ROPER, AGNES (1876-1942) (F&G)

Full Birth Name: Mary Agnes Roper
Married Name & Dates: No identified spouse
Profession: Photographer, Proprietor
Professional Years: 1906 to 1918
Where Practised: Arslonga, Cnr Esplanade and Elizabeth Sts, Devonport, TAS (1906-1910); Arslonga, Steele St, Devonport, TAS (1910-1918)


AGNES ROPER of the Arslonga Studio

[Photographic] Art is Forever


Mary Agnes Roper came into the world on 9 May 1876[1], one of 10 children born to Letitia Agnes MacDowell (1834-1910) and Joseph Francis Roper (1813-1889). Agnes was the youngest of their ten children, not including four step-siblings from her father’s first marriage.

The Roper family lived in Hobart on Harrington Street. Their home was nestled on the grounds of St Joseph’s School, where Agnes’s father served as a teacher and the School Principal, a role he had accepted in the 1850s.[2] She spent her formative years in the school’s surroundings until around mid-1879. At that juncture, the Catholic Church formulated plans to demolish and then rebuild the church and school premises.[3] With Joseph Roper having accepted retirement, the family relocated to 27 Forest Road, only a few streets away.

It is noteworthy that several of the Roper progeny gravitated toward the teaching profession. Agnes was not one of them, but she did attend Miss Roper’s Ladies’ School at 1 Barrack St in Hobart. This institution was overseen by her elder sister Letitia.[4] One of Agnes’s notable achievements during this period occurred when she was 14 years old, securing second prize in a school essay competition.[5] However, beyond this accomplishment, details about her years as a student or as a young adult remain largely obscure.

The revelation of Agnes’s venture into photography only surfaced with the appearance of an advertisement for her studio in The North West Post on Wednesday, 5 September 1906.[6] Here, it also comes to light that, up until that point, she had worked at Whitelaw’s Studio in Launceston.[7] The circumstances leading her to Launceston were plausibly linked to the fact that an older sister, Ethel Roper, had established a private hospital on Elphin Street around 1903.[8] This coincided with Whitelaw having advertised for a photographic retoucher, both in May and December 1903.[9] But how Agnes’s skill-base developed within Whitelaw’s is shrouded in mystery. Nonetheless, given her subsequent venture into independent practice three years later, it stands to reason that she must have gained a degree of confidence and proficiency in many aspects of studio photography.

A golden opportunity for Agnes arrived when Elizabeth “Lizzie” Finlayson (1972-1962), a Scottish-born photographer from Devonport, put her studio Arslonga up for sale in 1906, a decision coinciding with her impending marriage and overseas travel.[10] Finlayson had opened her Devonport studio in late 1904, trading on Wednesdays, Thursday and Fridays.[11] While specifics regarding the terms of sale to Roper remain elusive as of present, it is reasonable to assume that the transaction included equipment, photographic stock, an established clientele, and possibly even existing staff.

Agnes was 30 years old when she assumed ownership of Arslonga, a name adapted from the Latin saying “ars longa, vita breavis” which translates to “art is forever, life is short”.  Devonport had a population of around 3383 people at that juncture, and Arslonga was one of two permanent studios, the other being the family-owned enterprise of Alexander W. Marshall, situated on Stewart Street. While Arslonga was adjacent to the Foundry (linked to the Finlayson family), at the intersection of Elizabeth Street and The Esplanade, it maintained a distinct geographical separation from the Marshall operation on Stewart Street. Both, however, fell within the boundaries of Devonport West.

Agnes’s predecessor, Lizzie Finlayson, a popular personality who hailed from the affluent Finlayson family—prominent figures in Devonport—was deeply involved within Devonport’s photographic scene, evident through her long-standing role as a committee member of the Devonport Camera Club.[12] Agnes Roper had big shoes to fill, and fill them she did.

Details regarding Roper’s photographic background prior to working at Whitelaw’s remains unknown. But given her upbringing as the daughter of educated parents, and within her sister’s school for young ladies, it’s conceivable that she received lessons in disciplines such as painting and drawing, pursuits considered de rigeur for refined young ladies of the time. Whether gained from formal education or other sources, her artistic aptitude radiates through her body of work.

Roper’s surviving portraits testify to her adeptness in connecting with her subjects in front of the camera, employing light to capture their individual character. One can envision her engaging in conversation with sitters, employing words to elicit relaxation while patiently awaiting the opportune time to seal the image with a click of the shutter. Her body of work reflected the prevailing photographic style of her era—characterised by a sense of ease and relative informality. This marked a notable departure from the rigid “don’t-move-a-muscle” poses of previous decades, a style primarily imposed by the limitations of contemporary camera technology.

Yet Roper did not limit her artistry to the confines of Arslonga. Devonport was a vibrant hub of activity and industry, and her competitor, A. W. Marshall, captured the essence of the port and its maritime operations through numerous photographs and postcards.[13] In this milieu, Roper’s inclination towards field work was made evident from a photograph published in The Tasmanian Mail on 22 June 1907.[14] The image in question documented a procession of steam traction engines transporting potatoes to Devonport for onward shipment.

Tasmanian Mail, 22 June, 1907, pg 24

The photograph’s composition is both elegant and alluring. A line of engines, laden with their precious cargo, gracefully follow the curve of the road from left to right of the frame, the eye’s journey culminates at the foremost engine at an angle slightly away from the camera. This arrangement, though motionless, appears to fill the frame with an air of expectancy. The billowing steam of the engines hints at a latent restlessness—a readiness to propel into action at the earliest possible moment.

The year 1907 also ushered in other pivotal moments in Roper’s career. In October of that year, a much-anticipated event occurred: the Exhibition of Women’s Work opened in Melbourne at the Exhibition Buildings. Amidst a vast array of the exhibition’s categories, Photography was included and encompassed works by both professionals and amateurs. Roper entered and stood alongside other notable professionals like Sylvia Brandt (The Holbein Studio), Marion Lawson (Daheim Studio) and Lallie Martin (Lallie Martin)—all esteemed photographers within Melbourne circles. Among the 13 sub-sections in the Photography (Open Class) division, Roper clinched first prize in the category of Best Portrait (Larger than Cabinet Size).[15]

Prior to the Exhibition’s opening, Roper’s work garnered recognition from the Victorian Railways—potentially a commissioned piece—with a photograph, crafted into a collage, depicting Devonport’s scenic splendours. This tableau encompassed panoramic vistas of the town, the stately Grand and the Victoria Hotels, as well as the Devonport Club, St. Paul’s Church, Horseshoe Bend and Victoria Bridge. This creation was destined to adorn the Tourists’ Room at Flinders Street Station following the Exhibition’s conclusion. This event was of such significance that it garnered coverage in the local Devonport newspaper, The North West Post, on 24 September 1907.[16]

Yet, arguably the most pivotal outcome from the 1907 Exhibition lay in Roper’s triumph in the Portrait category. She was awarded “First Class Diploma for Photography,” a distinction presented by none other than the Exhibition’s patron, Lady Northcote, and the Australian Prime Minister, Alfred Deakin.[17] This accolade not only attested to the exceptional standard of her work, it also underlined Roper’s prowess as an immensely skilled photographer.

Having secured her reputation for high-level expertise, Roper returned to Devonport and continued to serve the community with her adeptness in capturing wedding festivities, family gatherings, and various other celebratory occasions, in addition to individual photographic portraits. In 1910, driven by reasons yet to be known, she moved her studio to Steele Street, directly across from the Tasmanian Woolgrowers office.[18] Here, she remained for the rest of her photographic career. The impetus for relocation might have been to position herself more centrally within the business district of West Devonport. Regardless of her motivations, Roper continued to advance the reputation of the Arslonga studio, as well as her own standing.

The Weekly Courier, a prominent Tasmanian newspaper of the period, had a dedicated five page insert of images captured by Tasmanian photographers.[19] These images were often linked to recent noteworthy events, and frequently featured photographs from distinguished studios like Spurling (Launceston), McGuffie (Hobart), Vandyck (Launceston), and Roper’s local competitor, A. W. Marshall. An edition dated 6 July 1911, showcased two works from Arslonga. The first, taking a premier position on page 22, highlighted the winners of a Poster Ball held in Devonport —a festivity where attendees donned costumes emblematic of local businesses. The second, occupying fourth position on page 23, featured a portrait of Mr W. Norris, renowned for his 46 years in the Tasmanian Police Force, who had recently passed away.

Roper continued to have her work published in The Weekly Courier until 1918, with her last appearing in the 1 August edition that same year. [20]  The publication of this specific photograph carried poignant weight for several reasons, each having a connection to the First World War. It is a photographic portrait, captured by Roper, of a young woman, but it had been discovered on a French battlefield, and its owner—if still alive—was unaware of its whereabouts. The photograph eventually made its way into The Weekly Courier, courtesy of the soldier who found it and his mother who facilitated its return to Tasmania. The hope behind this gesture was undoubtedly that it would be either reunited with its owner or returned to the woman it portrayed.

However, at the time the photograph was brought to light, Agnes Roper had already bid farewell to Tasmania, and the Arslonga studio, along with its contents, had been auctioned. Agnes had set her sights on Melbourne to commence a new vocation—training as a nurse at St. Vincent’s Hospital.

The catalyst for this significant change could very well have been the homecoming of her nephew, Osmond Joseph Roper, from the battlefields of France. Osmond was a young Lieutenant who had been severely injured with gunshot wounds to one of his legs. He was eventually repatriated and arrived in Tasmania in January 1918.[21] In this moment, the war in Europe became intensely personal for Roper, who was now 41 years old, and evidently found herself weighing up the significance of her role as a photographer against the need to provide care to those returning from the ravages of war. In the end, she chose the latter.

As Roper made arrangements to depart from Devonport, she resolutely decided that no more photographs would be taken after 9 March 1918.[22] The local paper confirmed her decision and announced an impending auction of her plant, stock and household furniture. [23] The auction was slated for Tuesday, 26 March, and among the items on offer were components of her studio—cameras, backgrounds, mounts, and other studio requisites, including her invaluable negatives. The auction company took three days to finalise the sale and successful transfer of her possessions to new owners.

On Thursday, 27 March 1918, at 3:00 pm, Agnes embarked on the vessel “Oonah” and departed Devonport for Melbourne.[24] With this departure, she left behind a chapter of her life that she would never revisit on a professional level.

Fast-forwarding to the latter half of 1939, Agnes Roper, while still actively engaged as a nurse, was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent surgery to remove it. However, despite her tenacity over the next three years, she finally succumbed to the disease and died on 23 September 1942 at St. Vincent’s Hospital,[25] a place where she had devoted 24 years of her life in service to others. Her life came to a close at the age of 66.




[1] Mary Agnes Roper. Births RGD33/1/11/ No 1974

[2] “Board of Education: Pension”. The Mercury, 27 June 1879, pg 2

[3] “Presentation to Mr Roper”. Mercury, 13 January 1880, pg 2

[4] “Advertisments: Ladies’ School, 1, Barrack St., Hobart”. Walch’s Almanac 1891, pg 105.

[5] “Miss Roper’s Ladies’ School”. The Mercury, 25 December 1890, pg 1

[6] “Advertisements. Photography”, The North West Post, 5 September 1906, pg 3. This advertisement was placed in the local paper by Elizabeth Finlayson, the studio’s owner, who announced that Roper would take over the Finalyson Studio on 4 September 1906.

[7] Ibid.

[8] “Births, Marriages, Deaths, Funeral and In Memoriam Notices”. Examiner, 2 December 1903, pg 1.

[9] “Advertisement. Wanted – A Retoucher”, Examiner, 16 May 1903, pg 7; “Advertisement. Wanted – A Retoucher”, Examiner, 14 November 1903, pg 6.

[10] “North Western News, A Methodist Farewell”, The North Western Advocate and the Emu Bay Times, 21 August 1906, pg 2.

[11] “Photography”, North Western Advocate and the Emu Bay Times, 23 November 1904, pg 4.

[12] “Devonport”, North Western Advocate and the Emu Bay Times, 7 November 1903, pg 2.

[13] Alexander Wilson Marshall was a fruiterer and a photographer simultaneously in the towns of Latrobe, Devonport and Burnie. He was the only photographer operating in West Devonport when he opened there in 1903. By the time Finlayson and Roper opened their studios, Marshall had already secured the premier position, having ingratiated himself with the local authorities by exclusively undertaking their photographic requirements. Marshall’s predilection toward photographing Devonport’s maritime activities could be attributed to two factors: (1) he relied on the shipping industry to bring supplies of fruit and other goods for his store, which allowed him to develop an intimate understanding and appreciation of the port and its operations; and (2) the shipping industry was the biggest business in town, serving as the primary means of transportation for people travelling to and from Devonport to various parts of Tasmania and mainland Australia. Consequently, tourists were interested in purchasing photographic postcards that depicted their travels. A. W. Marshall’s photography business survived both Finlayson and Roper—he put his Devonport studio up for sale in early 1935.

[14] “Modern Road Conveyance on North-West Coast – Potatoes being brought into Devonport. Arslonga Studio.” The Tasmanian Mail, 22 June 1907, pg 24.

[15] “Women’s Work Exhibition: Other Awards: Photography.” 28 November 1907, The Age, pg 8.

[16] “Views for the Tourist Rooms”, The North West Post, 24 Sept 1907, pg 2.

[17] “Women’s Work Exhibition: Other Awards”, The Age, 28 November 1907, pg 8;

[18] “Public Notices: Miss A Roper”, The North West Post, 21 September 1910, pg 3

[19] Roe, Michael, Cultural Artefact : Newspapers. Companion to Tasmanian History.

[20] “6 – Photograph Picked Up on a Battlefield in France”, The Weekly Courier, 1 August 1918, pg 18

[21] NAA: B2455, Roper Osmund Joseph, 1914-1920.

[22] “Popular Cash Column: Arslonga”, The North Western Advocate and the Emu Bay Times, 11 March 1918, pg 4.

[23] “Advertising : Auctions”, The North Western Advocate and the Emu Bay Times, 20 March 1918, pg 4.

[24] PROV, VPRS 944/P0000, Mar 1918 Tasmania 1918-03-01 to 1918-03-01

[25] Death Certificate. Mary Agnes Roper. No 10606/1942. Deaths in the District of Melbourne, Victoria