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Thursday, 27 May 2021

The Ubiquitous Mr Barnett: Australia’s first film director

Written by Sally Jackson
Continuing our exploration of all things Falk, we asked SALLY JACKSON, a former curator at the National Film and Sound Archive and Walter Barnett expert to take a look at the 1896 film of the Melbourne Cup, which Barnett directed in association with Marius Sestier who was in Australia to promote the Cinématographe Lumière.

1 Melbourne Cup Carnival posterPhotograph of framed original poster created by Falk for the Melbourne Cup films, November 1896. Note that the costume resembles those seen in the drama Trilby which had recently been seen in Sydney.

The year 1896 was a turning point in the life and career of top Australian photographer, Henry Walter Barnett (1862-1934). In April his dear friend and mentor Tom Roberts married; 1 in May, Barnett completed his series of theatrical portraits of Mrs Brown-Potter and Kyrle Bellew on their second tour of Australia; 2 he permanently split with long time business partner and financial backer Aaron Blashki 3; on the 8 September the remaining contents of his Sydney home were up for auction completing the move to Melbourne; 4 and, on 29 September 5 it became known he was involved in the operation and dissemination of ‘the marvel of the century’, 6 the Cinématographe Lumière, a machine which projected moving pictures. Not only was he regarded as Australia’s most enigmatic and most accomplished photographer but Henry Walter Barnett would become the first Australian to be a successful filmmaker when the first Australian films to be made were then subsequently screened in October and November 1896.

Barnett was perfectly placed to become involved with the moving image. His two Falk studios, in Sydney and Melbourne, with well set up printing and processing rooms, would adapt to processing moving image film. He also had expert darkroom and processing staff who would, no doubt, welcome the challenge. His photographic career had brought him into the limelight in the Australian theatrical world with his brilliant photographs of amongst others, Sarah Bernhardt, Cora Brown-Potter, the Broughs, and their companies. The public would respond to Barnett’s involvement as they understood he was a person of integrity. They also recognised him as a man who took opportunities. 7

Without doubt, Barnett’s intention was to bring to the films the same that he had brought to the public through his photography—the popular theatrical star. The difference is that in the films the celebrity is walking, talking, smiling and laughing, in other words animated. It was a tantalising opportunity and it worked. Across the country reviewers noted that the audience took great delight in recognising the famous faces. Indeed, the films were a veritable who’s who and, unsurprisingly, the presence of Barnett was also noted:

‘Well-known figures pass and re-pass in living semblance to their very selves, prominent amongst them being the ubiquitous Mr Barnett himself, to whose enterprise is due this triumph of up-to-date living pictures.’ 8

‘Mr Barnett who seems to be manipulating the crowd after the manner of a great general, is not without its effect on those amongst the audience who recognise him.’ 9

Theatre entrepreneur J.C. Williamson featured heavily in Barnett’s work as Barnett had an arrangement to photograph the theatrical stars who performed for Williamson & Musgrove and retail the resulting photographs. 10 It was Williamson who linked Barnett with the French married couple, Marius Sestier (1861-1928) and Marie-Rose Puech (1873-1957), who arrived, unannounced, in Sydney on the 16 September 1896. 11 The Sestiers were the official representatives of the frères Lumière, and the couple had come direct from the Indian city of Bombay after a very successful season of the Cinématographe Lumière, ‘the marvel of the century’, the crème de la crème of contemporary moving image projection apparatus.

Marius Sestier and Marie-Rose Sestier had left their home in Lyon, France in June 1896 to take the Cinématographe Lumière to Bombay (now Mumbai) in India and then on to Australia. Marius was a local pharmacist with his pharmacy on the Ave de Saxe in Lyon’s 3rd arrondissement. Marie-Rose had been a shop assistant and manager in her parents’ drapery store in the town of Beaucaire. She now managed her home in Lyon, the pharmacy and the Cinématographe Lumière.

Shortly after they arrived in Sydney the Sestiers found themselves with a promoter in Williamson & Musgrove, and two managers Charles Babbington Westmacott and Henry Walter Barnett. 12 It was this arrangement which put Barnett on the screen, literally. As promoter for the Sydney and Melbourne seasons of the Cinématographe Lumière, Williamson had been wanting a cinematographe to incorporate into his shows. But in correspondence with his business partner, George Musgrove, in August 1896, Musgrove advised that “the cinematographe has not developed sufficiently to do what you propose in the pantomime”. 13 In the meantime the projection of moving images advanced and the timing of the Sestiers’ arrival and Williamson’s plans for the annual Christmas pantomime, a revival of the 1895 pantomime, Djin Djin, the Japanese Bogie Man, ideally suited him.

Also ideal was the relationship between Sestier, the scientist, and Barnett, the photographer artist. Although their sense of aesthetics may have been different, both professions required the practise of rigorous precision to achieve their goals. They were well suited as working partners.

The first public screening, the premiere to the Sydney public of the Cinématographe Lumière was on 28 September at the Salon Lumière at 237 Pitt Street. 14 Recently used as an auction house the space was large enough to fit the 12ft ornate screen, the Cinématographe Lumière, and a large seated audience. It also had electricity, the vital element to make it all work.

The Salon Lumière operated every day except Sunday with around eight sessions daily. The program of between 12 and 30 films would change regularly. Certainly, the Sestiers would be present at the sessions but it’s not clear if Barnett was as well. Given that Marius had little English, and although Marie-Rose was quite proficient, it may be that Barnett attended every session. However, we do know that he was present when the Australian-made films were screened and indeed when they were produced.

Part of the responsibility of the Cinématographe Lumière representatives was to shoot films in the countries they visited and return them to France where they would be added to the Lumière catalogue and subsequently shipped out to other countries. The Sestiers had attempted this in India but had been defeated by the monsoon and the postal system. 15 They had greater success in Australia with 17 films completed and screened by the time they left in May 1897.

Recognition of Barnett’s role in the making of the films has been mentioned in Australia’s film history mainly due to his presence in three of the remaining nine films. 16 Those films in which he appeared are perhaps graceless, unlike those in which he does not appear, because his motive is transparent—to bring celebrities past the camera. However, on examining all the remaining films it’s possible to discern a much greater role than previously supposed as Barnett’s photographer’s eye for scene composition is clearly in play.

Below is a list of the films made in Australia in 1896. Those in bold are the only ones that are known to remain and those marked with an asterisk are the ones in which Barnett makes an appearance:

  1. Passengers Leaving s.s. Brighton, at Manly, Sunday Afternoon (4 October, Manly, Australia).
  2. Derby Day (The Betting Ring) (31 October, Melbourne, Australia)
  3. Lady Brassey Placing the Blue Ribbon on “Newhaven” aka Decoration of Newhaven Derby Winner (31 October, Melbourne, Australia)
  4. Arrival of the Train at Hill Station (3 November, Melbourne, Australia)
  5. The Lawn Near the Bandstand (3 November, Melbourne, Australia) *
  6. Arrival of H.E. Brassey and Suite (3 November, Melbourne, Australia)
  7. The Saddling Paddock (3 November, Melbourne, Australia) *
  8. Finish of Hurdle Race, Cup Day (3 November, Melbourne, Australia)
  9. Finish of the Race (3 November, Melbourne, Australia) *
  10. Weighing Out for the Cup (3 November, Melbourne, Australia)
  11. Near the Grandstand (3 November, Melbourne, Australia)
  12. Afternoon Tea Under the Awning (3 November, Melbourne, Australia)
  13. “Newhaven” his Trainer (W. Hickenbotham), Jockey Gardiner (3 November, Melbourne, Australia)
  14. The Post-Office Near George Street (24 November - 19 December, Sydney, Australia)
  15. NSW Horse Artillery at Drill, Victoria Barracks, Sydney, (By permission of Lieut-Col. H.P. Airey) (16 September – 24 November)
  16. NSW Horse Artillery at Drill, Charge of Guns and Gunners, Victoria Barracks, Sydney, (By permission of Lieut-Col. H.P. Airey) (16 September – 24 November)
  17. Patineur Grotesque (16 September - 23 December 1896)

The Melbourne Cup films were necessarily filmed and screened in chronological order providing the audience with an accurate account of the day. As far as is known this was the first time in the world that an event was filmed creating a series, a linear narrative of an event. It’s fair to say that the Cup Carnival films provided the template for all future Melbourne Cup film coverages.

The first film on the program was Arrival of the Train at Hill Station. Unlike other train films of the time, which were mostly filmed on the platform at eye level, Hill Station was filmed from above the platform from the stationmaster’s rostum 17 providing a more expansive view of the train, the platform and most importantly the large crowd disembarking the train. Reports from the first screening indicate that the audience enjoyed picking out the famous faces in the crowds, as they would for the other films. While it’s impossible to know why Sestier and Barnett decided to break with common practice, it may have been to obviate the curiosity caused by their presence on the platform and keep faces away from the lens. However, they could still be seen by the crowd with only a few glancing upwards, most wanting to get to the Cup as soon as possible. Or, perhaps it was Barnett understanding that a more spectacular view could be had from a higher vantage point.

Although Barnett does not appear in the sixth film on the program, Arrival of H.E. Brassey and Suite, the clearly visible glance which Lord Brassey gives as he walks towards the camera may well be directed towards him. Perhaps Barnett was the only face Brassey recognised. Admittedly this is conjecture, but it is possible that Barnett was standing in that direction close to the camera. Brassey’s discomfort did not go unnoticed:

‘Falk’s plans for cinematographing Gov. Brassey and party in the act of marching up the Lawn at Flemington were ingeniously laid. Escape was impossible for the noble baron, so when he found himself roped into taking a certain course, with the eye of the apparatus gazing straight at him, he accepted the situation and walked along somewhat like a cat upon hot bricks, as shown in the picture.’ 18

Whether or not Barnett can be seen does not diminish the significance of this film. It is elegantly orchestrated given that it is filmed in real time with no cuts or other edits and no opportunity for rehearsal. With only 60 seconds in which to capture the whole Vice Regal contingent from the moment the carriage arrives and they disembark, walk along the cordoned path, past the crowd and then come face to face with the camera and on towards their enclosure the audience sees almost all those present.

There are four notable moments:

1. The attending policeman aware of the camera and undertaking control to protect both the Brassey entourage and the camera and its crew. There is a clear but silent call “To stay back”.

2. Brassey’s glance as noted above.

3. Lady Magheramorne giving a lovely smile towards to camera.

4. At the end when the Vice Regal party has passed by and the crowd begins to disperse a tall rotund man wearing a bowler hat and sporting a fob watch chain on his waist coat steps out and looks towards the camera. He gives a turn as if disoriented and steps back into the crowd. This man is J.C. Williamson.

In terms of the Melbourne Cup itinerary the arrival of the Vice Regal party signified the formal beginning of the day’s racing and proceedings, the most anticipated being the running of the Melbourne Cup. The film, Weighing Out for the Cup is immediately after the running of the Cup and is of a large continuous swell of people watching the proceedings as horses and jockeys are brought up to be weighed. At first glance all we see is an image of a crowd so dense we can’t make out what’s going on. This was the case for the Bulletin’s “Sundry Shows” reviewer who described it as ‘a stream of people drifting by, and consist mainly of hats and umbrellas. 19

However, a closer look enables us to make greater sense of the film and we can see an impressive structure of three levels of activity. Could this be Barnett’s photographer’s eye at work or a simple accident of positioning?

At the bottom of the screen there is a frantic throng of punters rushing to the right, some notice the camera, and a man stares into it, but most don’t even acknowledge it. As this film was screened after the Finish of the Race, most people are rushing to the Betting Ring to collect their winnings.

In the middle of the screen things are a little more subdued as the crowd watches the weighing-in process and to see Newhaven come in from the field. These punters want to make sure Newhaven is the winner before they go to collect their winnings or need to deal with having lost.

At the top of the screen there is calm as the VRC officials watch and usher in the jockeys to the weighing room. They observe the crowd calmly and usher the jockeys into the weighing room.

The film that closed the series, “Newhaven” his Trainer (W. Hickenbotham), Jockey Gardiner, is a postscript to the day. It is so very different in style and content to the other films. It’s not busy, there are no crowds, there are no celebrities to be paraded past the camera. The only celebrity here is Newhaven post his Cup win. The role of the camera is to offer an opportunity to admire this horse who won two consecutive Melbourne Cups. It’s simple and deliberate, particularly as there is a noticeable scene direction when Hickenbotham looks to the camera for instruction.

The three films in which Barnett does appear are not only different because he is in them but because they are celebrity-based. The celebrities include the theatrical, and the race track bookies, all of whom are captured by the camera.

The three films are very different to each other. The first, and most celebrity-filled, is The Lawn Near the Bandstand. This film covers the great melange of those who inhabited the social, political and theatrical realms. The second film is The Saddling Paddock, a film that is about the horses. And, the third is Finish of the Cup Race, which is about the excitement of the race, the crowds at the fences, and the Melbourne Cup bookmakers.

In The Lawn Near the Bandstand, the Cinématographe Lumière is centred in the frame and draws much attention from the public. The crowd is constantly moving in all directions and the audience is trying to take in all this activity. The film begins with the crowd swelling around the camera and people looking into it as they stroll past, or in some cases making a bee-line for it. From the top left-hand side come two people walking closely together past the camera and the contemporary audience immediately recognised the actors George Titheradge and Florence Brough whose theatrical company was performing in Melbourne during the Cup Carnival. 20 Barnett is seen a few times in the crowd, and very close to the camera as he escorts other members of the Brough company. 21 Stealing this film though is Barnett as he circles the crowd near the camera as if searching for prey.

Regardless of the fact that Barnett was recognisable, his actions and those of the celebrities are out of kilter with the rest of the Cup Day crowd. The crowd, mostly, amble along, their only purpose is to parade their Cup Day finery, to see and be seen. Barnett’s actions are so purposeful—to create something extraordinary for the audience, that his and their self-awareness is quite distracting.

The Saddling Paddock, where the horses are prepared for their race, was a favourite place for punters and others to gather. A visit to the Saddling Paddock was a prestigious event as it was somewhat exclusive due to the expensive entrance fee keeping out none but the serious punter or the well-to-do. This made it a good location for the Cinématographe Lumière to film and the camera was set up in front of the stables and close to the tree-lined avenue where the horses would be led to the track.

The opening of the film is quite serene compared to the scenes from the Lawn. There is a gathering of men watching the horses or glancing at the Cinématographe Lumière both of which are off screen. To the left of the screen are men seated on the benches under the trees. A young woman in a light-coloured dress is seen walking just as the horses are beginning to be led past the camera. Then suddenly there are people walking into the scene rather absurdly as if someone has shouted “Fire!”. Soon afterwards, from the centre of the screen, Barnett has walked in beside the young woman in the light-coloured dress and the fellow who has accompanied her only to be confronted by an upset horse. By Barnett’s attention to the young woman an assumption can be made that she is probably a theatrical star. 22

Once again, as in The Lawn Near the Bandstand, Barnett is unmissable in this film and it is just as awkward. In an attempt to create “action” in what was a quiet but interesting scene, the Cinématographe Lumière, Barnett and his associates have distracted from the normal events in the Saddling Paddock, the very events they went in to film and they have created mayhem.

However, caught up in the scene is Tom Fitzgerald, one of the Fitzgerald brothers who owned and ran the Fitzgerald Circus. Tom was a renowned horseman and when the film opened in Adelaide he was easily recognised. 23

The major event of the Melbourne Cup program was Finish of the Race and it is an exciting and extraordinary film because it is the very first time the Melbourne Cup was filmed. Although it’s obvious that Barnett was not intending to be caught on film the fact that someone was spoiling the scene made him act.

The Cinématographe Lumière is pointed towards the Finishing Post which we can see just above the heads of the crowd. Standing almost centre frame was a “fielder”, a bookie who worked the field rather than the Betting Ring. He’s staring directly into the camera and he doesn’t know what it is he’s looking at. He distracts from the running of the race and so Barnett runs into shot with his left elbow crooked and raised which he uses to manoeuvre the chap away. Simultaneously, Barnett raises his hat in an attempt to animate the crowd into a state of excitement, although he is only partially successful.

A few seconds later the race is over and Newhaven has won and immediately the crowd is animated and moving off to collect winnings or pay debts. The parade of people past the camera includes the “fielders” and a few of these can be identified: Abe Kurts, Maurice Quinlan, Charlie Westbrook, Jacobs, and Barney Allen. Barnett has already walked off screen, mopping his brow, due to the heat of the afternoon.

What is intriguing about Barnett’s role with the Cinématographe Lumière is that it did nothing for his career as a photographer. In fact, and although short-lived, he became a figure of ridicule for his antics on screen. Perhaps, it was to understand better what he saw as a potential rival to photography, especially as the cinematographe was referred to as “the new photography”. 24 Or, maybe the motive for his taking on the Cinématographe Lumière was financial rather than professional given that he was planning to leave Australia on 30 January 1897. 25 As was reported, Williamson claimed that he and his partners enjoyed a £1000 profit within its first three weeks of screenings. 26 For someone planning to leave Australia and set up in London as Barnett was, the prospect of greater financial gain must have been at least part of the attraction.

Barnett’s work as a photographer of the rich, famous and important, provided him with good connections across society. His successful business was founded upon the vanity of high society and the sales turnover of his theatrical cabinet card portraits which gave him an appreciation of the currency of celebrity. When Walter Barnett guided the famous past the Cinématographe Lumière he knew the resulting footage would appeal to press and audiences around the world. And he was not wrong:

‘Well known figures pass and re-pass in living semblance to their very selves ...’ 27

‘The audience found a vast fund of amusement in picking out well-known faces as they occurred in the throngs, and indeed, quite a society column of “those present” might be written if space permitted.’ 28

Barnett’s exceptional photographic eye was inherent in everything he undertook. What these films confirm is that each time we see Barnett on the screen it is as The Photographer adjusting the pose of the sitter for the best result. Without him the Australian films included in the Catalogue général des vues positives in 1896 would have nothing to identify them as different to the hundreds of other films included. They are unique as Barnett was unique.

 

Endnotes

1. Registration Number 1876/1896, Marriage Certificate, Births Deaths and Marriages Victoria

2. Melbourne Punch, 4 June 1896. Two of Barnett’s most recent photographs of actors Mrs Brown-Potter and Kyrle Bellew and can be found in the Falk Album.

3. The Age (Melbourne), 11 February 1897

4. The Sydney Morning Herald, 7 September 1896

5. The Sydney Morning Herald, 29 September 1896

6. Bombay Gazette (India), 7 July 1896

7. Corille Fraser, Come to Dazzle, Sarah Bernhardt’s Australian tour, Currency Press, Strawberry Hills, NSW, Australia, 1998

8. The Sunday Times (Sydney), 6 December 1896

9. The Referee (Sydney), 25 November 1896

10. Barnett’s work in The Falk Album on the THA website.

11. The Sydney Morning Herald, 17 September 1896

12. The Daily Telegraph, (Sydney), 29 September 1896

13. George Musgrove. ‘Letter to J.C. Williamson’ 21 August 1896. National Library of Australia, MS5783, Folder 9/4b

14. The Sydney Morning Herald, 28 September 1896

15. Sally Jackson, Almost the Greatest Scientific Invention of the Age, Screening the Past, Issue 41, April 2019. For more information about the Sestiers in India.

16. Chris Long, ‘Australia’s First Films, Part Three: Local production Begins’, Cinema Papers, No 93, May 1993. In this work by researcher and historian Chris Long, Barnett’s role in the making of the films is explored. Long gives Barnett credit for his participation particularly in his who’s who knowledge of the crowds.

17. According to the Australian Railway Historical Society, Victorian Division, the rostum was an open tower-like structure and was used by the Station Master or a Traffic Inspector to direct race crowds, to shout instructions to the station assistants and through the use of flags give instructions to the guards and other railway staff.

18. The Bulletin (Sydney), 26 December 1896

19. The Bulletin (Sydney), 5 December 1896

20. The Australasian (Melbourne), 31 October 1896

21. The identification process of potential candidates has been undertaken by matching names from the Brough Company against the names of those attending the 1896 Melbourne Cup. The social pages of the contemporary press list the Cup attendees as well as their outfits thus providing a methodology for identification.

22. The identity of this young woman, dressed in the fashion for adolescent females, that is, a white dress with a coloured waist band and a small purse slung over her shoulder is quite possibly Maie Saqui as Barnett had photographed her recently.

23. Chronicle (Adelaide), 2 January 1897

24 The Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 21 December 1896

25. Barnett’s actions throughout 1896 indicate a big change was coming in his life as he packed up and sold off his home and ended his long-term business partnership.

26. The Advertiser (Adelaide), 8 December 1896

27. The Sydney Mail, 28 November 1896

28. The Daily Telegraph (Sydney) 25 November 1896

 

Sally Jackson

Formerly the Curator, Film, at the National Film and Sound Archive, Canberra, Sally Jackson’s focus continues to be early Australian cinema, in particular the first films by Sestier and Barnett. She is currently investigating the role of women in early Australian photography on her website photoria.com.au

Read 339 times Last modified on Wednesday, 23 June 2021