State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 88 December 2011

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Suzanne McWha
Momentous for Time and Eternity: the photographic portrait of Miss Marion Henty

In 1892 Mrs Thomas Armstrong, nee Marion Henty, returned from her Sydney honeymoon and visited the exclusive high art photographic atelier of Mendelssohn & Co, Melbourne. The photographic firm was located at prestigious Queens Walk, in the Victoria buildings, on the corner of Swanston and Collins Street, opposite the Town Hall. Today, the site is the City Square. In a private room Mrs Armstrong re-dressed in her wedding regalia and subsequently stood before the camera, as if virginally 'fresh from the altar'.1 Given the degree of technological development of photography at the time, Marion's mode of documenting her wedding was the rule, not the exception. Instantaneous, on the spot, quality photographic shots on the day of the wedding were technically almost impossible. In the pre-flash era, photographic lighting was a complex play of reflected sunlight and static pose in a studio. Creating an image took time. Like most wedding portraiture, the original intent of the photograph was probably a memorial record of her marriage, which in contemporary Anglican currency was considered 'momentous for time and eternity'.
In 1977, the photograph was donated to the State Library of Victoria. An initial reading of this gelatine silver print is an image of a woman standing in an elaborate late nineteenth century costume.2 However, the photograph holds historical 'treasures'. The key to unlocking the narrative hidden within the artefact can be found in the information contained on the verso of the mount, the actual image, and the detail at the base of the photograph.
Sometime after 1902, some one had handwritten in black ink on the back of the mount: 'Marion Ruth Henty, May 1892, married Thomas Henry Armstrong, (Bishop of Wangaratta)'. Armstrong became Bishop in 1902, ten years after marrying Marion. The notation 'Marion Ruth Henty' clearly aligns Marion with her family of origin, not her adult role as Mrs Armstrong, the wife of a prominent first-generation Anglican priest. Marion was a third generation member of the renowned pioneering Henty family. The patriarch of the Henty family, Thomas of Church Farm, West Tarring, England, risked the peril of colonisation in a calculated endeavour to perpetuate wealth through pastoral concerns.3 Marion's grandfather, James Henty, the eldest of Thomas's nine sons was an astute pioneer who had an 'eye' for productive land and making his mark in Australian history. Having arrived at the Swan River Settlement (Western Australia), James found the promised 'paradise' to be totally unsuited to pastoral concerns. Intuitively he sailed on to Van Diemen's Land and commenced a profitable mercantile import/export business. At the same time he explored uncharted waters to find suitable land to sustain the family's prized Merino sheep. He found this at Portland (Victoria) before it became
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known as the Port Phillip Colony. As Melbourne became a viable centre of commerce, James relocated his mercantile business from Van Diemen's Land. He realised the family dream of fiscal success.
The Henty family were fully cognisant of their role as vital players in the history of the Port Phillip colony. The State Library of Victoria has a very substantial holding of Henty diaries, documents and ephemera donated by a family that had a strong belief in their importance in civilizing a land that was too often considered barren and godless by colonizers.4 James's son, Henry, Marion's father, joined James Henty & Co aged nineteen. Eventually he inherited the business. Henry, like his father before him, realised a social duty to be prominent in the affairs of the colony and the Anglican Church as well as perpetuating further wealth. He was a 'principal man' in Melbourne society.5

II

Marion was born in 1862. Prior to her marriage Marion remains, historically, a shadowy figure. Gentility demanded a 'mantel of reserve' in the behaviour of women who were of the Governor's intimate social set. Her mother, Mrs (Marion) Henty kept a dairy entitled Family Records during her marriage.6 It is a testimony to a life lived in the upper echelons of Melbourne society at the time. Marion's 1884 miniscule diary allows for a glimpse into a privileged but very private life of leisure as a young woman.7 A woman's wedding day was the one rare occasion that permitted female public social presence. The press and photography had the power to document the fact.
The portrait of Marion in her wedding dress is not merely a marriage memento. I propose that today the image is a document, like diaries and regalia, to perpetuate the self-perceived and self-perpetuated 'myth' of a family who considered themselves the 'founding-fathers' of Victoria. Atypical for late nineteenth-century iconographic bridal photography the groom is absent in the image. The antiquarian bookshop Abracadabra, East Kew, has a vast collection of pre-twentieth-century wedding photographs of all shapes, sizes and standards of photography taken in Melbourne studios. From this commercial archive it can be surmised the standard photographic wedding portraiture was of a woman standing to display her costume and a man seated to 'compress' his physical presence within the image. Of the many photographs in the Henty-Armstrong archives of the State Library of Victoria there is no image of Armstrong as a groom. Marion, alone, is both the subject and object of the photograph.
On the day of her marriage Marion was representative of her illustrious family. From information in an archived letter penned by Mrs Henty, Marion slowly and regally paraded down the isle of Holy Trinity Church, Kew.8 The church was full with family, friends and a 'witnessing' crowd of female strangers intent on viewing the spectacle. Mrs Henty's pride in her daughter's 'public presentation' at the church on the day of her wedding 'leaps' from the pages of her letter.
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Marion Ruth Henty photographed in her wedding gown by Mendelssohn & Co, 1892

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The photographer captures Marion's social poise in her alert but relaxed pose and her direct gaze at the viewer. By using the visual rhetoric of traditional British Grand Manner painted portraiture, Mendelssohn & Co conveys Marion's elevated social status. The portrait is full figure. The importance of her costume has been given particular attention.
Bridal good taste, white from head to foot, was a technological problem for the late nineteenth century photographer. White clothing was photographically realised as bleached out. Detail was lost. To compensate the photographer has posed Marion slightly left of full frontal so that the available sun light could illuminate the 'hard' trim to the right of Marion's bodice. The splay of the tail of her sartorial train draws attention to not only its extravagant length but also the detail of the balayeuse.9 This decorative fluted element to the underside of the train was designed to create an illusion that the train was elegantly floating behind one's body as opposed to being indecorously dragged. The balayeuse functioned to create a visual air of majesty. Marion Henty was a member of a premier colonial family and demonstrated the fact on her wedding day through dress and poise.
The photographer draws attention to Marion's gloved hands through the casual resting of her left hand on the jardinière. Gloves were a symbol of power, prestige and lack of productive labour.10 The subtle posing of the fingers to the gloved left hand uses a traditional artistic device to draw attention to a symbolically important element to the total composition of the image. Marion's fingers point to her bridal handkerchief that has been artistically arranged in the fore-ground of the artistic props of table and pot plant.
The history of elite women carrying a lacy handkerchief as part of their sartorial display dates back to the sixteenth century. Spanish royal women held white handkerchiefs for their memorial portraits. English Queen Victoria rejected her orb and sceptre in favour of carrying a large white handkerchief to document her coronation through painting. The decorative lace embellished handkerchief was a symbol of elitism and gentility. Why was Marion not holding her handkerchief in her hand in the same manner as Queen Victoria or Spanish royalty? The photographer was canny. The iconography of the handkerchief would have been totally lost to the viewer through being bleached out against her white bridal robe. The dark background of the table and pot draws attention to the handkerchief. Why is this handkerchief so important within the construct of the image? A computer-generated detail of the lace to the handkerchief allows for identification of a Maltese lace trim.
Maltese lace had royal patronage but was not the most exclusive of hand-made laces in the late nineteenth century. However, it did have symbolic import. Colonial brides often embellished themselves with Maltese lace in their sartorial wedding display. The central motif to the design of the lace was the Maltese Cross. This famed logo was originally the emblem of the ancient eleventh-century order of the Knight's of St John, a chivalrous Catholic Order committed to repelling infidel Muslims. In the nineteenth
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Close-up showing the detail of the balayeuse (trail) of the wedding dress in main photograph on page 131.

century the Anglican British reinterpreted the humanitarian values of the Order in the form of the modern St John Ambulance Service. The Maltese Cross was retained, as was its symbolism: to be of service to God, the sick and the poor. It was a movement that perpetuated the civilising influences of Great Britain; colonies were not exempt. Maltese lace imbued in the sartorial display of a bride was a moral declaration to a married life in service to God, the sick and the poor. After her death, press testimonials asserted Marion proved to have been an able and responsible helpmate to her husband in his role as an Anglican bishop.11
While the photograph projects Marion's future role as a wife via the motif of the handkerchief it also announces her womanly rite of passage from daughter to wife, the two roles sanctified to gentile women of the day. The photograph documents the poignant moment when a woman pledges 'I do'. At the same time the image is a testament to the refinement of the Henty family and the purchasing power of Henry through sartorial display.

III

The history of western female costume reveals Marion's dress was cutting-edge fashion at the time of her marriage. The skilled cut and construction of the robe is evident in the garment's ability to accentuate the youthful contours of Marion's body. The dress had been expressly and expensively hand-made for her. From five newspaper descriptions of her wedding attire it can be established the dress was composed of modern French bengaline silk fabric that was exorbitant in cost per 'yard'.12 The 'soft' frothy trim to the base of her skirt was a la mode as well as acting as an aesthetic visual counterbalance to the fullness at the top of the bodice sleeve. The costume was haute couture. The construction of these festoons of gossamer silk was a very time-consuming hand-produced artefact as was the 'hard' trim on the front of the skirt and the border of the opening of the
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bodice. Composed of seed pearls and 'some larger pearls', the hard trim was also a timeconsuming hand-produced product.
The choice of pearls for the embellishment of the gown was highly symbolic. Exotic Eastern imported pearls were traditionally a British emblem of wealth. From a colonial viewpoint, the display of dredged pearls from Western Australia was a symbol of the wealthy fruits from colonisation. Given their association with purity and virginity pearls were considered to be the only valuable gem for a young woman. Queen Victoria ensured her daughters had a full set of pearls by adulthood through gifting each daughter a pearl to celebrate their annual birthday. Evidence suggests this trend was replicated in the colony. Pearls also held Christological relevance. St John of Patmos, for example, envisaged the twelve gates to the city of the New Jerusalem as pearls. From a fashion aesthetic the choice of pearls to encrust Marion's wedding robe was an expression of 'good taste'. Dictates of the day advised avoidance of the vulgar clash of discordant coloured gems with the colour of the fabric to the garment. The sheen of pearl matched the ivory white of Marion's dress; stark white fabric was considered to be unpleasing to the complexion. The floral motif to the pearl embroidery was in keeping with the design aesthetics of the British Kensington Needlework movement. Women were considered to be the 'flowers of the earth' and were meant to express this ethos through decorative elements to sartorial display. Mendelssohn & Co. have astutely underscored this social association between women and civility via the theme of a 'cultivated garden' through the painted backdrop to the composition of the photograph.
The constructed garden, as opposed to untamed nature, particularly the Australian bush, was a symbol of civilising forces in the colony. Horticultural Societies were rife; colonial gentlemen, in competition with each other, employed gardeners to 'force' exotic imported plants to bloom out of season. In the photograph Marion is crowned with an arbour that is reminiscent of depictions of women in enclosed gardens of Renaissance Christian art. The backdrop references art history but at the same time draws attention to absent sartorial elements to Marion's wedding costume. Her bridal bouquet of 'rare' and 'exotic' symbolic white blooms was well and truly dead by the time she redressed at Mendelssohn & Co's studio as was the very rare fresh orange blossom she wore on her bodice to endow herself with fecundity through marriage.
To further impress on the viewer of the photograph the elitism of Marion, and by extension her family, the photographer has posed her against a stand and a pot containing a plant. The intricate hand-turned curves and twists to the piece of furniture was cutting-edge design symbolising modernity, acute taste, and an ability to pay for skilled workmanship. A computer detail of the planter bowl reveals a stylised dragon design of Japanese aesthetics. Japanese dragons were depicted with three claws; Chinese dragons had five. Japonisme was a symbol of cultural elitism in Australia, as with the rest of the western world, at the time. The theme of eastern exotica is re-enforced with the aspidistra plant. Asian in origin, the novel plant was prized for its flower that budded at the base of the stalk of the plant. It also thrived well in the dark interiors of Victorian
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homes where elite women spent most of their time. The long sinuous leaves to the aspidistra pictorially reinforce the elegance and élan of Marion.

IV

Mendelssohn & Co. was not a 'petty dabbler' offering photography as a Sunday entertainment for the working-class. The proprietor, Mr H. S. Mendelssohn, was a Polish refugee who turned his talent as an artist to photography on arriving in England.13 His success was such the British royal family demanded his services as is evident by the gold embossed royal logo on the base of the photograph. Mendelssohn & Co was an exclusive English satellite photographic colonial business that understood traditional British visual rhetoric to ennoble people who wished to present themselves as elite.
The photograph is almost 120 years old, remains in pristine condition and is an historical 'treasure'. For Marion, the decision to have herself photographed in her wedding apparel was probably motivated by the need to have a personal memento. However, today, I believe, our reception of the photograph is different. The actual physical photograph is a fine example of the technique of quality late Victorian colonial photography. In addition, it is also an excellent example of photographers using the rhetoric of British Grand Manner painterly portraiture to imprint an impression of a person's social elitism on the viewer. The props echo elegant social taste of the day. The backdrop reflects a British and colonial ethos of refined femininity in the 1890s. The image is a record of expensive high society wedding fashion. It also contains a personal moral declaration through the inclusion of the Maltese lace trimmed handkerchief.
As such Marion was perpetuating the self-perceived 'myth' of the Henty family's role in civilising a remote colony. The photograph adds to our received knowledge of an illustrious pioneering family. It gives a female voice to a group of people who enacted patriarchy. Captured, via photography, for 'time and eternity' the 1892 photograph of Miss Marion Henty is a visual 'witness' to our rich colonial history.

1

Hortense, 'The glass of fashion', The Sun, 9 January 1891, p. 9. The writer was here making a general statement about brides having their bridal photographs taken on return from the honeymoon.

2

The actual photograph measures 37.0 × 29.4 cm and is mounted on a cream card 41.4 × 31.5 cm.

3

The history of the Henty family's colonial enterprise has been well documented by Marnie Bassett in The Hentys: an Australian colonial tapestry, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1954.

4

In late 933 Professor W. A. Osborn was invited to write a commentary on Australia for visitors to the country during Victoria's Centenary celebrations. He described the Australian Aboriginal as a 'Stone Age man' who practised 'magic' and suffered from a 'deficiency of game and water'. W. A. Osborn, The Visitor to Australia, Melbourne: Sir Isaac Pitmen & Sons, 1934, pp. 87–90.

5

'Lauderdale', 'Introduction', Victoria's Representative Men at Home: Punch's Illustrated Interviews, Melbourne: Punch Office, 1904, np.

6

Mrs [Marion] Henty, Diary, State Library of Victoria (hereafter SLV), MS 7664.

7

Marion Henty, Diary, SLV, MS 10449.

8

The letter is dated 23 May 1892 and is in the Henty-Armstrong papers, SLV, MS 7664.

9

Balayeuse is a French term that literally means 'street-sweeper'.

10

'An emblem of power', Supplement to the Kew Mercury, 10 January 1890, p. 2.

11

'Death of Mrs T. H. Armstrong', Church of England Messenger, 29 June 1928, p. 309.

12

'Weddings, The Sun, 27 May 1892, p. 13; Victorian Shopping: Harrod's Catalogue 1895, Alison Adburgham (intro.), Newton Abbott, Devonshire: David and Charles 1972 [1895], pp. 875-5.

13

There is no evidence that Mendelssohn personally came to the colony.