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Degotardi, John (1823–1882)

by Keast Burke

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

John Degotardi (1823-1882), printer and photographer, was born on 26 September 1823 at Laibach (Ljubljana), Austro-Hungarian Empire, son of John Degotardi, a printer of Graz, Austria. As a young man he travelled in Germany, Switzerland, France and Denmark. In 1848 he became a compositor with the firm of J. Wertheim in London. There in 1852 he married Nina Frankel, whom he had met in Germany. Next year they arrived at Sydney in the Panthea. He worked briefly for the Sydney Morning Herald and then set up in business as an engraver and printer in premises at 20 York Street where he produced the first series of a monthly magazine, The Spirit of the Age, in 1855-56. By 1859 he had moved to Robin Hood Lane, off George Street. Among his best known productions were two sheet music editions of Henry Kendall's first separately-published song, Silent Tears (1859). Unfortunately several errors appeared in the words; the poet's letter of correction was printed in the Empire, but the words were engraved on copper and could not be changed.

Degotardi was always deeply interested in photography, but its appeal was quickened by the introduction of the wet-plate process and the invention of photolithography by John Osborne of Melbourne in August 1859. Some of his experiments in photolithography are preserved by the family, one being a copy of a letter from Captain James Cook to Joseph Banks. In 1861 he printed privately a twenty-four page pamphlet, The Art of Printing in its Various Branches, the first publication on this topic to be issued in Australia; it is attractive typographically and includes examples of various methods of printing. On 26 September 1862 he advertised a perspective by photolithography of government buildings.

In the association of photography with printing, Degotardi was far ahead of his time; that he did not proceed to the etching of plates from photographic negatives, the next stage in photo-reproduction, was perhaps because of his failing health. He turned instead to landscape photography, for which there was a growing popular demand from a public tiring of steel engravings and chromolitho prints. His high standards won him awards at four exhibitions: Victoria in 1866, Sydney Intercolonial in 1870, London 'All Fine Arts' in 1873 and Sydney International in 1879. His last years were marred by his wife's death in 1872 and soon afterwards by a slight stroke. He died at St Vincent's Hospital, Sydney, on 16 December 1882 and was buried in the Catholic section of Rookwood cemetery. He was survived by three sons and one daughter of his eight children. Four generations of his descendants adopted photography as a profession.

Degotardi was the first Australian to realize the possibilities promised by the association of photography with printing. His pamphlet on printing contains a long and sincere panegyric on photography ending 'Photography will be handed down to posterity as the truest and most lasting monument to the combined powers of man, art and nature'.

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Citation details

Keast Burke, 'Degotardi, John (1823–1882)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/degotardi-john-3387/text5129, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 10 December 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

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