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John Cyril (Jack) Cato (1889–1971)

by Gael Newton

This article was published:

John Cyril (Jack) Cato (1889-1971), photographer, was born on 4 April 1889 at Launceston, Tasmania, son of Albert Cox Cato, salesman, and his wife Caroline Louise, née Morgan. An uncle, the landscape photographer J. W. Beattie, introduced young Jack to photography in 1896. By then he was taking classes run by Lucien Dechaineux at Launceston Technical School. Having trained from 1901 under Percy Whitelaw and John Andrew, both local portrait photographers, in 1906 Cato set up his own studio in Beattie's Hobart premises. He applied to be the official photographer to (Sir) Douglas Mawson's 1911 Australasian Antarctic Expedition, but was passed over in favour of Frank Hurley.

Disappointed at his rejection, Cato travelled that year to Europe and worked for various photographers in London, among them Claude Harris and H. Walter Barnett, the fashionable society and vice-regal portraitist. Cato contracted tuberculosis and left England in search of a warmer climate. From 1914 he spent six years working in South Africa. The views and portraits which he took there were suitably worked up in the atmospheric, art-photography style of the day and earned him a fellowship (1917) of the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain. In 1920 he returned, ill, to Tasmania. He married Mary Boote Pearce (d.1970) at the Methodist parsonage, Melville Street, Hobart, on 24 December 1921.

In 1920-27 Cato operated his own portrait-studio in Hobart before moving to Melbourne where Dame Nellie Melba, whom he had met in London, introduced him to society and to theatrical circles. Possessing the technical skills and the sensitivity necessary to engage the interest and confidence of the sitter, and to convey a mixture of truth and interpretation in the final image, he ran a successful portrait-studio in Melbourne for two decades. He maintained links with professional associations and amateur clubs through occasional exhibitions of his best work, and was senior vice-president (1938) and a life member of the Professional Photographers' Association. A keen stamp-collector from childhood, Cato was also president (1935) of the Royal Philatelic Society of Victoria. He was to sell his stamps for about £10,000 in 1954.

Frustrated by restrictions on materials during World War II, Cato retired from his Melbourne studio in 1946 to begin a career as an author. In addition to a large number of articles in photographic, philatelic and other magazines, he published an autobiography, I Can Take It (1947), a pictorial documentary, Melbourne (1949), and The Story of the Camera in Australia (1955). A racy, ebullient writer, he was chronicler for the Savage Club. In 1960-63 he was photography columnist for the Age. Survived by his son and daughter, he died on 14 August 1971 at Sandringham and was cremated. A collection of his photographs is held by the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • D. M. Dow, Melbourne Savages (Melb, 1947)
  • G. Newton, Silver and Grey (Syd, 1980)
  • Professional Photography in Australia, 23, no 5, Aug-Sept 1971
  • Philately from Australia, Sept 1971
  • Photofile, 4, no 1, Autumn 1986
  • Argus (Melbourne), 4 May 1951
  • Herald (Melbourne), 5 Mar 1954
  • I. Cosier, Jack Cato (M.A. prelim thesis, University of Melbourne, 1980).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Gael Newton, 'Cato, John Cyril (Jack) (1889–1971)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 19 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

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