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Spurling, Stephen (1847–1924)

by Christine Burgess

Stephen Spurling, photographer and part-time orchardist, was born on 7 May 1847 in Hobart Town, Van Diemen’s Land. He was the second son of Stephen Spurling 1st and Louisa Spurling née Lovett. At the time of his birth, his father was employed as a clerk in the Convict Department, Van Diemen’s Land (he later transferred to the Lands and Survey Department, before becoming a photographer).

It is likely Stephen 2nd was educated at the Chalmers School in Hobart Town. This school, under headmaster Alexander Ireland, emphasised an academic curriculum, aimed at equipping students to proceed to careers in architecture, engineering and surveying. Stephen 2nd’s formal education probably ceased around the time of his father’s 1861 bankruptcy. However, he evidently enjoyed outdoor activity, and as a young man developed skills as an oarsman and rifle shooter.

In 1863, when he was nearly sixteen, Stephen 2nd accompanied his family to New Zealand, where they established a grocery store and bakery on the main supply route to the gold fields. However, the family found it difficult to settle and less than a year later, they travelled to Melbourne. Here, his parents gave him £1.00, and while they returned to Hobart Town, Stephen 2nd went to Bendigo, where he worked for a while in a bakery. Stephen 2nd subsequently returned to Hobart Town, and started working in his father’s photographic studio.

On 17 February 1873, Stephen 2nd married Julia Emily Long (1849-1931) daughter of Richard Long and his wife, Sarah Overell, at the home of Reverend John Wilkes Simmons, according to the rites of the Congregational Church. The couple had five children, Hilda May (1874-1957), Stephen 3rd (1876–1962), Stella Nightingale (1878-1948), Ella Maud (1881-1974) and Lilla Emily (1883-1971).

Shortly after his marriage, Stephen 2nd and his wife moved to Launceston, in northern Tasmania, where he set up a photography business. His first studio was in St John Street, and in March 1878, he relocated to 83 Brisbane Street. In May 1897, he attempted to re-establish a branch in Hobart, at 88 Liverpool Street, but this venture proved unsuccessful.

Nevertheless, the early twentieth century proved a period of expansion. In 1902, Stephen 2nd formed a partnership with his son, Stephen 3rd, and they moved to a custom-built premises at 93 Brisbane Street, Launceston. During this period, the firm also employed two apprentices – Frederick Vaudry Robinson and, later, Myra Bessie Sargent. Both subsequently established their own studios. In addition, around 1908, Stephen 2nd and his son invested in orchards in the Tamar Valley.

Although Stephen 2nd specialised in portraiture, he also undertook some outdoor photography. In the late 1870s, he used a train carriage fitted out as a mobile darkroom, to develop his wet plate images immediately after exposure. However, the difficulties associated with processing photographs while the train was in motion, may have provided the incentive that led him, around 1879, to import what were reputably, the first dry plates to be used in Australia. Two years later, he made a wide-angle image of Launceston, and in 1886, he again photographed his hometown – this time making a nine plate, 360º panorama. When completed it measured 2.4 metres long by 35.6 centimetres high and was, at that time, Launceston’s largest panorama. He also undertook trips to caves, beauty spots in the north and north-west, and to Tasmania’s west coast to photograph early mining activity. To assist in taking these images he evidently employed a hand-truck to transport a giant camera. Some of images of Beaconsfield and Mount Bischoff featured at the 1888 Centennial Exhibition in Melbourne, and were later displayed at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris. Other awards including a first place at the 1895 Intercolonial Photographic Exhibition in Geelong and a bronze medal for some lantern slides at a 1906 exhibition in Sydney.

Stephen 2nd was renowned for his technical proficiency and his innovations. He also pioneered some of the earliest instantaneous or action photographs in Tasmania and took flash photographs when such a procedure involved creating a minor explosion. He was the first photographer in Launceston to use electrical lighting in his studio, and often acted as a judge in photographic competitions held by the Northern Tasmanian Camera Club. Other professional interests included serving on the committee of the Launceston Traders’ Association, as an officer-bearer for the Working Men’s Club, and as vice-president of the Professional Photographers’ Association of Tasmania. He was active in promoting tourism, and for many years campaigned for copyright laws in Tasmania. The large number of apparently anonymous images (or images wrongly attributed to other photographers) that are actually Spurling originals bear testament to the problems ethical Tasmanian photographers encountered in claiming what was rightfully their own works in late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

In the early 1920s, father and son instigated a number of changes in the structure of their firm. In February 1922, they converted to a propriety company, and changed their name from Spurling & Son, to Spurling’s Propriety Limited. Then in December of that year, Stephen 2nd authorised his son Stephen 3rd to vote on behalf of the company. From then onwards Stephen 2nd ceased to take an active role in the business. Shortly afterwards his health started to decline. Then, after nine months of illness, he died on 5 February 1924 at his home in Launceston. His funeral was held two days later, on 7 February and he was interred at Carr Villa Cemetery. An obituary in the Weekly Courier noted that Stephen 2nd was highly regarded for his photographic abilities and for his good character.

Today his photographs are held in private collections, and the National Gallery of Australia, the National Gallery of Canada, the National Library of Australia, the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery (Launceston) – which also holds a portrait of him, the State Library of New South Wales, the State Library of Tasmania (Launceston), the State Library of Victoria, the Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office, and the University of Sydney.

Original publication

  • unpublished, by Christine Burgess, 2011

Other Obituaries for Stephen Spurling

Additional Resources

Citation details

Christine Burgess, 'Spurling, Stephen (1847–1924)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/spurling-stephen-1580/text1653, accessed 19 November 2019.

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