By Brianna Vincent.
Our recent James Upfill Wilson post didn’t include a photo of him. Despite extensive searches we had found possibilities but not probabilities. There was nothing that we could point to with a measure of confidence and say ‘we think this is him’. Our best guess was a photo of a photo in the Tyree Collection of Nelson Provincial Museum titled ‘Wilson, James’. Without the identifying ‘U’ initial of James Upfill Wilson (in a country full of James Wilsons) or a year date that it was taken, it was a matter of staring at the clothes and trying to determine age, which provoked a lot of back and forth between the team. Was this him? Was this not him?
Enter the Davis Collection, also at Nelson Provincial Museum. William Henry Davis (1837-1875) was a photographer who operated a studio in Nelson 1860-ca 1872. He also had businesses in Wellington, Auckland and possibly New Plymouth. In Nelson Provincial Museum’s Davis collection we found a match for the Tyree photo of a photo: the original glass plate negative. But it was not titled ‘Wilson, James’ but ‘Wilson, Mr A and T’.
Of course, this provoked more questions than it initially answered. ‘James’ wasn’t a Mr A Wilson or a Mr T Wilson. His brothers Joseph Foord Junior, Thomas Upfill, and John Wilson didn’t have an A among them. The photo was also of a single man, if this was A then where was T? or if this was T then where was A? More searching uncovered three different photos in the Davis collection all labelled ‘Wilson, T and A’, which depicted at least two men if not three (depending on whether one of the men was shown twice).
With three mysteriously named photos and the Tyree copy, identifying James Upfill Wilson was looking more difficult than ever. Reluctantly we dropped the idea of ending our post with a photo of James and hoped something definitive would happen along in due course.
We didn’t think it would be later that week.
The background: we have an upcoming series of posts on photos of Emily and her sisters, with photos from the Nelson Provincial Museum and elsewhere, including the Family Album which is available online here. As part of the preparation for the series, I was clicking through the family album, looking at all the instances of the Harris sisters, when I saw, shockingly, a familiar Wilson face. A match for this photo in the Nelson Provincial Museum:
Here, unnamed and without any additional details, was the face of Mr Wilson from one of the Davis pictures, nestled in a decorative frame. Bringing the pictures up on my screen side by side, I reeled around the house to confirm with the others in my Bubble that I wasn’t imagining things, that this was indeed the same picture. We had a match from the depths of the NPM archive to our Harris family album.
This must be the right James Upfill Wilson. A great round of comparisons began as the team tried to determine how many of these photos could be our James, allowing for different ages and studio situations. Here is our current thinking:
The photo in the Family Album with the matching Davis version
Our original starting point, the Tyree ‘Wilson, James’ photo of a photo which we believe is James Upfill Wilson at a different age.
And finally, the photo in the Family Album right beside James’s photo, James Upfill Wilson again at a different point in time.
We then looked at the backs of these Family Album photos for further clues (many thanks to Roseanne Cranstone for sending us photos!). The first has ‘ND Push’ inscribed on the reverse, another mystery. The second has a photographers stamp.
‘Photographed by CHs Lawrence, Christchurch, Canterbury, Copies May Always Be Had’. While the first photo locates James Upfill Wilson in Nelson in the collection, made by the photographer William Henry Davis, with the second photo we can now place James Upfill Wilson in Christchurch. Charles Lawrence was a photographer active 1867-1879, operating out of Oxford Terrace West in Christchurch. The dated examples we can see in the 1870s seem to mostly involve one of the below stamps, more complex than the one we can see on our photo which may indicate that perhaps the James photo was taken in the 1860s.
Tracing James Upfill Wilson continues to be a challenge as we try to determine his movements. In the 1860s, there are James Wilsons heading from Nelson, Otago, and Greymouth to Australia and maybe our James Upfill Wilson is among them, potentially following work (or gold) before returning to New Zealand. In 1866, a James Wilson, recently of Nelson, is tried and eventually acquitted for the murder of Mr George Dobson in Greymouth. This James Wilson writes an eloquent defence of his case in the Grey River Argus, condemning the police handling of witnesses and alleging suppression of crucial evidence. James Upfill Wilson’s years in the lead up to his admission to the Nelson Lunatic Asylum still remain much of a mystery but the discovery of his photo in the Family Album shows us that puzzle pieces can be discovered and slot into place when we least expect it.
Lead writer: Brianna Vincent
Research support: Michele Leggott, Dasha Zapisetskaya