Thomas Nevin's hand-coloured convict photographs

Professional photographers in the mid 19th century experimented with colouring photographs, sometimes to the displeasure of their regular clientele. Mrs Esther Mather expressed a distaste for the colouring of a portrait taken of her brother ca 1865 at SMITH'S, and it was Robert Smith who joined Thomas Nevin soon afterwards at the City Photographic Establishment, forming the business partnership "Nevin & Smith". See for example, their portrait of Nevin's fiancee Rachel Elizabeth Day, ca 1870. Thomas Nevin’s family cartes of his sister Mary Anne Nevin, later portraits of his wife Elizabeth Rachel Day, and his self-portrait, have survived in excellent condition in the Nevin family’s collections. They are all hand coloured, and so are several included on this site from private collections.

Nevin's reputation as a photographer and colorist or "photographic artist" was so well established that it warranted a mention in a report appearing in The Mercury, December 4th, 1880.


On the evening of December 3rd, 1880, Thomas Nevin was apprehended by two policemen who were chasing a man pretending to be ghost. Nevin was detained by police because he was (a) in the close vicinity of the man when the incident occurred, and (b) he was allegedly intoxicated while still on duty as keeper of the Hobart Town Hall. Although not charged with the offence of acting in concert with the “ghost”, he was dismissed from his position of Town Hall keeper for being intoxicated while on duty. The Mercury next day reported the court proceedings, which began with Nevin’s defense by the Mayor:

By the MAYOR: … It was not true that between the hours of 10 and 11 o’clock on Thursday night, Constables Oakes and Priest took witness home in a state of intoxication. Witness had a photographic apparatus and chemicals in his possession. He had not made any ornaments of different colours for any one lately. He was not at any time on Thursday night under the influence of liquor. He did not think it was right to leave the Town Hall for so many hours as he had. He considered, however, that when he heard the constables’ whistle he was justified in going to render them assistance.

The reader of the report learns that the “witness” - Nevin - who had spent the evening with photographer and friend Henry Hall Baily was on his way home to the Hobart Town Hall in the possession of photographic equipment and chemicals. This account clearly indicates that Nevin was still engaged in professional photographic practice with commercial photographer H. H. Baily in 1880 while duty-bound by his contract to render police any assistance.

Additional details in his defense underscore his reputation for producing coloured photographs - “ornaments of different colours” - although not for “anyone” lately. What might this mean? It most likely refers to these two prisoners and their ID photographs taken by Nevin during the first phase of his commission to provide criminal identification photographs for the Municipal Police Office, located at the Hobart Town Hall. His police work from 1873 had extended from the prison at Port Arthur and Hobart Gaol to rendering assistance to the New Town Territorial Police which was noted in the police gazettes.

The detaining detective Connor did not arrest Nevin that night in December 1880 because he was well-known to him, as Connor states in the account, as  was Constable John Nevin, Thomas' younger brother, who was Thomas' photographic assistant at the Hobart Gaol. The Nevin brothers enjoyed a privileged relation with the former Attorney General Giblin and then Premier, their family solicitor since 1868, whose contractual arrangements gave Nevin the commission of prisons photographer at the Port Arthur prison and Hobart Gaol from 1871 to the mid 1880s. Nevin’s coloured carte of W.R. Giblin is held at the Archives Office of Tasmania.


NLA Collection:

The fate of Job Smith aka William Campbell (or Brodie) was a cause celebre for opponents of capital punishment in the press when Job Smith was hanged for rape in June 1875. Nevin had travelled with William Campbell aka Job Smith back to Port Arthur a year earlier, in May 1874, during Dr Coverdale's tenure as Commandant, and would have been responsible for taking Smith's photograph prior to leaving Hobart. Smith was not considered physically dangerous. He had been sentenced to 8 years, free in servitude, on 19th March 1872 for forgery. Smith's next sentence of death for rape in 1875 must have come as a shock to Nevin.

The convict in the image identified as William Campbell in this carte from the NLA Collection of portraits by Nevin is the same convict hanged as Job Smith at the Hobart Gaol for rape in May 1875. The Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery holds an identical image of this convict, with this simple note written on the verso:

Job Smith Alias Campbell Alias Boodle

See this entry for an extended account of Job Smith's execution and the newspaper reports of the day.


NLA Catalogue

In the carte of Job Smith aka William Campbell (top), Nevin has coloured the neckerchief blue to reflect reality, as in this example of a typical neckerchief worn by convicts (QVMAG Collection):

In the carte of Walter Johnson aka Bramall (sic, below), however, there IS no neckerchief. He is not wearing one at all underneath his collar, so the blueish colouring we can see is actually just paint patterned in squares to look like the standard issue neckerchief. This is a telling detail, and would have been added by Nevin to the print he made of an earlier photograph he took of Bramall to underscore the fact that the man was in effect a prisoner who had asbconded in prison clothing. The eyes of this man have intense blue colouring as well. The reason for the colour was not to render a pretty picture; it was to aid the public's recognition of him. The carte would have been displayed at the Town Hall Police Office, and most likely exhibited in Nevin's studio window at 140 Elizabeth St, Hobart Town. It would have been available to the public, on sale, since Johnstone alias Bramall alias Taylor absconded from the Cascades area of Hobart on June 6th, 1874, and appears to have succeeded in remaining at large, as his recapture was not recorded during 1875.

This notice appeared in the police gazette:

Source: Tasmania Reports on Crime for Police Information Feb 6, 1874

There is a lot of detail in the written description concerning colour: sallow complexion, light brown hair, light brown eyebrows, large blue eyes, grey prison clothing. Nevin's colouring has attempted to match the verbal description. The question then arises: who wrote the description in the police gazette of February 6th, 1874? In all probability it was the photographer, Thomas Nevin, as no one other than the photographer would have noticed such detail and attempted to render it visually.

So, it was with these two prisoner cartes in mind when Nevin's defense by the Mayor stated - He had not made any ornaments of different colours for any one lately... He was not at any time on Thursday night under the influence of liquor.

The statement is not without derision towards a commercial photographer employed as a police photographer, and Nevin was both, who prettied up criminals' mugshots with artistic colour and used the term "artist" in the wording "T. J. Nevin Photographic Artist" on his studio stamp bearing the government insignia. Again, these are resonances of a social prejudice about photographers, and against the use of colour which Mrs Mather expressed in the 1860s.


The National Library of Australia recently digitised both cartes, which are listed there in Thomas Nevin's file as hand-coloured photographs. However, the recent digitisation of these two, and of fifty or more of their total collection of 84 photographs of Tasmanian prisoners is of very poor quality. Compare the auto-adjustment made here that was necessary to bring out the colouring with their originals at NLA (click on name below image). The original twenty-three convicts' photographs which the NLA digitised and attributed solely to Thomas Nevin in November 2000 were of exceptionally good quality. The NLA has shown poor judgment as well in resurrecting the A.H. Boyd misattribution in the form of a catalogue entry accompanying these convicts' photographs with reference to a worthless, sycophantic and intellectually dishonest "essay" by a former employee of the PAHSMA.

These two are supposedly inscribed on verso "Taken at Port Arthur, 1874 which is incorrect: all such cartes transcribed verso with this handwritten date is just an effect of a batch edit for commercial purposes by Beattie in 1916, whose use of the date and the name "Port Arthur" was intended to attract the tourist, or by archivists at the source of the photographs, the QVMAG, in 1958 and 1982-85.

Two hand coloured cartes of convicts by Thomas Nevin, NLA Collection, auto colour corrected.

Left: nla.pic-vn4270353 (incorrect information)
William Campbell, per S. [Sir] R. [Robert] Peel, taken at Port Arthur, 1874 [picture] 1874.
1 photograph on carte-de-visite mount : albumen, hand col. ; 9.4 x 5.6 cm., on mount 10.4 x 6.4 cm.

Right: nla.pic-vn4270027 (incorrect information)
Walter Johnson, alias Henry Bramall, per Asiatic, taken at Port Arthur, 1874 [picture]1874
1 photograph on carte-de-visite mount : albumen ; 9.4 x 5.6 cm. on mount 10.5 x 6.3 cms

The originals ...

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Below each image held at the National Library of Australia is their catalogue batch edit which gives the false impression that all these "convict portraits" were taken because these men were transported convicts per se (i.e before cessation in 1853), and that they might have been photographed as a one-off amateur portfolio by a prison official at the Port Arthur prison in 1874, which they were not. Any reference to the Port Arthur prison official A. H. Boyd on the NLA catalogue records is an error, a PARASITIC ATTRIBUTION with no basis in fact. The men in these images were photographed in the 1870s-1880s because they were repeatedly sentenced as habitual offenders whose mugshots were taken on arrest, trial, arraignment, incarceration and/or discharge by government contractor, police and prisons photographer T. J. Nevin at the Supreme Court and adjoining Hobart Gaol with his brother Constable John Nevin, and at the Municipal Police Office, Hobart Town Hall when appearing at The Mayor's Court. The Nevin brothers photographed more than 2000 prisoners, the bulk now lost or destroyed. These extant mugshots were the random estrays salvaged - and reproduced in many instances- for sale at Beattie's local convictaria museum in Hobart and at interstate exhibitions associated with the fake convict ship Success in the early 1900s. The mugshots were selected on the basis of the prisoner's notoriety from the Supreme Court trial registers (Rough Calendar), the Habitual Criminals Registers (Gaol Photo Books), warrant forms, and police gazettes records of the 1870s-1880s. The earliest taken on government contract by T. J. Nevin date from 1872. The police records sourced here are from the weekly police gazettes which were called (until 1884) Tasmania Reports of Crime Information for Police 1871-1885. J. Barnard, Gov't Printer.