Francis Russell Nixon

Anglican Bishop Francis Russell Nixon is among the more singular signatories in William Bradford’s studio scrapbook. Had he only his brilliant academic career and subsequent rise in the church, he would already have been noteworthy, but what makes him even more significant in this instance is his early passion for the new science of photography. His published lectures on church doctrine led to his appointment as the first Bishop of Tasmania, and it was there that he took up the nascent art of the daguerreotype.

When Nixon disembarked at Hobart Town on July 18th 1843, the famed Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin was still governor, though his term would end abruptly a mere 34 days later. Nixon would remain nearly twenty years beyond that, always a tireless advocate for education and reform, causes in which his uncompromising ways led — as had Franklin’s — to a recall from his duties as he clashed with Franklin’s successor as Governor, Sir John Eardley-Wilmot.

His work as a photographer was directly inspired by that of Richard Beard, the pioneering English daguerrreotypist whose portraits of Franklin and his officers are still well-known today. Nixon brought some of Beard’s daguerreotypes with him, showing them with enthusiasm to many of his new acquaintances in Tasmania. He seems to have been very active, although sadly very few of his photographs, among the earliest ever taken in Tasmania, survive; he is best-known for his portraits of eight of the last surviving Aboriginal inhabitants, taken in March of 1858 at Oyster Cove. He was also an innovator, adapting the Calotype and wet-plate collodion processes as soon as these were known, and bringing to Tasmania the first panoramic camera, though no images from it have survived.

By the time he signed Bradford’s scrapbook, Nixon would have been a much older and disappointed man; having returned to England in 1862 due to ill-health, he was obliged to retire from the church entirely a year later. He spent most of his final years in Italy, though it seems he must have returned to London periodically; he died on April 2nd, 1879, and was buried in the British cemetery in Stresa.

2 thoughts on “Francis Russell Nixon

  1. Dr. Potter, thank you for the informative blog post. The Bradford scrapbook appears to have far-reaching influence with the vast number of renowned signatories. Despite the cumbersome complexities, it is fascinating to see how quickly early photography spread and how it was utilized to document scenes, ships, and indigenous peoples from the Arctic to Tasmania. Regards, Fran

  2. Thanks, Fran, I always appreciate your comments. And yes, it is remarkable how early photography spread around the world, even to such a (then) remote place as Tasmania!

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