A recent acquisition uncovers rare tintype photographs

Published on Tuesday 05 March 2024

Caroline Simpson Library volunteer Alan has been working on a listing for the Bell family archive, a recent acquisition by the library, and has discovered some rare photographic images.

The Bell family archive consists of a postcard and photographic collection that document regional areas of NSW, places in England, and family members. Working his way through a photographic album from the late 19th century, mostly filled with carte-de-visite (calling card) style photographs, Alan came across several photographs printed on thin sheets of metal rather than card. He identified these images as tintypes.

MHNSW doesn’t hold many tintypes in our collections, so Alan’s discovery is an exciting one. So far he has identified nine tintypes, including a post-mortem photograph of a child.

Tintype photography was invented in 1853 in France but was largely superseded in Australia by carte-de-visite and cabinet photography (photographic prints glued to a card).

To produce a tintype, photographic emulsion was applied to a thin sheet of metal coated with a dark lacquer or enamel, resulting in a positive image on the metal. The image was ready within minutes to give to the customer. Multi-lens cameras meant that multiple photographs could be produced from one exposure, and simply cut out from the sheet of metal.

Tintypes were usually produced as portraits and often coloured by hand. The format had several advantages – tintypes were cheap and easy to produce and very robust, meaning they could be sent in the post, mounted in lockets, or kept in albums or pockets without risk of breakage, unlike an ambrotype (a photograph produced on glass).

In the coming months, we’ll continue our research into these images and try to identify whom they depict.

Here are a few images of Alan’s discovery:

Header image: Caroline Simpson Library volunteer Alan inspecting tintypes from the Bell family archive. Photo Mel Flyte © Museums of History NSW

Mel Flyte

Mel Flyte

Collections Discovery Assistant, Caroline Simpson Library

Growing up in rural NSW, Mel’s childhood was spent undertaking her own archaeological excavations in the creek bed on her family’s property. Old bottles, cow bones, and the occasional piece of rusty farm equipment were all considered exciting discoveries. School holidays were punctuated with long car trips with her mum to see blockbuster exhibitions in Canberra and Sydney, so galleries and museums always felt familiar. Studies in archaeology and art history have inspired a passion for objects and their ability to elicit emotions and tell stories. Mel curated the exhibtion On The Move and relishes the opportunity to get hands-on with the treasures in our collections.