“I knew the Verey name, as do most locals, because of the building in town that still bears his name,” Ashley says. “But I wasn’t familiar with his work.”
“I collect photographic ephemera, and the box of 50 or so negatives caught my eye because I knew I could develop them. While streetscapes are collectable, portraits are not, usually because the people photographed aren’t identifiable.”
Thankfully, however, Adolphus Verey was painstaking in his record keeping. Every 5 by 7 inch plate had pencilled upon it the family name of the client, name of the town from which they came and the number of the box they came from. These were then filed in alphabetical order in dark coloured wooden boxes.
“That’s what makes this collection so significant to the people of Castlemaine and surrounds. Without those details, carefully kept, these would just be a bunch of plates with people on them,” explains Ashley.
It was in his own darkroom that Ashley developed 20 of the negatives, laying photographic paper over the silver nitrate and gelatine coated plates, exposing them by lamp, before using developing and fixing fluid to create the final image. These were then displayed in a local antique shop in nearby Guildford, stirring local interest.
“I had a call from a local furniture removalist who said he had a pile of old Verey plates in a storage warehouse and did I want them. They had been left there when the Verey studio closed down in 1955. That meant they had been sat there for over three decades. Of course I said yes, as I couldn’t bear the thought of these images being lost.”
“From that lot I had to pick out the ones that were water damaged, or had to be peeled apart because humidity had made them stick together. Of around 9000 plates sitting in that shed, only around 4600 were salvageable. Others had been lost altogether, having been sent to Ballarat to be made into greenhouses in the 1950s.”
This remarkable addition led to the discovery of more Verey plates amongst the collection of 10,000 glass negatives owned by a Melbourne-based heritage photo library owner. While he was not keen to sell the plates to Ashley Tracey, he was eventually persuaded to digitise his Verey negatives in 2005, helping to create an online library of over 13,000 images. The complete collection was eventually established by Ashley Tracey, in partnership with the Friends of Castlemaine Library, the Pioneers and Old Residents Association, the Castlemaine Historical Society and with the help of a Mount Alexander Shire arts grant.
“There are more plates out there. I also knew of an older gentleman who had unknown numbers of Verey plates stored under his home,” says Ashley. “He wouldn’t let me look at them, unfortunately. He eventually left town and passed away and I still don’t know what happened to them. I’m hopeful they’ll turn up one day.”
While the collection as it stands is unique and remarkable, studio photographers practising around the turn of the century would often recycle their negatives. Plates could be sent back to Kodak in America, where the silver nitrate and gelatine coating, including any image, would be scraped clean and recoated.
“Verey would have been almost certainly wanted to recycle plates to save the business some money, so who knows how many photographs Verey actually took in his career,” says Neil Stanyer. “There could have been thousands more.”
Whether more Verey photographs come to light is, for now, unknown. What is clear is that without the care and passion shown by Ashley Tracey, this extraordinary visual record of Castlemaine, its residents and its surrounds would have been lost.