BROWN, IDA (1878-1944)

Full Birth Name: Ida Neathway Brown
Married Name & Dates: No identified spouse
Profession: Co-Proprietor, Photographer
Professional Years: 1919 to 1944
Where Practised: Hay, NSW (c1918–1920s); Brownwood Studios, 27 Oxford Street, Sydney (1919–1938); Brownwood Studios, 21 Oxford Street, Sydney (1939–1944)

Brownwood Studios was also known as: Brown-Wood Studios; Brownwood Studio; Brownwoode Photographic Studio; Brownwood Photographic Studios

Related Portfolios:

WOODS, MAY

Feature

Ida Neathway Brown
Portrait Photographer at Brownwood Studios

By Antares Wells

Together with her friend Hannah Mabel (May) Woods, photographer Ida Neathway Brown ran Brownwood Studios on Sydney’s Oxford Street for over twenty years. She specialised in portraiture, catering largely to middle and upper-middle-class women from Sydney and regional NSW. Prior to co-founding Brownwood Studios in 1919, there is evidence that Ida practised photography; however, none of her early work appears to have survived. Many of the portraits produced by Brownwood Studios may be considered broadly representative of interwar Australian studio photography, both technically and stylistically.

Early years and family background

Ida Neathway Brown was born on 28 May 1878 in Glebe, NSW to James Neathway Brown and Ellen Eliza Parsons. Her family, in particular her parents and grandparents, occupied the upper echelons of colonial society. Ida’s paternal grandfather was the emancipist and publican John Neathway Brown, Esq., one of the first European settlers on the Kameygal and Gweagal lands of Botany Bay.[1] In 1825, John Neathway Brown built a sandstone residence, ‘Bunnerong House’, on thirteen acres overlooking Botany Bay.[2] He later lodged a claim for additional land in Sussex Street “under order from His Excellency Governor Macquarie.”[3] For his part, Ida’s maternal grandfather, Captain William Parsons, was described upon his death as “one of the two or three yet living master mariners” whose “perseverance and energy in the very earliest days of Australian colonisation” was responsible for the expansion of the colonial shipping industry.[4]

Befitting a family of this standing, James Neathway Brown’s marriage to Ida’s mother, Ellen Eliza Parsons, made the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald in 1875.[5] Continuing the family’s links to shipping and trade, Ida’s father worked as a clerk for His Majesty’s Customs.[6] James and Ellen welcomed their first child, Ellen Neathway Brown, in 1876, followed by Ida two years later, a son, William, in 1883, and finally Lucy in 1885. Ida also had a third sister, Caroline, whose date of birth is unknown. As a child, Ida experienced the deaths of two of her four siblings: the 11-month-old Lucy, in 1886; and 15-year-old Ellen, in 1891.[7]

The family lived in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs, first at ‘Fairview’ on Waverley Road, Woollahra, and later at ‘Birdwell’, 1 Lugar Street, Waverley, where Ida would remain for the rest of her life.[8] Despite the tragic loss of two children, the family home appears to have been relatively well-known on Sydney’s social calendar, with the Sunday Times reporting in 1897: “On Thursday evening a large number of the friends of Mr. James N. Brown were entertained at his residence, ‘Birdwell’, Lugar-street, Waverley. The company included officers of several vessels lying in the harbor. Dancing, singing, and various other amusements made the evening go pleasantly.”[9]

Ida never married and was listed, upon her death, by her sister Caroline as a “spinster” in estate papers.[10] It is unclear whether she worked prior to establishing the Brownwood Studios with Hannah Mabel (May) Woods in 1919.

Ida’s first home, ‘Fairview’, Waverley Road (later 128 Oxford Street), Woollahra. Photographed in 1982 by the National Trust of Australia (NSW) and Perumal, Wrathall & Murphy Pty Ltd for Woollahra Municipal Council. © Woollahra Libraries, Woollahra Municipal Council.
Ida’s first home, ‘Fairview’, Waverley Road (later 128 Oxford Street), Woollahra. Photographed in 1982 by the National Trust of Australia (NSW) and Perumal, Wrathall & Murphy Pty Ltd for Woollahra Municipal Council. © Woollahra Libraries, Woollahra Municipal Council.

Early photographic work

It is not known exactly when Ida began to experiment with photography. Later advertisements for the Brownwood Studios allow us to trace her to the town of Hay, in southwestern NSW, in the last months of World War I. There, she judged photographic entries in the 1918 Hay Show, comprising local views, photographs of “Station Life”, group portraits, and portraits of children.[11] She also exhibited her own work at the same event. As the local paper commented: “A non-competitive exhibit by Miss Brown, a visitor to Hay, which included some coloured pictures of children, and scenes in a district shed, were very much admired, and attracted a lot of notice.”[12]

“Judge of Photography: Miss Brown”, The Riverine Grazier, 11 October 1918, p. 6.
“Judge of Photography: Miss Brown”, The Riverine Grazier, 11 October 1918, p. 6.

With her family firmly rooted in Sydney, the origins of Ida’s connection to Hay are unknown. Of particular note is her evident experimentation with hand-colouring, an element of later portraits by Brownwood Studios held in institutional collections. Portraits of children would later become one of Ida’s specialities at Brownwood Studios.

 

Brownwood Studios (1919–44)

 In 1919, Ida opened Brownwood Studios with her friend Hannah Mabel (May) Woods at 27 Oxford Street, in the heart of Sydney’s eastern business district. Described in 1921 as the “finest business street in the whole of the great metropolis”, Oxford Street had recently been widened to accommodate “a Niagara of traffic”.[13] The new photographic studio was located in a cluster of shops known as ‘Dixon’s Buildings’, directly opposite the bustling department store Winn’s Limited.[14] Brownwood Studios was thus perfectly placed to receive the scores of shoppers, particularly middle-class women, flocking to Winn’s for the newest frocks and goods for the home.

1921. Dec 2. Daily Telegraph p. 9 IMAGE
“History of Oxford Street”, The Daily Telegraph, 2 December 1921, p. 9. Winn’s Limited is on the left, with the awnings of ‘Dixon’s Buildings’ visible on the right.
Dixons Buildings 23 27 Oxford Street ca. 1909 13 City of Sydney Archives
Dixon’s Buildings, 23-27 Oxford Street, ca. 1909–1913. City of Sydney Archives.

 

Amidst the bustle of Oxford Street, Ida maintained a connection to Hay over the following years. The opening of Brownwood Studios was mentioned in the local paper, and Ida returned to Hay in October 1919 at the invitation of the Hay Show.[15] This time around, she judged the entire art section, comprising watercolours, drawings, pen-and-ink sketches, and photography.[16] In the early 1920s, Brownwood Studios placed multiple advertisements in The Riverine Grazier, making explicit its connection to Hay and evidently aiming to attract local residents on their trips to the big smoke. In 1922, the paper noted: “The Brown-Wood Studio, one of the principals of which is not unknown in the Hay district, extends an invitation to visitors to Sydney at Easter to visit the studio.”[17] Later that year, Ida returned to Hay for the Jubilee Celebrations Week, advertising that she was “prepared to make a limited number of appointments”, presumably for photographic portraits.[18]

1922. April 7. Riverine Grazier Brownwood p. 2 1
The Riverine Grazier, 7 April 1922, p. 2

While Ida was away in the country, it is likely that May, her co-proprietor, ran Brownwood Studios alone. Little is known about May, save the barest of facts. She was born in 1877 in Eden, on the NSW South Coast, to senior police sergeant Stephen Woods and his wife Ellen Williams.[19] The youngest of eight children, it is unknown if she ever married. She is later recorded as having worked as a retoucher, though her activities prior to co-founding Brownwood Studios in 1919 remain a mystery. However, it is clear from company registration documentation and from Ida’s will that the two women each had an equal share in the business, and remained on good terms until May’s death in 1942.[20] May is thus an important figure to consider in any discussion of Brownwood Studios and its photographic work.

Brownwood Studios specialised in portraiture, and found an eager clientele in middle and upper-middle-class women and girls.[21] From the mid-1920s, as Australian newspapers increasingly began to feature halftone reproductions of photographs alongside text, portraits attributed to Brownwood Studios appeared in the ‘Social Items’ and ‘Women’s Interests’ pages of the Sydney press, including the Daily Telegraph, Sunday Times, Pix, The Bulletin, and The Sun. Captions to these portraits allow us to glean an impression of the women who frequented Brownwood Studios: organisers of balls and spring dances, debutantes, talented young graduates of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, and brides-to-be.[22] Reflecting studio portraiture conventions of the period, many of the sitters gaze beyond the camera as if into their own bright futures. The studio also received proud parents eager to have their newborns recognised as “the bonniest baby in Australia”, as well as local women hoping to win the “Most Beautiful Beach Girl Competition” run by Pix.[23] Brownwood Studios also appears to have received a number of commissions, such as for the Royal Agricultural Society of NSW Centenary Show in 1922 and the Women’s Hospital on Sydney’s Crown Street (ca. 1920s–30s).[24]

The majority of Brownwood Studios’ clients appear to have been based in Sydney, though there is evidence that visitors to the city from regional NSW also stopped off at the studio. During World War II, enlistees from home and abroad visited Brownwood Studios, including a young seaman, originally from the Central Western town of Grenfell, who sat for a portrait in his HMAS Rushcutter uniform shortly before his death at sea in 1941.[25] Ida and May appear to have been particularly interested in cultivating links to regional towns: in addition to Ida’s visits to Hay, a group portrait featured in the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate suggests that Brownwood Studios made a visit to the small town of Kurri Kurri in the NSW Hunter Valley, taking advantage of the increased mobility facilitated by the lightweight cameras of the period.[26] The studio also drew on family connections for clients. The Baddeley family, of Pambula, NSW, who visited Brownwood Studios ca. 1920s–30s, were likely linked to May Woods’ own family, her father having worked as the Sergeant of Police in the town for decades.[27] Closer to home in Sydney, Ida’s nephew, barrister and law professor Sir John Peden, posed for a warm and forthright portrait in the 1930s, now held by the State Library of New South Wales.[28]

Visitors to Brownwood Studios could expect a modest setting for their portraits, with brown velvet curtains adding a touch of glamour to the backdrop. Although surviving photographs by the studio show little of its interiors, it is possible to reconstruct the studio setup using Ida’s estate papers.[29] A valuation of Brownwood Studios’ furniture and effects, conducted in 1944, lists a settee and four chairs, suggesting that Ida and May’s clients could wait in comfort for their portraits to be made. Various props were provided for portrait photographs, including a palmstand, a small set of bookshelves, and a range of stools and chairs. A wooden platform gave full-body portraits a sense of depth, as shown by a 1938 image of a swimsuit model published in Pix.[30] By 1944, the large square of carpet on which sitters posed was “well worn”, testifying to the many clients that had passed through the studio over the years.[31]

In terms of its technical resources, Brownwood Studios appears to have typified the small-scale photographic studios of its time. When he valued its equipment after Ida’s death in 1944, Sydney photographer S. M. Cohen found a small darkroom containing tanks, dishes and chemicals, a larger darkroom with an enlarger, and a workroom, comprising a “guillotine, dry mounter, retouching desks, light fittings, air brush, motor and pump”. The studio also contained a single camera with two lenses (Heliar and Cooke), floodlights and spotlights, and a stock cupboard with frames and mounts.[32] Many of the photographs attributed to the studio reflect its relatively limited resources and the budgets of its middle to upper-middle-class clientele, with no expensive papers or overly complicated processes to note.[33] Nevertheless, a number of composite photographs speak to the studio’s technical skill and experimentation with layout and presentation.[34]

In the late 1930s, Brownwood Studios moved a few doors down to 21 Oxford Street, remaining within the ‘Dixon’s Buildings’ complex.[35] After May’s death in Petersham in 1942, it is likely that Ida ran the studio alone, with no additional co-proprietor or assistant mentioned in her estate papers. Two years later, Ida died at her home, ‘Birdwell’, aged 66.[36] With six properties to her name and her estate valued at over £5,000 upon her death, it is clear that Ida’s wealth and material stability provided her with the security to run Brownwood Studios amidst the strong competition of central Sydney.[37]

 

Brownwood Studios under new management (1944–ca. 1950)

After Ida’s death, her niece Ida Constance Richardson, together with Amy N. Richardson, took over the business.[38] In the immediate postwar years, the pair took out weekly advertisements in the Greek-language newspaper To Ethnico Vema [Greek National Tribune], likely hoping to attract new clients from among the growing community of emigrants fleeing war-torn Europe and the persecutions of the Greek Civil War. No photographs attributed to the business could be located for this new phase of Brownwood Studios’ operation. The studio appears to have continued running for a short period, seeking a “fully or partly trained” Junior Retoucher in 1947 and advertising “Wedding Photographs in our daylight studios” amidst the power outages that plagued Sydney in the late 1940s.[39] After three decades in business, Brownwood Studios appears to have closed  a few years later, with a brief listing in the Sydney telephone directory in 1950 the last known reference to the studio.[40]

Advertisement in To Ethnico Vema [Greek National Tribune], 8 January 1947, p. 4.gher res 1
Advertisement in To Ethnico Vema [Greek National Tribune], 8 January 1947, p. 4.

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Photographs in public collections

In addition to the photographic reproductions in newspapers held by the National Library of Australia, photographic prints attributed to Brownwood Studios are held by the State Library of New South Wales, the Australian War Memorial, the Stanton Library and the Samuel Marsden Archives at Moore Theological College.

Acknowledgements

The author would like to thank Anthony Clayton, of London, UK, for providing access to a Brownwood Studios portrait held in his family’s collection, and Photoria for assistance in requesting images from institutional collections. The author would also like to acknowledge the National Library of Australia’s online portal Trove – an invaluable resource that made much of the research for this article possible during the Covid-19 pandemic.

 

Endnotes

[1] “Brown, John Neathway.” The Dictionary of Sydney. Accessible at: https://dictionaryofsydney.org/person/brown_john_neathway/. Accessed 30 August 2021.

[2] John Neathway Brown acquired the lands from former soldier John Brown, who had been granted the lands in 1823 in the first private land grant in the Botany Bay area. The similarity between the two men’s names has generated some confusion in the historical literature: Keith Vincent Smith, for example, describes John Neathway Brown as an “army veteran” in connection with land grants surrounding Botany Bay. There is no evidence to indicate that John Neathway Brown served in the Army. See Keith Vincent Smith, “Boatswain Maroot”, The Dictionary of Sydney. Accessible at: https://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/boatswain_maroot/. Accessed 20 August 2021.

[3] New South Wales Government Gazette, 14 May 1834 (no. 115), p. 281.

[4] “The Late Captain William Parsons”, Clarence and Richmond Examiner and New England Advertiser, 13 July 1880, p. 2.

[5] “Marriages”, Sydney Morning Herald, 11 March 1875, p. 1.

[6] “Civil Service List of 1885: General Division, Class V”, New South Wales Government Gazette, 31 March 1885, No. 139 [Supplement], p. 2203; “Civil Service List of 1886: General Division, Class V”, New South Wales Government Gazette, 31 March 1886, No. 189 [Supplement], p. 2173.

[7] “Births”, Sydney Morning Herald, 3 July 1885, p. 1; “Deaths”, Sydney Morning Herald, 17 March 1886, p. 1; “Deaths”, Sydney Morning Herald, 15 December 1891, p. 1.

[8] ‘Waverley Road’ was an early name for a section of present-day Oxford Street. “Fairview”, noted as located on Waverley Road in an 1885 birth notice for Ida’s sister Lucy, is thus the same house listed in Ida’s will in 1939 as “‘Fairview’, no. 128 Oxford Street, Woollahra.” Photographs of the house were made in 1982 during a field survey of West Woollahra, conducted by the National Trust of Australia (NSW) and Perumal, Wrathall & Murphy Pty Ltd for Woollahra Municipal Council. The field survey dates the house to 1860–1900; see “West Woollahra Field Survey 1982, 128 Oxford Street, Woollahra”, Woollahra Municipal Council, Local History Digital Archive, Woollahra Libraries. Accessible at: <http://lhc.woollahra.nsw.gov.au/collections/#imu[details=ecatalogue.79879]>. Accessed 25 August 2021.

[9] Sunday Times, 10 October 1897, p. 8.

[10] Affidavit by Caroline Neathway Richardson, sworn 30 August 1944, Probate Jurisdiction, Supreme Court of New South Wales. File AF00135371, NSW State Archives.

[11] The Riverine Grazier, 11 October 1918, p. 6.

[12] The Riverine Grazier, 11 October 1918, p. 3.

[13] “Modern Oxford Street”, The Daily Telegraph, 2 December 1921, p. 10.

[14] ‘Dixon’s Buildings’ comprised 21, 23, 25, and 27 Oxford Street; see “Progressive Sydney”, Sunday Times, 9 September 1906, p. 10. This group of shops is not to be confused with another building referred to in the Sydney press as “Dixon’s Buildings, corner of Elizabeth and Park Streets” (see e.g. “Answers to Correspondents”, The Sun, 17 October 1915, p. 23).

[15] The Riverine Grazier, 14 October 1919, p. 2.

[16] The Riverine Grazier, 17 October 1919, p. 6. Whereas, in the 1918 Show, photographic entries had formed a separate section, in 1919 they were included under the general heading of ‘Art’, perhaps reflecting a shift in the perception of photography as an art form.

[17] The Riverine Grazier, 7 April 1922, p. 2.

[18] The Riverine Grazier, 19 September 1922, p. 3; The Riverine Grazier, 29 September 1922, p. 3; The Riverine Grazier, 3 October 1922, p. 3.

[19] “Personal”, The Shoalhaven News and South Coast Districts Advertiser, 13 December 1902, p. 2.

[20] “Brownwood Studios”, Item No. 2/8549, File No. 34348, Business and Company Records 1903– 1922, State Records Authority of New South Wales; “Will of Miss Ida Neathway Brown”, 3 November 1939, NSW State Archives, File AF00135371.

[21] “Photographers – Portrait”, Sydney Telephone Directory, November 1941 (Sydney: Telecom Australia), p. 103.

[22] See e.g. Freeman’s Journal, 2 April 1925, p. 20; Sunday Times, 1 July 1928, p. 18; The Daily Telegraph, 6 September 1928, p. 25; The Bulletin, 28 June 1933, p. 32; Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate, 8 September 1936, p. 10; The Sun, 8 May 1939, p. 9; The Sun, 20 March 1940, p. 23.

[23] Sunday Times, 9 December 1928, p. 5; Pix, 24 December 1938 (Vol. 2, No. 26), p. 53.

[24] “Portraits of exhibitors at R.A.S. Show 1922”, PXE 710, State Library of New South Wales; “Matron Agnes Caroline Clarke and staff of the Women’s Hospital, Crown Street, Sydney, ca. 1898-1937”, PXA 389 (v.1), State Library of New South Wales. A cropped version of Brownwood Studios’ portrait of the Children’s Pageant at the RAS Centenary Show is featured here: https://www.rasnsw.com.au/content-hub—ras/articles/unlock-the-secrets-heritage-pavilion-2021-ras-centenary-1922/ [accessed 4 September 2021].

[25] “Studio portrait of S5202 Ordinary Seaman (OS) Noel James Fraser, HMAS Rushcutter, of Grenfell, NSW”, 1941. Accession number P08310.001, Australian War Memorial.

[26] “Mrs. Noel White, matron of honour, and debutantes who were presented at the Police Ball held at Kurri Kurri.– Photo by Brownwood Studio.” Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate, 10 October 1936, p. 9.

[27] “Case of Arson”, The Daily Telegraph, 21 January 1899, p. 10; “Pambula”, South Coast Times and Wollongong Argus, 5 July 1902, p. 5; “Composite photograph of the Baddeley family (Brownwood Studios, 27 Oxford Street, Hyde Park), no date”, Series 06: Baddeley family pictorial material, ca. 1890-ca. 1994, MLMSS 7884/Box 5X, State Library of New South Wales.

[28] “Death of Mrs. Peden”, Truth, 6 July 1913, p. 9; “Sir John Beverley Peden, barrister and professor of law, ca. 1928-1946”, Photograph 1, “Brownwood Studios, Union Bank Buildings, 21 Oxford Street, Sydney”, P1/Peden, John Beverley, State Library of New South Wales.

[29] “Valuation made this Thirtieth day of June 1944 of the Effects of the Brownwood Photographic Studio, 21 Oxford Street, Sydney, by J. N. Brown”, Probate Jurisdiction, Supreme Court of New South Wales. File AF00135371, NSW State Archives.

[30] Pix, 24 December 1938 (Vol. 2, No. 26), p. 53.

[31] Valuation made this Thirtieth day of June 1944 of the Effects of the Brownwood Photographic Studio, 21 Oxford Street, Sydney, by J. N. Brown”, Probate Jurisdiction, Supreme Court of New South Wales. File AF00135371, NSW State Archives.

[32] “Valuation made this Thirtieth day of June 1944 of the Photographic Equipment of the Brownwood Photographic Studio, 21 Oxford Street, Sydney, by S. M. Cohen”, Probate Jurisdiction, Supreme Court of New South Wales. File AF00135371, NSW State Archives.

[33] Determining the specific photographic processes practiced by Ida and May is difficult, partly due to a lack of information; in addition, the author was unable to personally examine photographs held in institutional collections due to the restrictions associated with the Covid-19 pandemic. However, catalogue entries for a number of the latter photographs note that they are silver gelatin prints.

[34] See e.g. Sunday Times, 1 July 1928, p. 18; “Composite photograph of the Baddeley family (Brownwood Studios, 27 Oxford Street, Hyde Park), no date”, Series 06: Baddeley family pictorial material, ca. 1890-ca. 1994, MLMSS 7884/Box 5X, State Library of New South Wales.

[35] John Sands Advertising Register, NSW, 1932-33, p. 1114; “Will of Miss Ida Neathway Brown”, 3 November 1939, NSW State Archives, File AF00135371.

[36] “Deaths”, The Sydney Morning Herald, 1 June 1944, p. 10.

[37] Affidavit by Caroline Neathway Richardson, Inventory, and “Schedule of Freehold Lands in the Estate of Ida Neathway Brown”, Probate Jurisdiction, Supreme Court of New South Wales. File AF00135371, NSW State Archives.

[38] “Registered Firms”, Dun’s Gazette for New South Wales, Vol. 77 No. 9 (28 February 1947), p. 121.

[39] “Positions Vacant – Women and Girls”, The Sydney Morning Herald, 17 September 1947, p. 24; “Blackout Weddings”, The Sun, 24 June 1949, p. 15.

[40] Sydney Telephone Directory (November 1950), p. 289.

 

About the Author:

Antares Wells is an exhibition and collections researcher with particular interests in social history, the history of photography and print culture. She is currently the 2021-22 Graduate Curatorial Intern in the Department of Photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum, where she provides curatorial assistance on a broad range of exhibition projects and catalogues rare material. Originally from the Blue Mountains, NSW, she has a personal interest in the local history of Sydney, a city close to her heart.