If you live anywhere in Melbourne or thereabouts, it’s odds on that you’ve already encountered the name “Howitt” somewhere along your travels whilst scarcely noticing it. The fact is, it’s a name that is closely associated with the early story of the Port Phillip District. There are Howitt streets and roads, Howitt parks and palms and the occasional memorial cairns and monuments, all named after the various members of that most interesting family of our early history.
There’s even a Mt Howitt somewhere in the so called Australian Alps which you can climb, as Mallory once said, “Because it’s there”.
However there are no streets in Yallambie named after these Howitts, which is perhaps surprising. There are no mountains either, for that matter.
As previously discussed in the pages of this blog, both Richard and William Howitt visited the Bakewell farm at Yallambee and wrote about their experiences in 1842 and 1852 respectively. That’s a story that deserves a closer inspection later alongside the Yallambie connection of that prominent exponent of Melbourne’s early cultural establishment, Dr Godfrey Howitt.
The good doctor was the brother of William and Richard and the brother in law of Yallambee’s John and Robert Bakewell, Godfrey and his wife Phoebe having travelled with the Bakewells when emigrating to Port Phillip aboard the SS Lord Goderich in 1840. Godfrey and Phoebe came to Australia partly in an attempt to improve the health of their eldest child, John Henry Howitt who it was considered would benefit from the warmer climate. The eleven year old John Henry Howitt is known to have visited his Bakewell uncles at Yallambee in 1842, a year before his premature death from Tuberculosis. He wrote a very interesting and eloquent letter to his then similarly aged cousin in England, the future Australian explorer, Alfred Howitt, describing the Bakewell farm and the exploits of the marauding Plenty River bushrangers.
However, more to that story in my next post.
With this in mind, it was while Googling the name of Dr Godfrey Howitt today that I found the following two images online, the property of the State Library of Victoria.
The pictures are sixth-plate Daguerreotypes from the collection of Stanley Yalkowsky and were purchased at auction by the Library at Sotheby’s in New York in 2010 for USD$18,750, nearly three times the pre-sale estimate price. The pictures reportedly carry a pencil inscription describing the images as being “Dr Godfrey Howitt’s garden”.
I had these images open on my lap top, wondering about them in a curious way when my wife came along and glanced over my shoulder.
“Oh look,” she said. “It’s the Station Plenty. Is it on ebay?” she added hopefully.
“You would have needed $20,000 6 years ago to buy it,” I replied. But she was right. It did look like Yallambee.
Dr Godfrey’s house in Collins Street East was the centre of Melbourne culture in the early colony and the beauty and the extent of his garden was widely regarded. On the face of it the photographs could have been this garden but all the same, one of the Daguerreotypes seemed to show a pre-fabricated building similar to the sort put up by Superintendant La Trobe at Jolimont or the Bakewell buildings at Yallambee. Dr Godfrey and Phoebe are believed to have built something similar in Collins Street in the 1840s but the only pictures I had seen previously of the Howitts’ house in Melbourne were of a later date and of a rendered brick building in the 1860s.
Daguerreotypes are laterally reversed or mirror images because they are necessarily viewed from the side that originally faced the camera lens. By reversing the first of the SLV pictures and comparing it to a cropped detail of Edward La Trobe Bateman’s View I, the truth suddenly becomes clear. The Howitt Daguerreotype of the building is taken looking up at the roof line and from a closer proximity than the Bateman drawing, which was made from the top of the ridge on the modern day Yallambie Road, but in essence the picture is the same. The trees are the same. The trellis is the same. The chimney is the same.
As to the second Daguerreotype, I would suggest that the Yucca depicted is the same plant visible on the right of picture in the Edward La Trobe Bateman drawing, View IX.
The photographs are extraordinarily rare out door images from the colonial era. The author of the images is unknown and one can only wonder at the reason behind and under what difficult circumstances the pictures could possibly have been made. The Howitt provenance is clear but the Bakewell connection is at this stage, speculative. One of the few photographers working in the Daguerreotype medium in early Melbourne, Douglas T Kilburn, was like Dr Godfrey’s son John Henry, a consumptive. Kilburn kept Melbourne’s first professional photographic studio in Little Collins Street and it is perhaps easy to guess at the situation leading to the creation of the SLV pictures.
To my mind the SLV “Howitt” Daguerreotypes should join the 12 Edward La Trobe Bateman Station Plenty drawings as a part of documentary evidence in any discussion of the early farm at the Bakewell brothers’, “Yallambee Park”. The story of how the Daguerreotypes came to be made, almost in unison with the Bateman drawings and at a time of or before the Victorian gold rushes, remains uncertain. Clearly more research needs to be conducted from this point by those with an academic persuasion.
However, as a last but probably not final word, it is interesting to note that Dr Ann Neale in her PHD thesis, “Illuminating Nature”, suggested that the 12 Station Plenty Bateman drawings at the NGV may have been part of an overlapping series, only a part of which the Bakewells retained privately.
Might the SLV Daguerreotypes have somehow figured in this theoretical series?
Might the two SLV photographic images have once been a part of a larger whole?