Hardship and humour: two Alfred Burton stereoscopes

Hardship and humour: two Alfred Burton stereoscopes

The struggles and joys of colonial exploration in Fiordland through a pair of stereoscopes. Both are from the Burton Brothers studio, one from the Alexander Turnbull Library and one from Te Papa. Te Papa’s Curator Historical Photography Lissa Mitchell investigates.

Unconventional images

Twenty years ago, I was an art history postgraduate student writing about the images made at Milford Sound by Alfred Burton (1834–1914) of Dunedin photography studio Burton Brothers.

Up to that point, my training had not prepared me for what to make of a set of two stereoscopic views of two men and a dog – the first claiming they were starving and the second that they were ‘full and plenty’. This pair of stereoscopes were not conventional colonial landscapes – empty of human presence and focused on the view – here was a representation of life being lived with hardship and humour.

Milford Sound starvation

Twin sepia images of two men by the water with rocks in the foreground and dark hills in the background. The men have hats on and one is holding an empty bottle upside-down.
Burton Brothers (Dunedin, N.Z.). Milford Sound starvation. Tiller, Eileen, active 1957-2014: Collection. Ref: PAColl-10718-01. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/42973603

Milford Sound full and plenty

Black and white twin photo of two men at a campsite with tin huts and bush in the background. The men have full bottles in their hands and a table of bottles and food between them.
Milford Sound, City & citizens, full & plenty, 1882, Dunedin, by Burton Brothers studio, Alfred Burton. Purchased 1943. Te Papa (C.025201)

Better together – the museum and the library

Now I’m the Curator Historical Photography at Te Papa. One of the foundation collections of the museum’s photography collection is the negatives and prints of Burton Brothers (about 1867–98).

Te Papa holds the original negative of a stereoscopic image taken at Milford Sound in 1882: City & citizens – Full and plenty. Recently, the Alexander Turnbull Library, which is part of the National Library of New Zealand, acquired a collection that contained a vintage albumen print of the other image in the set: City & citizens – Starvation.

With no other surviving vintage versions of these two photographs, the two institutions now each hold a part of a unique story told by these objects. It is a great example of how both the museum and the library can work together to care for and share objects of our cultural heritage and enrich their stories, as these two images only make sense as a pair.

I visited the library to see the vintage print of Starvation and find out about the collection it is part of.

Deidra Sullivan, Photography Curator at the Alexander Turnbull Library, with the author Lissa Mitchell, Curator Historical Documentary Photography at Te Papa, and Catherine Bisley, Librarian at the Turnbull Library.

Man alone – some of the time

In 1877, Donald Sutherland (1843–1919) sailed with his dog, Joe, from Dunedin around the southern Fiordland coast to Milford Sound in a small open-air sail boat. Sutherland settled at the head of Milford Sound and ironically named his settlement ‘the city’.

Despite these humble beginnings, by 1888, Sutherland had achieved national and international status as an explorer in the Milford Sound area. Sutherland’s exploration of Milford Sound quickly established a catalogue of attractions that enabled the area to be developed as a tourist destination – a legacy that endures today. In particular, he was proud of the Sutherland Falls, which he claimed were the highest in the world and hoped would become a profitable attraction.

But in the early 1882 it was a different story. Sutherland and friend John Mackay were working exploring the area to find an overland route to Milford Sound as an alternative to getting there by sea.

Sepia photo of lake with mountains in the background and some people in outside huts in the foreground
Donald Sutherland and his dog Johnny Groat at ‘John O’Groats Hotel’. The buildings shown were named by Sutherland “Esperance Chalet no. 1 Kennedy Street’, and the ‘Store’. Milford he named ‘The City’.
Milford Sound, The “City”, 1882, Dunedin, by Burton Brothers studio, Alfred Burton. Purchased 1987 with New Zealand Lottery Board funds. Te Papa (O.001697)

Shopping in the wilderness

Over the years, Sutherland wrote many letters to newspapers and officials complaining about the lack of assistance from the government in conveying supplies to Milford Sound. He claimed that he was working for the good of the country and that assistance through the regular delivery of supplies would be a small but valuable recognition of the work.

However, this had no effect, and Sutherland continued to send letters and receive supplies by intercepting random steamers when they called in for brief sightseeing at Milford Sound on their way to and from Australian ports. This was a slow way to receive supplies of food and other goods, especially if the letter went via Australia before getting back to Bluff or Dunedin.

You bring the food, and I’ll supply the scenery

During the 1880s, a handful of artists and photographers went to stay with Sutherland at ‘the city’ and used their time to make sketches for paintings or take photographs. Burton was one of Sutherland’s most frequent visitors. He made several trips to Milford Sound in the 1880s, staying for four to six weeks each time.

On 4 February 1882, Burton was dropped off at the Sound by the SS Rotomahana, on its way from Dunedin to Melbourne. (He caused the steamer to make an unscheduled stop.) Part of Burton’s luggage included supplies to enable his own comfort during his stay at the Sound and to replenish Sutherland’s larder.

From misery to joy

I imagine the fun they had recreating the two scenes after Burton had arrived – a novel way of spending their time in this isolated place. Burton’s experience and love of Shakespearean theatre was probably helpful in planning images where Sutherland and MacKay re-enact and dramatise the lack of basic food and supplies living in isolation.

Starvation

Starvation shows a re-enactment of the men’s situation prior to Alfred Burton’s own arrival at the Sound. Sutherland and Mackay display an arrangement of empty buckets, a barrel, and a box. Mackay sits morosely holding an upturned bottle, while Sutherland stands looking at the camera and holding an empty billy – the message is there is nothing to drink or cook. Burton took the photograph with the Sound in the background – acknowledging the men’s desperate situation while they wait for a ship to come.

Twin sepia images of two men by the water with rocks in the foreground and dark hills in the background. The men have hats on and one is holding an empty bottle upside-down.
Burton Brothers (Dunedin, N.Z.). Milford Sound starvation. Tiller, Eileen, active 1957-2014: Collection. Ref: PAColl-10718-01. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/42973603

Full and plenty

Full and plenty is the happy ending, showing the situation after the arrival of Burton. Supplies have been replenished – all the containers are upright again, sacks of dry goods sit near a table loaded presumably with full bottles, cans, boxes, and packets. Sutherland and Mackay, looking in the photographer’s direction, toast Burton while Joe, the dog, sits at bottom of the scene. Comfort has arrived and the little community is happy and self-sufficient again. The background of the image has turned back to the huts of the settlement with an enormous tree stump in the centre behind the men.

Black and white twin photo of two men at a campsite with tin huts and bush in the background. The men have full bottles in their hands and a table of bottles and food between them.
Milford Sound, City & citizens, full & plenty, 1882, Dunedin, by Burton Brothers studio, Alfred Burton. Purchased 1943. Te Papa (C.025201)

My postgraduate research had argued that through photography, Burton and Sutherland had developed and extended a relationship that aided Sutherland’s survival and the development of tourism in Fiordland – these two images demonstrate the practicalities of this.

What was on Sutherland’s shopping list?

Looking at these two images again, I’m curious about what Sutherland ate, what supplies he ordered, and what Burton would have brought with him. Obviously, there was plenty of wildlife, and Sutherland was known to have plant specimens and bird skins prepared ready to sell to travellers on the steamers. I’m guessing flour and alcohol formed a portion of Sutherland’s diet.

So, reader, what do you think Sutherland ate and ordered? Do you recognise any of the items in the Full and plenty image? I’m guessing that the writing on the tin on the table (I can read ‘Black P’ before it is cut off) is a tin of plums, and it looks like there are some crackers too.

If you can identify any other objects in the image please share your observations in the comments.

Black and white photo of two men at a campsite with tin huts and bush in the background. The men have full bottles in their hands and a table of bottles and food between them.
Detail from Milford Sound, City & citizens, full & plenty, 1882, Dunedin, by Burton Brothers studio, Alfred Burton. Purchased 1943. Te Papa (C.025201)

This post first appeared on the National Library blog, 26 August 2020.

8 Comments

  1. Avatar

    I would think that the barrel contains salted meat, and I see there is a bag of oat meal on top of the barrel. I wonder whether the big white bag in front of the table contains either flour or rice. I think the small tins stacked on the left of the table are possibly condensed milk.

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      thanks Grace

  2. Avatar

    Clearly ‘oat meal, ‘Dunedin’ written on the sack on top of the box and barrel at right. That is not surprising as it was commonly eaten in these times, especially, I imagine, in the southern parts of NZ where oats were grown and milled. It would have been eaten as porridge or readily baked into oat cakes or similar on a stove top.

    Maybe the tin has black pudding rather than black plums in it. Again deriving from Scottish influence on Dunedin.

    Sutherland was presumably eating a lot of wildlife. Eat the flesh, sell the skins. That’s where the dogs came in handy (retrieving shot birds). Kakapo in particular were an easy meal. You would just shake a tree and they fell to the ground.

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      double the expertise! – thank you

  3. Avatar

    The bottle immediately to the left of the dish is likely a bottle of Lea and Perrins Worcester Sauce. The tin plate appears to contain crackers or dried biscuit. The Christchurch archaeology team (admin@underoverarch.co.nz) have a lot of expertise in identifying lass bottles found in colonial NZ contexts amd might be worth contacting

    And yes, the square bottles are most likely gin bottles

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      thank you for your suggestions

  4. Avatar

    The square black bottles on the table and the one being poured by one of the men into a glass will be either Gin or Schnapps. The bottles were often embossed with the manufacturers name along one of the sides. It made them easier to ship in those days hence the phrase “Square Gin”.

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      Thanks Merv – what a nice bottle design you can get based on what is needed to work best (not just look good)

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