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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Beattie, John Watt (1859–1930)

by Michael Roe

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

John Watt Beattie (1859-1930), by unknown photographer

John Watt Beattie (1859-1930), by unknown photographer

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23820054

John Watt Beattie (1859-1930), photographer and antiquarian, was born on 15 August 1859 at Aberdeen, Scotland, son of John Beattie, master house-painter and photographer, and his wife Esther Imlay, née Gillivray. After a grammar-school education he migrated with his parents and brother in 1878, and struggled to clear a farm in the Derwent Valley, Tasmania. He soon turned to his life's work. From 1879 he made many photographic expeditions into the bush, becoming a full-time professional in 1882 in partnership with Anson Bros whom he bought out in 1891. Gifted with both physical zeal and craftsman skills, he probably did more than anyone to shape the accepted visual image of Tasmania. An admirer of William Piguenit, Beattie stressed the same wildly romantic aspects of the island's beauty. His work included framed prints, postcards, lantern-slides and albums, and was the basis for a popular and pleasing set of Tasmanian pictorial stamps (in print 1899-1912).

In the 1890s Beattie broadened his entrepreneurial work. His museum of art and artefacts became one of Hobart's sights and showed his enthusiasm for local history. Convictism at Port Arthur and the Aboriginals were conspicuous among his interests, but he gathered and dealt in all kinds of material (including gossip). He was appointed the colony's official photographer in 1896, and thereafter worked hard in support of tourism. His own illustrated lectures had much success, and he prepared sets of slides (with solid, informed commentary) for wider distribution. Tasmania's promise of health and minerals ranked high in this propaganda.

Making a business of Tasmaniana never corrupted Beattie. While sometimes over-imaginative in historical reconstructions with pen and camera, he had a scholarly sense. His accounts of Port Arthur, for example, steered between sensation and sentimentality, and he confronted the horror of European-Tasmanian relations. 'For about 30 years this ancient people held their ground bravely against the invaders of their beautiful domain', he wrote of the Aboriginals. While supporting and investing in the development of minerals, Beattie also urged conservation of fauna and flora. Among his attachments were the Minerva Club, wherein Hobart's liberal intellectuals gathered around Andrew Inglis Clark, and he joined Bishop Henry Montgomery and Professor William Brown in establishing the historical and geographical section of the Royal Society of Tasmania in 1899. The society had elected Beattie to a fellowship in 1890, and he gave the key-note historical address at the Tasmanian centenary celebrations of 1904 (published as Glimpses of the Lives and Times of the Early Tasmanian Governors).

An opportunity for exotic photography came in late 1906 when Beattie toured the Western Pacific, including Norfolk Island. In 1912 Roald Amundsen entrusted him with developing plates taken on the first trek to the South Pole. Thereafter, highlights came fewer, and family portraits thicker, although Beattie retained his various interests. In 1927 the Launceston Corporation paid £4500 for much of his collection, which remains in the Queen Victoria Museum; after his death, further items (many slides, and objects relating to Port Arthur and the Pacific) went to the Tasmanian Museum, Hobart. The business he established survived in 1978, still selling his work.

A fine-looking man, Beattie was likeable if volatile. Jack Cato, a kinsman and pupil, declared him not only 'the finest landscape photographer of his age' but also 'by far the best known man in the island, and the most popular'. Montgomery was more subtle, although hardly less admiring: 'All you say of your struggles and hopes reminds me of the old Beattie! Your life consists of much keener joys than most people enjoy—and you must put up with gloom too' (1907). Beattie's long commitment to theosophy, dating from the foundation of a lodge in Hobart in the early 1890s, may be explained by his romanticism, but was later tempered by membership of the Methodist Church.

He died suddenly of heart disease in Hobart on 24 June 1930, survived by his wife Emily Cox, née Cato, member of a long-settled Tasmanian family, whom he had married in 1886, and by their two daughters. His estate was valued for probate at £871.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Cato, I Can Take It (Melb, 1947), and The Story of the Camera in Australia (Melb, 1955)
  • Beattie papers in the Allport and Crowther collections (State Library of Tasmania)
  • Beattie and Hurst papers in the Royal Society of Tasmania collection (University of Tasmania).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Michael Roe, 'Beattie, John Watt (1859–1930)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 24 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

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