Alice and Henry Brusewitz

Museum examines legacy of husband and wife photography team through a new lens.

Nelson Provincial Museum Senior Curator of Photography Darryl Gallagher has uncovered the story of Henry and Alice Brusewitz, a husband and wife commercial photography team who opened for business in Nelson in the 1880s. At the same time, he has restored the role Alice played in documenting Nelson around the turn of the 20th Century.

Henry Brusewitz emigrated from Sweden to New Zealand sometime around 1878. In 1887, he married a local woman named Alice Palmer and the following year, they took up residence in Nelson. Soon after, they established a photography studio in Waimea Street (now Rutherford Street), under Henry’s name, advertising their services for both outdoor photography and studio portraits.

The couple went on to create a number of exquisite photographs over the next two decades, encapsulating Nelson around the turn of the 20th Century, which give us an insight into civic development at that time .

Among the 1,265 glass plates and prints in the collection, events taking place in the streets of the Nelson CBD stand out. Vantage points such as the Botanic Hill were utilised to attain more encompassing views of the township. Other highlights include photos of troops preparing for the conflicts of the South African Wars and views of Tahunanui Beach, which ironically was known as ‘The Sands’ when it consisted of stones.

While most of the photographs capture stunning views of Nelson, there are also some photographs of Wellington in the collection.

All images were recorded on full plate glass negatives, which were used from the mid-1800s and into the early 1900s, and can render detail with great clarity .

Yet Alice’s contribution to the duo’s photographs failed to be acknowledged. Instead, Henry has—until now—been credited for taking many of the photographs shot by Alice.

Gallagher has determined that a number of factors meant that Alice failed to receive the credit she was due, in addition to the obvious fact that women’s work was rarely acknowledged at the time.

There is no disputing the excellence of Henry Brusewitz’s photography. He garnered many awards and praise for his exemplary work. His photo “On The Sands, Eventide” exhibited in 1897 at a photographic exhibition in Wellington was hailed by the Evening Post as “the best picture in the hall”.

Yet, while Alice was registered as a teacher, it’s clear her photographic work took the fore. She partook in regular exhibits both in Nelson and Wellington and even Otago.

Alongside her husband's work, Alice's photographs featured in a photography exhibition to mark the opening of the Suter Art Gallery on May 31, 1899. According to a review published in The Colonist, "her portraiture, child studies, cloud studies and toned bromide enlargements, all merit praise."

Alice also photographed weddings and family events and there is the body of work that still exists bearing her initials. It is these photographs that have, unfortunately, often been attributed to Henry.

“There seems to have been a long period of time where it has been forgotten that Alice was producing photographs at all, with her works regularly cited in publications and collecting institutions as the work of her husband, Henry,” Gallagher explained.

“In comparing the works of Henry and Alice, it is apparent that their photographs share comparable qualities and it is likely partially due to this similar aesthetic that the misconception occurs. Also conspiring to this end is the alikeness in how their initials are presented on their work. Henry’s ‘HBz’ appears very similar Alice’s ‘ABz’ and are possibly ascribed on the plates by the same hand.”

Piecing together the story where there are gaps in the evidence

Today, the glass plate negatives in the Brusewitz Collection overwhelmingly comprise outdoor shots.

“As fortunate as we are for the magnificent photos that have survived, there is the notable absence of negatives for studio portraits, which we know they also specialised in from their advertisements,” said Gallagher.

Fortunately, some surviving examples can still be found in the form of photographic prints.

Although there is a lack of evidence as to the fate of the original glass plate negatives, Gallagher said it likely they were sold to a picture framer’s shop for the emulsion to be scrubbed off and the glass re-used.

“It’s a storyline more frightening to a museum curator than any horror film or rugby world cup final defeat but it stands as a feasible explanation as to why these are not known to exist today.”

Gallagher said it was also unfortunate that the Tyree Studio had not obtained any of the Brusewitz’s portrait negatives.

William Tyree and Roselyn Frank actively acquired the photographic catalogues of other Nelson studios and stored them, along with their own photographs, in a purpose-built brick and concrete strongroom, keeping them safe from the very real risks of fire and the inclination of people, who didn’t understand their value at the time, to recycle them.

“Perhaps if they had acquired the images, the Brusewitz Collection would today be as well known and utilised as those of some of the other well-known photographic studios operating at that time, including Tyree Studio, FN Jones and the Broma Studio, all of whom have major collections at Nelson Provincial Museum.”

The Brusewitzs part ways

In 1911, Alice moved to Perth with her youngest daughter Daga. Her eldest daughter Astrid, having returned from studying at the Royal College of Music in London, also relocated there with her new husband.

Henry remained in Nelson, where he wound up the business, but he continued to be a part of the photographic community, providing training and lectures. Alice also kept up photography in Perth, evidenced by her published contributions in a local newspaper.

In 1919, after Astrid died following a long illness, Alice and Daga returned to New Zealand. They continued to live apart from Henry, in Wellington.

Back in Nelson, Henry’s misfortune continued, when a fire gutted the Hardy Street premises where he was storing expensive camera stock. The loss was not covered by insurance.

After a period of impoverishment, living in a hotel, and stricken by ill health brought on by excessive drinking, Henry died in 1922, at the age of 67.

A subsequent legal battle ensued for Alice to save the estate from slipping into the hands of a friend of Henry’s, after he had made an improvident deal in Alice’s absence. This deal transferred the mortgage of the estate, in exchange for an annuity for the rest of Henry’s life, which unfortunately turned out to be only four more months. The verdict fell in favour of Alice and the estate was returned to the family.

Alice lived our the rest of her days in Wellington, where she died in 1927 at the age of 69.

Article prepared by Nelson Provincial Museum Senior Curator of Photography Darryl Gallagher, with additional reporting and editing by Kerry Sunderland.

This article was originally published in The Nelson Mail on Saturday 25th November 2023.

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