Playing Sherlock: How a chair unlocked the story behind a portrait of a New Zealand wars soldier

Playing Sherlock: How a chair unlocked the story behind a portrait of a New Zealand wars soldier

Summer scholar Caitlin Lynch has taken a particular interest in a 19th-century portrait of New Zealand wars soldier Frederick Rowan that we knew very little about. Caitlin describes how a breakthrough clue, in the form of an ornate chair, led to the intriguing story of the solider’s facial disfiguration and reconstruction.

Caitlin holding a photograph of Frederick Rowan
Caitlin holding a photograph of Frederick Rowan, 2018. Photo by Rachael Hockridge. Te Papa

The Gordon Collection

The Gordon collection includes photographs, maps, and letters relating to the New Zealand Wars and was collected by New Plymouth settler William Francis Gordon between 1880 and 1916.

Gordon gathered, copied, and captioned his collection. He was fascinated with the New Zealand Wars while the majority of the nation was trying to forget them.

More than a century later, as New Zealand begins to commemorate Rā Maumahara, the recent digitisation and research into the Gordon collection puts some human faces to the violent conflicts of the 1860s and 1870s.

Over the last few months I’ve been spending a lot of time with the Gordon collection photographs, reflecting on how they can contribute to Te Papa’s history-making of the New Zealand wars.

Mr. L. Milmoe.’ 1880-1910. W. F. Gordon. Purchased 1916. Te Papa. O.013402. Photo by Rachael Hockridge. Te Papa
Caitlin holding ‘Group- Officers.’ 1860-1880. Copy and collage by W. F. Gordon about 1900, original photographers unknown. Purchased 1916. Te Papa. O.011915

Provenance puzzle

In a perfectly catalogued utopia, we would know where all the Gordon collection portraits were taken.

Typically studio portraits were mounted on cards with the name of the photography studio, plotting a location point in the life of the subject.

However, in Gordon’s copying and reformatting process, this detail was often cropped out or papered over.

One of these location-less images is a copied portrait of Frederick Rowan, a lieutenant in the 43rd regiment of the imperial army (1864-66) and captain in the colonial armed constabulary (1866-1877).

Researching the breadcrumb trail of Frederick Rowan

‘Lt. Rowan, 43rd reg.’ 1869-1873. Copy by W. F. Gordon about 1900 from cartes de visite by Mayall studios, London. Purchased 1916. Te Papa. Reg. O.013490

As I was researching Rowan, I came across another portrait (below) of him in Puke Ariki’s collection.

Lieut. Fredk. Chas Rowan, 43rd Regnt, 1869-1873. Cartes de visite, Mayall Studio, London. Courtesy of Puke Ariki (PHO2008-1796)
Lieut. Fredk. Chas Rowan, 43rd Regnt, 1869-1873. Cartes de visite, Mayall Studio, London. Courtesy of Puke Ariki (PHO2008-1796)

Playing a game of spot-the-difference, I noticed that although Rowan is wearing military garb in one photo and gentry dress in another, his facial hair, expression, hair parting, and the furniture in the room are identical.

The two portraits must have been taken in the same sitting. But its original mounting card attributes the photo to ‘Mayall, London & Brighton’, not William Harding’s in Whanganui or Hartley Webster in Auckland, which is where I expected.

This didn’t seem to add up to what we previously knew about Rowan’s timeline. Rowan left England for New Zealand age 18 or 19, but the bearded man in the photo looks like he is in his mid-20s. So did he go back?

Just like photos today, 19th-century studio portraits were susceptible to ‘pirating’. A portrait taken by Mayall could be reproduced by another studio, or inversely a non-Mayall photo could be pasted onto a Mayall mount [1]. Just because the Puke Ariki cartes de visite says ‘Mayall’ does not guarantee it was taken in England. I needed some corroboration.

The importance of a chair

I examined the images again and noticed the uniquely carved detailing on the chair. I decided to search the National Portrait Gallery’s online archives for more clues. Like Gretel looking for a crumb, I trawled through their cartes de visites until… ‘there!’- the same spiralled shafts and clove-like knobs of Rowan’s portrait in a photo of Lord Brougham, accredited to ‘Mayall and Co, 126 Piccadilly London.’

It seemed the portrait was definitely taken in London.

Henry Brougham, 1st Baron Brougham and Vaux. 1863. Photograph by John Jabez Edwin Mayall. Albumen print. © National Portrait Gallery, London (NPGx 4715) CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
Henry Brougham, 1st Baron Brougham and Vaux, 1863. Photograph by John Jabez Edwin Mayall. Albumen print. © National Portrait Gallery, London (NPGx 4715) CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

Post-recovery photo-shoot?

So this led to the questions – when did he go back to England and why?

In a biography published by the National Library of Australia, I read that Ellis Rowan, a famous Australian botanist painter, married Fred Rowan in 1873 after he’d spent ‘several years in England undergoing facial reconstruction surgery’ [2].

‘Ellis Rowan.’ 1870-1890. Photographer unknown. Puke Ariki. Accession No. PHO2008-1774.
Ellis Rowan, 1870-1890. Photographer unknown. PHO2008-1774. Courtesy of Puke Ariki

I hadn’t found any mention of Rowan returning home or having facial reconstruction in my prior research, but it did seem to align with the portrait.

A first-hand account by Private Walker tell us Rowan was shot in the jaw at the battle of Te Ngutu O Te Manu, 7th September 1868 [3].

I presumed Rowan stayed in New Zealand from arrival with the imperial army in 1864, until he left the armed constabulary in 1877.

However, this information indicates he returned to England in 1868-9, received medical treatment, and returned to New Zealand in 1873, with Ellis.

There is no evidence of facial disfiguration in the Te Papa portrait, so it may have been a post-recovery photo-shoot, dating it around 1870-73, when Rowan was 25-28.

Helpful to history?

In following the trail of clues I’ve been able to attribute a location and rough date to the original photo of Rowan that Gordon copied.

Though a little detail, it contributes to the bigger picture of imperial soldiers in New Zealand.

We often think of discharged soldiers as immobile settlers, but the portrait tells us Rowan was confidently travelling back and forth across the British Empire.

The fact that Rowan went back to England for medical treatment may reflect limitations of the facilities of colonial hospitals in 1860s New Zealand.

Dating the portrait to post-injury invites questions about the intention behind studio portraits and the significance of capturing the ‘healed’ body.

These broad conceptual questions cannot be answered by one portrait alone, but the more specific details we know about historical objects the more useful they are in corroborating or contradicting such research.


[1] Geoffrey Batchen. ‘Dreams of Ordinary Life: Cartes-de-viste and the bourgeois imagination.’ Photography: Theoretical Snapshots, eds. J.J. Long, Andrea Noble, Edward Welch, pp 93-118. 2009, Routledge. Page 107.

[2] The National Library of Australia. ‘The Flower Hunter: Ellis Rowan

[3] Private John Walker. ‘Account of defeat of goverment forces at Te Ngutu o te Manu on 7 September 1868.’ Te Papa

This research was conducted in conjunction with Prof. Charlotte Macdonald and Dr Rebecca Lenihan’s ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Settler: Soldiers of Empire’ Marsden Fund research.



  1. John Henry Walker met up with Prince Edward when he was Prince of Wales in 1920 in NZ, have a photocopy off him plus other photographs from family.
    No website but a member of the Wellington Heritage Promotion Council. Clareville Taphophile.

    1. Hi Victoria- wow what a thorough biography! I didn’t find that source in my research- perhaps if I had i wouldn’t have needed to spend all this time picking apart the photos. Thanks very much for sharing it, very helpful.

  2. Well done, Caitlin. How exciting to put those pieces together. I wonder how much touching up was done on the later photo, assuming facial reconstruction of the day was probably a bit rough. Perhaps the seated position and beard hides most of the injury site? I enjoyed the story. Thanks!

    1. Thanks for reading Pip! Hmmmm, very interesting to think about. There are a few other photos of him which might give some clues. This one was taken 4 months after the injury, before surgery:
      This one was taken many years later:

      It’s hard to tell exactly where the injury was on his jaw- would love to have a conversation with a 19th c surgical historian….

  3. will look out what I have on the computer about John Henry Walker have a few photographs from memory via family, they had a reunion the other year.

  4. Lovely piece of sleuthing,Caitlin. And so interesting to think that facial reconstruction surgery was already being carried out in the 1860-70s when we associate it more with WW1. Great photos!

    1. Thanks for reading Pippa! I agree- i would love to know exactly what “facial reconstruction” meant in the 1870s and what procedures were involved.

  5. Fantastic blog and detective work Caitlin! Shows us how incidental photography studio props can be crucial for historical enquiry.

    1. Thank you for reading Kirstie. I wonder if it would be possible to create a catalogue of each studio’s props and set up, to cross reference every picture against…

  6. J.H. WALKER is this the one buried at Papawai please if so have been researching him for the family, born in Spalding Lincolnshire.. I have photographs of his headstone at Papawai Not Maori but had permission to be buried there as friend of some at Papawai. This grave was seen by Sir Ian Garrett who was over here some time back, Head of Commonwealth War Graves, have I got the right Walker please…

    1. Hi Adele,
      I didn’t look too much into Walker’s history, but what I do know doesn’t contradict your information.

      This is my research on Walker:
      John Walker was born in England in 1843 and came to New Zealand in 1860. He was trained as a bootmaker, but when volunteers were requested to fight Ngāti Ruanui in 1868 Walker joined the Wellington Riffles. He was injured at the battle of Te Ngutu O Te Manu, an experience which he describes in a letter to W. F Gordon. He received the New Zealand Medal for his service at Te Ngutu and in 1915 played the Last Post at a memorial service for the battle in New Plymouth. Walker learned Te Reo Māori during the war and eventually gained his Interpreter licence in 1899. He died in Greytown in 1931, age 87, father to 13 children.

      My sources for this were primarily:
      ͚The Cyclopedia of New Zealand- Taranaki, Hawke’s Bay & Wellington Provincial Districts.͛

      Papers Past Article: ͚T’e Ngutu O Te Manu,’ Taranaki Herald, 13 September 1915.

      I’m not sure if any of this will be new information to you, but best of luck with your research!

    1. Thanks for reading Darian, glad you enjoyed it!

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