Bernhard Otto Holtermann
1838 - 1885


An introduction to an entrepreneur, photographer and politician

Born and educated in Hamburg, Germany in 1838, Bernhardt Otto Holtermann emigrated to Australia in 1858 at the age of twenty. The mains reasons seem to have been to join his brother in Sydney and to avoid being called up into the Prussian military service.

He travelled to Melbourne arriving 7th August 1858. He then boarded the City of Sydney for Sydney. His brother had already moved west to the goldfields, so Holtermann sought employment, which proved difficult due to his lack of English. He took a job aboard ships operating out of Sydney until he landed a job as a waiter at the Hamburg Hotel in King Street, Sydney. He worked there for about 5 months and during this time he met up with a Polish miner named Ludwig Hugo Louis Beyers. Beyers was enthusiastic about moving to the goldfields and he convinced Holtermann to join him.

Beyers and Holtermann formed a partnership and headed west over the Blue Mountains to prospect for gold at Tambaroora, near Hill End. However, riches were not immediate resulting in more partners being brought in to bolster the finances and Holtermann having to seek employment through a variety of jobs. These included ferryman, work in a hotel, and being the owner of a hotel for a year.

On 22nd February 1868, he and Beyers, married the sisters, Harriett and Mary Emmett, from a well known local family. It was about this time that Holtermann also met up with his brother who joined them at their mine, The Star of Hope. Holtermann by now was the mine manager as well as one of the major financial partners.

Somewhere around September 1868, their mine cut into a vein full of gold. Holtermann continued in the partnership, while others took their finds and left. Their success plus the success of others attracted Sydney speculators.

Holtermann became committed to assisting the community, with donations to the Temperance League and to assist in establishing the local school. He became interested in politics and was nominated as a candidate for the NSW Assembly. However following articles he published cautioning the people of Sydney about some of the shady speculators, there was a strong local move to undermine his election. He was not elected (this time), missing out by just a few votes.

In February 1872, the two senior partners, Beyers and Holtermann, floated the Beyers and Holtermann Star of Hope Gold Mining Company (Limited).

Louis Beyers
Merlin photo, with Holtermann to the right

In March 1872, an advertisement appeared in the Hill End and Tambaroora Times announcing the arrival from Sydney of the American and Australasian Photographic Company (A&A). Merlin had moved Hill End and announced that they were offering a house-to-house service to document all buildings and their inhabitants. Besides taking studio portraits, Merlin and his caravan travelled through the nearby towns documenting the people, their houses, the public buildings and of course the mines and the miners. After several months in Hill End, Merlin moved onto Gulgong and its neighbouring settlements.

It was sometime around early 1872 that Holtermann met the A&A’s photographer and writer, Beaufoy Merlin. Holtermann was taken with Merlin's photographic craft and his entrepreneurial approach. The meeting was to have a significant effect on both their lives - it was the coming together of a wealthy entrepreneur with ambitions for international marketing of his adopted country and a successful and ambitious photographer entrepreneur who was looking to expand his horizons and had the creative energy to do so.

Holtermann commissioned Merlin to prepare photographs for the Holtermann International Travelling Exposition. Holtermann wished to do more for his adopted country and he planned to show the world the successes of the colony, and through this attract people to immigrate from England and from the countries of Europe.

It remains a speculative subject as to how much each partner had on initiating the idea of the Exposition. Given Merlin's own entrepreneurial approach to business and his ambitions for his photography, one can imagine that the idea was in fact generated by the meeting of their ideas and enthusiasms, with the delivery very much dependant on Merlin's skill and on Holtermann's wealth and connections.

Merlin was requested by Holtermann to deliver photographs in the largest format possible. Holtermann therefore equipped Merlin with caravans to carry the larger 10" X 12" plate camera and darkrooms. Previously Merlin had used this larger format for some of his landscape views around Sydney, while the studio portraits, the goldfield and travelling photos were the smaller carte-de-visite format. As he had done in Sydney, it seems that most of the studio work was undertaken by his assistants, most likely Clarke, which freed Merlin up to travel.

Merlin moved the studio operations back to the rapidly expanding Hill End (on property owned by Holtermann) and set up his staff to do the usual A & A style photographs, that is to move house to house around the town and district and to offer studio portrait services. Once established, Merlin was freed to travel and to work for his new patron.

Merlin successfully created a large composite panorama of the western slope of Hawkins Hill (from what is now known as Merlin's Lookout). This complicated task, the making of the panorama, may have been the first major photographic entrepreneurial partnership undertaken by Holtermann with Merlin.

Holtermann was drawn away from mining to follow entrepreneurial ventures in photography and later in politics and the promotion of Australia to the world. Holtermann often appears, often to one side, in several of Merlin's Gulgong and Hill End photographs.

Holtermann's public works and profile did also bring on malicious attacks from others, seemingly because he was different (spoke with a German accent) and because he had entrepreneurial ideas and had become such leading figure.

Louise Beyers
A & A Studio, Hill End

At 2am on 19 October 1872, the last explosion for that shift revealed the world’s largest specimen of reef gold. Holtermann, being the manager, was summoned and he realised its importance and had the rock removed as one piece. Eventually it was crushed to reveal the precious metal, but not before Merlin took a photograph of the complete rock. This image was later combined by Bayliss with another of Holtermann to deliver the now famous Holtermann image, with him standing proudly by his nugget.

During the latter part of 1872 and early 1873, Merlin travelled through the towns close by Hill End, such as Bathurst and Orange, and others to the south, such as Yass and Goulburn, capturing images of industry, the towns and the people for the coming exposition. Often Holtermann would accompany him.

In the Autumn of 1873, Merlin and Holtermann were back in Sydney. It was here that Merlin broke the news that he was now seriously ill and would no longer be able to work on Holtermann's project. However, he did recommend that Holtermann should employ Merlin's now very experienced and trusted assistant, Charles Bayliss.

According to the Sands directory of the time and the records of Sandy Barrie, Bayliss was still operating a photographic studio and living in Melbourne. There is some evidence of Bayliss spending time in Sydney, but the speculation is that his permanent base was still in Melbourne. Following Holtermann's offer, Bayliss travelled up to Sydney to take up the appointment with Holtermann.

There is a photograph of Bayliss and Clarke in front of the A & A Studio at Hill End. Keast Burke dates this photograph as early in 1872, when Merlin moved to Hill End. It is significant that Merlin is not in the photograph and Bayliss stands proudly in front looking like the proprietor with assistants to either side of him. Given that Bayliss was still in charge of the A & A operations in Melbourne, we can only speculate how much time Bayliss spent with Merlin on the NSW goldfields.

In September 1873, at the age of 43, Merlin died at his home in Leichhardt, Sydney. He had contacted some form of "inflammation of the lungs". The added killer was most likely the damage caused by the long hours in confined spaces with photographic chemicals.

Holtermann had lost a colleague and his partner for the exposition. However, Charles Bayliss quickly moved into the job of assisting Holtermann. It was Bayliss who then suggested to Holtermann that the preferred format should be the 'Mammoth Plate' format of 18" X 22". Holtermann agreed and took steps to supply Bayliss with the appropriate equipment.

Holtermann soon left the goldfields and undertook to build a magnificent house at Blues Point, above Lavender Bay, with panoramic views across Sydney. Bayliss was dispatched back to Melbourne to undertake more views. The stand-out works from this trip are the composite panoramas of Melbourne and Ballarat

Bayliss - Geelong Photo
Holtermann's Lavender bay House

It was on top of his Lavender Bay house, and its tower, that Holtermann had constructed a special temporary room in which he built a large camera to make the world’s largest negatives. With Bayliss as his main photographer, in 1875 Holtermann oversaw the creation of the now famous Sydney Panorama and several other panoramas.

The largest, along with other Merlin and Bayliss photographs of Australia, formed the basis of the collection that he was to take on his international tours. The resultant Sydney Panorama was announced as the world’s largest photograph, which in turn led to much debate as it was an accepted fact that such ‘largest’ works were usually exclusively produced within the United States.

Holtermann was able to convince the NSW Government to include the Holtermann Photographs, in photographic section at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition.

Later they were also shown at the 1878 Paris Exposition Universelle Internationale, winning a silver medal.

While there remains several examples of the panoramas, the finest remaining is now owned by the National Gallery of Australia. The rolled up example taken to Europe has sadly not been traced. (We have reports of it being stored in buildings destroyed during the war))

Holtermann seemed to have maintained his mining interest, employing a manager, as well as having other commercial ventures, such as importing businesses and advertising the merits of Holtermann’s Life Drops.

Bayliss continued with Holtermann commissions till around 1876. By 1878 Bayliss had moved permanently from Melbourne to Sydney and set his own studio in George Street Sydney. There is no evidence of any further collaborations between Bayliss and Holtermann after this date.

In 1879, Holtermann was given a special bay at the Sydney International Exhibition held in the Garden Palace. He included (and acknowledged) photographs by both Merlin and Bayliss.

Holtermann was also taking photographs himself, being a keen amateur, a pioneer of the wet plate, as well producing stereo photographs and more panoramas of Sydney. Around 1880, Holtermann tried unsuccessfully again to be elected to the NSW Parliament. In 1882, he was at last successful, being elected by the residents of St Leonards.

His work in the NSW Parliament is in Hansard and includes an unsuccessful attempt to establish a government ferry from Sydney to North Sydney, a scheme to encourage more German immigrants to Australia (instead of the USA), as well as for the NSW Government to fund more photographs of Sydney to assist the promotions of the colony. despite these set backs, his community works continued, including supporting improvements in amenities and infrastructure in North Sydney and even offering to assist with a personal donation to build a bridge across the harbour.

On 29th April 1885, his 47th birthday, Bernhard Otto Holtermann died after an 18 month illness.

The final words belong to Jack Cato (communications with Keast Burke): “Bernhard Otto Holtermann can be ranked, perhaps, as Australia’s first and greatest amateur of photography, using that word in its original French sense. He liked the art for its own sake, yet realised, perhaps, more than he knew, its greatest documentary possibilities.”

Footnote: much of the above is based on Keast Burke's published works.

This has been added to with information gleaned from conversations with other researchers and on some speculations where definitive information is missing.

We are happy to receive communications about Holtermann. The research continues...



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