Sign Painting the Goldrush in Hill End, New South Wales

1870s Australian sign painting and sign painters in the remarkable A&A Photographic Co. collection.

Two men posing outside a ramshakle timber shack with a large No.2 painted on the side, and bits of sign painting work around.
John Osborne's sign shop in Hill End, New South Wales, 1872.

150 years ago, a remarkable photographic endeavour was undertaken during the New South Wales goldrush, 250 km (155 miles) from Sydney, Australia. In addition to capturing those seeking the noble metal, the work of sign painters, and their commercial clients, was captured. Design Historian Michael Bogle has pored over these images to present this sign painting slice through the collection.

All of the photographs are from The Holtermann Collection, A&A Photographic Co., at the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales. Links to the original records are given via the reference codes in the captions.

Sign Painting the Goldrush in Hill End, New South Wales

By Michael Bogle

In 1872, two photographers, Beaufoy Merlin and Charles Bayliss, moved to the goldfields in the village of Hill End, New South Wales, Australia. Working as the American & Australasian Photographic Company (A&A Photographic Co.), they established a store-front operation on one of the village's main streets. From here, they began to record Hill End and the neighbouring villages of Home Rule, Tambaroora and Gulgong.

Group of smartly dressed men posing outside a shop with a sign above the window saying 'A&A Photographic Company'.
Studios of the American & Australasian Photographic Company, Tambaroora Street, Hill End. Reference code 62677.

The Holtermann Collection

The resulting collection of 3,500 images is named after one of their patrons, Bernard Otto Holtermann, but it is Merlin and Bayliss who should be credited for the photographic achievements it contains. The pair produced wet plate negatives of extraordinary quality, with their rich details revealed by the State Library of New South Wales' scanning and digitisation project.

People posing for a photo in front of a show and clothing shop with an oversized fascia sign that reads 'the greatest wonder of the world'.
Moses Bros. Colonial Boot & Shoe Depot, Gulgong. Reference code 62044.

The collection's significance was recognised by UNESCO in 2013, and accompanied by an exhibition: The Greatest Wonder of the World.

Hill End Sign Painters

Many photos in the collection feature hand-painted signs for the various businesses that served Hill End and the nearby villages. Their quality allows details such as brushstrokes to be seen.