Rare early Australian photographs, not seen in public for more than 100 years, have been acquired by the National Library.

The major private collection of nearly 1,000 photographs came to light recently in Sydney where, among other places, it had been kept under a house – its value unrecognised.

The photographs, dating from 1872 to 1876, were taken by Beaufoy Merlin and Charles Bayliss, two of Australia’s greatest 19th century photographers. Highlights of the collection will go on show at the Library next week.

Senior Lecturer at the ANU School of Art Helen Ennis, who has curated an exhibition of Bayliss’ work for the National Library, A Modern Vision, describes the collection as an unsurpassed photographic record of life in Australia at the time. “In my professional life as a photographic historian for 26 years, I have never seen a collection as significant as this. It is unrivalled.”

The Merlin and Bayliss collection was commissioned by Bernard Otto Holtermann, patron of the two photographers, and inherited by members of his family. The family only recently realised that the collection was important. It was purchased for an undisclosed price through Sydney art dealer Josef Lebovic.

German immigrant Holtermann, who made a fortune when his miners found the world’s largest specimen of reef gold in the Hill End area in 1872, commissioned the series of photographs of NSW and Victoria to encourage immigration.

Library Director-General Jan Fullerton said the collection was an important addition to the Library’s strong documentary photography collection. “It provides a unique insight into the early history of both NSW and Victoria, and is appropriately held in the National Library where it will be digitised and made accessible to all Australians.”

Some of the recently acquired photographs will feature in the exhibition, A Modern Vision: Charles Bayliss, Photographer 1850–1897, which opens on 11 July at the Library. A Modern Vision is part of Vivid: National Photography Festival.

The Merlin and Bayliss collection includes a rare visual record of the NSW towns of Hill End and Gulgong including gold mining activities, houses and shops. The photographs of Bathurst, Sydney, Melbourne and Ballarat show urban development and shipping. There are also 22 interior views of the 1879 Sydney and 1888 Melbourne international exhibitions.

Helen Ennis and Josef Lebovic are available for interview.

High-resolution images are available for download at http://www.nla.gov.au/media/bayliss The first four images are from the recently purchased collection.

Media contacts: Sally Hopman, 02 6262 1704; shopman@nla.gov.au
Ellen Peterson, 02 6262 1571; epeterson@nla.gov.au