Friday, April 10, 2009


I suspect I am becoming a fully paid-up, card-carrying bore, but sometimes I feel I could write an entire book about a single image—actually some people regularly do just that. In this case, there are for me personal as well as professional resonances.

The subject of this exquisite photograph is the break for tea during a summer tennis party at Government House in Melbourne. The photographer was the Honourable Victor Albert Nelson Hood (1862−1929), the sixth and youngest son of Lord and Lady Bridport.

Hood lived in Australia for twenty years, serving as private secretary to successive governors of South Australia, Victoria, Western Australia, and New South Wales. He was in 1911 briefly Chamberlain to the Earl of Dudley, although it was not during that brief period that he took this photograph. Hood pursued the expensive and time-consuming hobby of photography, and his splendid albums, which are today in the collection of the State Library of Victoria, provide a unique porthole into the comfortable world of the ruling élite of an especially far-flung outpost of the British Empire during the Edwardian period.

Wherever he went, Victor Nelson Hood took his camera and tripod: to weekend house-parties at Mount Macedon, Mount Barker, and the Western District; on hunting or shooting parties and yachting days; on fishing and camping expeditions; his travels to New Guinea, and New Zealand; the voyages to and from Britain, and side-trips to his family estate, the Castello di Maniace at Bronte in Sicily.

More often, however, Hood simply recorded with the panoramic wide-angled apparatus (to which he was evidently addicted) aspects of daily life at the various Government Houses in which he served.

The dramatis personae here are (from left to right) Captain Haskett-Smith, aide-de-camp to the Governor-General, Sir Ronald Munro-Ferguson (1914 to 1920); Major Beauchamp Kerr-Pearse, Munro-Ferguson's Private Secretary (October 1915 to February 1916, and thereafter Military Secretary); Mr. Bickersteth; Doris, the wife of Lieutenant-Colonel Rupert Downes of the Australian Army Medical Corps; Lieutenant-Colonel H. W. Dangar, Acting Chief of Ordnance; Lady Doris Gwendoline Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, the eldest of the three daughters of the second Marquess of Dufferin and Ava, and Miss Eve Robertson. The cast of characters narrows down the date, somewhat soberingly, to no earlier than October 1915, and no later than the end of the Great War.

The door at the far end of the verandah leads to a small ante-room which adjoined the Governor’s study, as it still does. Captain Haskett-Smith seems to be holding his own camera, and leans against the window-sill of a charming small sitting-room which, eighty years later, Naomi Miller and I used as an office when together we worked as aides to Davis McCaughey, certainly the most beautiful, tranquil, and comfortable I shall ever occupy. It was my first job after I left college.

As for the war-time unrealities of the gorgeous tea table; details of costume—tennis attire, white shoes, and flannel trousers; the refreshing jugs of lemonade on the wicker stand at the top of the steps to the right, and the general atmosphere of good-humored languor—look at plump Lady Doris by the folding screen!—there is indeed much to be said, as there is about the folding screen itself, that indispensable item of Victorian and Edwardian furniture which vanished almost as suddenly as servants did. While the folding screen enjoyed a brief respite due to the contrivances of early cinema, evidently it was doomed: A good proportion of the land-fill of large mid-twentieth-century cities must consist mostly of folding screens.

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