Working in a museum is filled with unexpected discoveries – especially when you’re looking at photographs from 100 years ago. Collections Data Technician Gareth Watkins uncovers the life of an avid photographer whose photographs offered something different from the norm.
These tender and idyllic images were captured by Dunedin-based photographer George Pye Crombie around 1912. They feature women – most likely his younger sisters Kate, Margaret, and Elsie – gathering daisies. A few years later, in 1917, George was killed in action in Belgium, aged 35.
I came across these images by chance. Through my cataloguing work with Te Papa’s Accelerated Digitisation Programme I was working on a diverse collection of stereoscopic images – that is where two images are taken at the same time but from slightly different perspectives. When viewed through a stereoscope the brain combines the images, giving a perception of depth.
George had taken quite a number of stereoscopic landscape images, so I wanted to find out more about his background – and this is when I came across the daisy-gathering images.
One of the first things I discovered was a lovely blog post from one of his relatives, Lisa Allen.
Lisa writes about how George’s flower-picking images were “unusual for the time, when photographic portraits, especially of women, were largely limited to stylised interior studio shots.” She goes on to say that “there is a tenderness toward the subjects that creates an intimacy for the viewer and strangely, I feel his presence in these images.”
Lisa talks about his early life, how he was born in Scotland in 1882, immigrated as a small child with his family to New Zealand, and spent much of his youth in Roslyn, Dunedin. He worked in his father’s tailor shop as a cutter, and in his spare time became an enthusiastic member of the Dunedin Photographic Society.
James William Permin was also a member of the Photographic Society. James and George became good friends and went on to photograph many stereoscopic landscape views together.
The growth in stereoscopic imagery may have been prompted in part by the New Zealand Graphic, an illustrated weekly. The Graphic actively encouraged local photographers in 1907 to take stereoscopic views by publishing selected views on perforated lightweight card that accompanied the weekly publication. The cards could then be separated and placed into a stereoscopic viewer.
Between 1907 and 1913 hundreds of stereoscopic images were published by the Graphic depicting a variety of views from throughout New Zealand.
Photographic historian William Main notes in the Postcard Pillar (Issue. 106, March 2015) that at the time “New Zealand was well supplied with illustrated weeklies. All had the centre section of their respective publications devoted to photographs of local and international events printed on art-paper as opposed to the text which was printed on newsprint.”
In early 1910 George took his camera on an overseas trip, traveling to Sydney to board the S.S. Orvieto liner bound for Europe via the Suez Canal. George visited Egypt, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, Holland, Netherlands, and England. Around 150 of his stereoscopic images from this trip were published by the New Zealand Graphic.
It is only a couple of years later that George would again find himself on European soil.
The Otago Daily Times noted that George originally enlisted in the Medical Corps but later transferred to the infantry. He left New Zealand in late 1916 and was killed in action on 13 June 1917 at Messines, Belgium.
George’s obituary not only noted that “he was well known among a large circle of friends as a man of sterling character. The keynote of his life was thoroughness” but that “he was also an ardent horticulturist, and his garden at Roslyn, which was admired by all, contained many beautiful and rare flowers”.
George never married or had any children. His will, written shortly before he left New Zealand, bequeathed his estate to his father. From there, George’s photographic items are thought to have been passed onto his friend James. Unfortunately James died a couple of years later in 1921 while undergoing surgery.
Now on the 100th anniversary of George’s death, and knowing his fondness for flowers, it feels very special to be able to remember him by laying a poppy on his online memorial page.
What impresses me about George Crombie’s exterior portraits is that they are both carefully planned but also decidedly casual.
The deep focus of the foreground is quite anti-pictorialist while the subject matter of gathering flowers is not.
Did Te Papa acquire negatives rather than prints?
Kia ora Ron, there’s a variety of prints and negatives in the collection – the ones featured in the blog are glass plate negatives
Great blog post and what stunning photographs! He had a really good eye. Great that these images have survived as a legacy, but it is sad to wonder what he may have gone on to photograph if not for the war.
Nice article, would like to see more of Crombie’s work, maybe its worth a book of its own. Better start now Gareth.
Kia ora Robert, thanks for the feedback. You can find a bigger selection of George’s work with James by searching Collections Online using “Crombie and Permin” – https://collections.tepapa.govt.nz/agent/26925