Monday, January 14, 2013

The auction

I have been searching for information about picture frames and evidence of frame-making in colonial Melbourne up to the early 1850s. There is a good reason for this. It has to do with my work on Thomas Woolner. My preliminary conclusions are mixed. Before the earliest stages of the Gold Rush and during the first and second years (1851/52/53), it would seem that most if not all gilded picture frames, or any others for that matter, were brought to Melbourne from England, and circulated thereafter as a consequence of auction sales of personal property and chattels. We shall turn to an especially interesting one of those presently.

By the early southern autumn of 1855, however, there is irrefutable evidence of local manufacturing. Two advertisements placed in the Argus newspaper in Melbourne prove this. The first (Wednesday, March 7, 1855, page 8) reads:
PRINT Frame Makers,―The subscriber begs to direct the attention of the trade to his stock of Chance’s Patent Plate and Flatted Sheet Glass, Henry Brooks, 13 Stephen-street, between Flinders-street and Flinders-lane.
A second (Tuesday, April 3, 1855, page 1) is even more unequivocal:
WANTED a Picture Frame Maker and Gilder. Apply Yorke and Norton’s, 87 Collins-street east.
Obviously Mr. Brooks presumed that a picture-framing “trade” in Melbourne was sufficiently established and/or competitive to justify advertising his stock of high-quality glass from Chance Brothers of Smethwick in Staffordshire―they “did” the Crystal Palacejust as Yorke and Norton had reason to believe that it was worth their while to advertise for a frame maker and gilder. The availability of gold was, of course, the least of their concerns. It seems likely that in 1855 they, like everyone else, were suffering from the universal dearth of labor arising from the mass desertion of employees headed for the diggings, but the larger point is that the dizzying growth of the colony between 1851 and 1855 attracted not just people but businesses too, among them picture frame-makers and gilders.

Printed announcements of auction sales such as the following, meanwhile, shine rays of penetrating light into every corner of otherwise scantily documented colonial interiors. We know nothing of the circumstances that led to this fire sale, but it seems likely that the Vandiemonian Mr. R. H. Burbury was one of the many children of Thomas Burbury (?1809–1870), “a cottage-industry weaver who was sentenced to death at the Warwick Assizes for having taken part in burning down Beck’s steam factory at Coventry, where the weavers had been threatened with unemployment through the installation of new machinery.” According to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, “this was one of the last recorded examples of industrial ‘Luddism’ in England. On the intercession of Edward Ellice, M.P. for Coventry, the sentence was commuted to transportation for life. Mr. Burbury arrived in Hobart Town in the York on 29 December 1832. His gaol and hulk reports gave him a good character and ‘respectable connexions,’ and the surgeon-superintendent’s report described his conduct on the voyage as ‘excellent’... He was granted a ticket-of-leave in December 1837 and a free pardon on 30 October 1839, also receiving local testimonials to his character, and pecuniary rewards.” He set up a butcher’s shop and mixed business at Oatlands in Van Diemen’s Land, and his sons eventually established themselves in law and business, evidently not without some disasters along the way.

Thus, the following announcement appeared in the Argus on Monday, February 23, 1852 (page 4):

Has received instructions from R. H. Bu[r]bury, Esq., to sell by public auction, at his residence, Williams Town, THIS DAY, 23rd. INST., At Twelve o’clock precisely, All his valuable Furniture, and Household Effects, consisting of―Loo [i.e. lanterloo, the card game], work, writing, dining, rosewood and other tables, bedsteads; Cheffonier, mahogany couch, wardrobes, book cases, chairs; Looking glasses, gilt picture frames, folding screen, wash hand stands; Carpets, oil cloth, hearth rugs, table covers, damask window curtains, with trimmings and draperies, azimuth compass, medicine chest, glass ware, eight day clock, &c., &c.; A very sweet toned Piccolo Pianoforte; Richly plated coffee and tea pots, cream jug, sugar basin and cruet stand; Breakfast, dinner, dessert, and tea services; Saddlery, harness, water casks, buckets, garden tools; Frames and hand glasses, kitchen utensils, patent mangle, &c., &c.; About 80 plants, in pots, consisting of Magnolias, Cactus, Fuchsias, &c.; A large lot of Geraniums from the best plants, in V. D. Land; Bulbs, assorted, in great variety, &c., &c., &c.; Terms Cash. Catalogues can be obtained at the Auctioneers Rooms.

Now, Mr. Burbury’s family household was obviously a prosperous one, with servants—note the folding screen. The family’s firm link with Tasmania is made clear towards the end, as are the many hints toward respectability and culture and some evidence of daughters (“hand glasses,” plural). This was a household of books, botany, science, music-making, writing, games of cards, and, significantly, art, in all probability reproductive engravings surrounded by gilded frames. What, I wonder, became of the family of Burbury in their distress? Perhaps they were not in distress. The hyperinflation of the Gold Rush made the procurement of services such as the shipping of household goods prohibitively expensive, so families moving from one colony to another often found that it was cheaper to sell everything prior to their departure and start from scratch in the other place. However, in this instance the listing of easily portable items such as the azimuth compass and the hand glasses suggests a more drastic set of of circumstances. How one would love to peruse that melancholy, presumably printed auction catalogue. As far as I can see only one such document survives in the collection of the State Library of Victoria, and it is in manuscript, viz. “[Sale of furniture, account sheet], 1852, November 11 [manuscript]. 1852 MS BOX 134/5(b),” covering sundry articles of furniture sold by Messers. Dalmahoy, Campbell & Co. on account of a Mr. Lyall.

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