Exhibition: Garden of the East. NGA Canberra

Photography in Indonesia 1850s – 1940s
National Gallery of Australia

21 February – 22 June 2014

In 1852, at the age of eighteen, Walter B Woodbury left behind his engineering apprenticeship in Manchester to try his luck halfway around the world in Australia’s Victorian goldfields. On arrival, he realised the easy pickings were gone and he took a variety of jobs, soon changing from a rather sheltered British ‘new chum’ into a seasoned colonial.

Not long after, in Melbourne, recalling his boyhood experiments with cameras, Woodbury invested his meagre remaining funds in a camera. This time, however, his impulsiveness paid off. Woodbury rapidly became expert in the new process of wet-plate photography on glass, and he went on to make the earliest photographic panorama in Australia.

By 1854, Woodbury had a studio in Beechworth, and in 1855 he teamed up with young James Page from Kent. In 1857, finding there were too many competing studios in Victoria, the partners in Woodbury & Page set off for Java, their first stop on a planned business circuit of exotic ports.

In one of his first letters home from Java in 1857, Woodbury declared, ‘I cant tell you how beautiful it is’; but, his photographs could, and he regularly dispatched prints home, some of which survive in his personal album. A year later, on 15 June 1858, Woodbury triumphantly reported, ‘we each of us 7 or 800 pound richer’. He persuaded his brothers Henry and Albert to join him. In 1863, Woodbury returned home, newly married to his beautiful Dutch-Indonesian wife, Marie Sophie. His fine home and studio in Jakarta remained as the headquarters of the firm until 1908 under various successors, including brothers Henry and then Albert from the 1860s to 1880s.

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