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Looking for wonder in the Photographic Archive — part 2 | Robina Nicol

July 17th, 2020 By Peter Ireland
Peter Ireland and Dr Fiona Oliver, curators of the upcoming exhibition 'Mīharo | Wonder', take us deep into the Turnbull's collection of photographs. In part 2 of this series we explore the photography of Robina Nicol.

Mīharo | Wonder exhibition

In 2019 work began on the second exhibition to mark the centenary of the Alexander Turnbull Library. Mīharo Wonder: 100 years of the Alexander Turnbull Library will open in late February 2021.

In this blog series ‘Looking for wonder in the Photographic Archive’ Peter Ireland shares some of the treasures he has come across while preparing for Mīharo. Here he highlights the photography of Robina Nicol.

Who was Robina Nicol (nee Sinclair)?

Robina Sinclair was born in the Shetland Islands in 1861 and emigrated to Nelson in 1874 on the Ocean Mail, along with her mother and three older siblings. She was 13 years old at the time of sailing, and like her mother and sister, her occupation was recorded on the passenger list as ‘servant’.

She married Alexander Nicol, a moulder, in 1885 in Wellington, where she was living with her mother. Her signature is on the women’s suffrage petition as a resident of Austin St in Mount Victoria. She appears to have had no children, and died in 1942, aged 81.

Woman leaning on the back of a cane chair in front of a garden bench.
Robina Nicol in a garden, ca 1895 to 1916. Ref: 1/2-233745-G. Alexander Turnbull Library.

Other than that, biographical information is scarce, except that Robina is noted as having become a woman of means and leisure. And it’s clear from the body of her work held by the Turnbull Library that Robina Nicol was passionate about photography.

She recorded gardens, her travels in New Zealand, children, family groups, and the life of middle-class friends, notably the Atkinson and Kirk families. Whichever subject she chose, common to her images is an ongoing fascination with light and shade, of black and white, and the recurrence of scenes which are mildly unsettling.

An element of wonder

An element of wonder is found consistently in her photographs.

There are eccentric choices of subject, surreal moments of double-exposure, staged tableaux, poses held beyond comfort, composition gone awry, flower studies non-pareil. There is an interesting, off-balance tension. There is affection.

A dry plate glass negative showing two vases with cut flowers.
Epiphyllum, poppies and other flowers, between 1895 and 1916. Ref: 1/4-121321-G. Alexander Turnbull Library.

Attention to detail

Nicol drew attention to detail, such as the white cup and saucer held by the man in the garden shown here. To look at her images is to see into a mind, whether this effect is achieved by accident, design or some of both, it is hard to know.

A man in formal dress is seated outdoors in a garden holding a cup of tea on a saucer.
Unidentified man, Wellington, between 1895 and 1916. Ref: 1/4-121471-G. Alexander Turnbull Library.

Looking at the world through ‘a certain Slant of light’

Her photographs are a fascinating catalogue of benign and determined obsession with the world around her, a body of work reminiscent of the poet Emily Dickinson — looking at the world through ‘a certain Slant of light.’

Take a look

A dark image taken at night showing a large flock of white chickens.
Flock of hens at night, between 1895 and 1916. Ref: 1/2-233914-G. Alexander Turnbull Library.
A boy stands beside a bench holding a slim stick over his shoulder as if it were a rifle.
Unidentified boy, between 1895 and 1916. Ref: 1/2-233662-G. Alexander Turnbull Library.
A woman in a white dress stands outside under a tree holding a bouquet of leaves.
Unidentified woman, between 1895 and 1916. Ref: 1/2-233678-G. Alexander Turnbull Library.

Further photographs attributed to Robina Nicol

You can explore further photographs made by Robina Nicol in the galleries below.

Other blogs in ‘Looking for wonder in the Photographic Archive’ series

Looking for wonder in the Photographic Archive — part 1

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