencer, c.Mar-Apr 1881
Frances Fenwick’s Album of New Zealand Views, Te Papa Tongarewa, Ref. O.027123

During the same trip he was engaged to take views of the well frequented Lake House Hotel at Ohinemutu by the then proprietor, Robert Graham.

Bellevue House, Tauranga (J. Bodell, Proprietor)
Albumen print by Charles Spencer, c. January 1881
Tauranga City Library, Ref. 05-443

Likewise, he no doubt received a commission to photograph James Bodell’s newly opened temperance hotel, Bellevue House, Tauranga, in January 1881. Since Tauranga was then, as now, a major port of entry for tourists intending to visit the Lakes, he had a ready market for his prints, which subsequently found their way into albums around the world.

Tauranga Waterfront from Victoria Wharf
Panorama carbon print by Charles Spencer, c. 1884-1887
Tauranga Heritage Collection, Ref. 0609/08

Spencer was always quick to try out fresh ideas and adopt new technologies. After a two-and-a-half month-long break in the summer of 1881-1882, Spencer hired an apprentice and reopened his studio, offering “portraits by the new instantaneous process,” presumably a reference to the then relatively new dry-plate techniques, by which glass plates could be prepared in advance, and offered substantially reduced exposure times. He was among the first in New Zealand to employ carbon print technology, which was developed in the late 1870s and reduced the fading which was so characteristic of albumen prints.

The Bay of Plenty Times [Vol XI, Issue 1311, 1 Jul 1882, p2] published the following account, which may relate to the above view:
We have been shown a very excellent view of the town of Tauranga, photographed by Mr Charles Spencer from the end of the Town Wharf. Photographs may be obtained from Mr Spencer’s studio, mounted and unmounted at a very reasonable figure.
It seems likely that Spencer had carried his bulky camera equipment into the rigging of a ship tied up at the wharf.

Tauranga, N.Z., s.s. “Wellington” at wharf
Albumen print (161 x 210mm) by Charles Spencer, c. 1885-1886
Frances Fenwick’s Album of New Zealand Views, Te Papa Tongarewa, Ref. O.027182

Like many other photographers, both before and after him, he also used the excellent southerly-looking vantage point offered by the Monmouth Redoubt for several views. This particular example, from the album of Frances Fenwick, shows the S.S. Wellington at the end of the wharf. It was likely purchased by her after their trip to view the Pink and White Terraces, and shortly before 30 March 1886, when she and her husband boarded that vessel for Auckland (Bay of Plenty Times, 1 Apr 1886).

Menzies' Hotel, Tauranga
Albumen print (99 x 150mm) by Charles Spencer, c. 1879-1886
Frances Fenwick’s Album of New Zealand Views, Te Papa Tongarewa, Ref. O.027399

Mrs Fenwick included this Spencer print of John Menzies’ Tauranga Hotel, and presumably it was purchased as a memento of where they stayed or perhaps dined en route to Rotorua. It is quite possible that she also purchased a copy of Spencer’s Illustrated Guide to the Hot Springs, published in early 1885 after he had a made a series of trips to Rotorua and White Island.

The Rift, extending from the foot of Mt Tarawera to Rotomahana
Albumen print (137 x 204mm) mounted on card (174 x 238mm) by Charles Spencer, July 1886
Te Papa Tongarewa, Ref. O.002111

When Tarawera erupted only a few weeks later, Geological Survey director James Hector and assistant geologist James Park disembarked at Tauranga on 12 June, en route to the Rotorua lakes district to report on the disturbance. He immediately engaged Spencer to accompany the party and record the effects of the eruption. By the time Spencer returned to Tauranga a week later he had accumulated an initial set of plates which he developed and printed. He then returned to Te Wairoa on 8 July and took several more views during a brief spell of decent weather. At the end of the month he made a third visit, accompanying Percy Smith’s surveying party for almost a week, and taking a number of views between the Ruawahia Dome on Tarawera and the craters to the south-west near Rotomahana.

Although no definitive lists exist, it is likely that Spencer produced several dozen views of the Rotorua hot lakes district before and after the eruption, and as a result his are some of the better known images, in collections throughout the world.
(To be continued)


Bay of Plenty Times, on Papers Past
Tarawera: The Volcanic Eruption of 10 June 1886, by R.F. Keam, 1988.

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