WATKINS, SUSAN (1912-2006) (F&G)

Susan Watkins 1934
Full Birth Name: Edith Beryl Watkins
Married Name & Dates: Mrs Gerald Hughes (1946-2006)
Profession: Photographer and Proprietor
Professional Years: 1930 to 1978
Where Practised: Dorothy Wilding, London (1930-1934); Susan Watkins, 188 St George’s Terrace, Perth, WA (1935-1958); Susan Watkins, 18 Cliff Way Claremont, WA (1958-1978)
Related Portfolios:




Susan Watkins – Essence of Character

By Lee Kinsella


Susan Watkins was born Edith Beryl Watkins on 12 June 1912 in Western Australia. Known as Beryl as a child, she was the youngest of four children born to Arthur Octavius Watkins (1867–1948), a Welsh assayer and metallurgist, and English-born Edith Martin (1877 –1955). They married in Albany, Western Australia, in 1897.  Arthur worked in Coolgardie and Broken Hill and had gained some notoriety for his work collecting rock samples in Australia for the British Museum.  In 1899, he was appointed as the Assistant Assayer to the Royal Mint Perth Branch, a position he held until 1907 when he was promoted to the position of Assayer. The Watkins family left for England soon after his promotion, they returned in November 1908, to Perth, where Edith Beryl was born almost four years later.

Beryl attended Alexander High School, headed by Miss Hilferty, in Colin Street, West Perth.  She and her elder sister Hilda were at the school when it merged with Miss Goulay’s Girls’ Grammar to become St Mary’s Church of England Girls’ School.  The merger was a momentous occasion documented by a photograph of the 98 students on the first day of school on 14 September 1921.

Older brothers, Alfred and Reginald, attended Hale Anglican Boys’ School on St Georges Terrace, and Watkins was introduced to photography via brother Alfred:

He was thirteen years older than I am and he was President of the Camera Club, I think they call it. He was keen. I used to help him develop and print in the bathroom and make a frightful mess.

While Watkins completed drawing classes at school, she did not feel that she was particularly capable:

I wanted to do medicine. Well, not as early as that, but I was always interested in people. I loved the idea of being able paint and draw but I was not good enough so I think it followed on from there.
It [photography] was my way of recording. [1]  


1929 Prefects

The 1929 school prefects. Beryl is seated in the front row at the far left.
Courtesy of St Mary’s Anglican Girls’ School


Her parents maintained strong ties with the United Kingdom via regular correspondence and subscriptions to newspapers and magazines.  It was from reading such publications that Watkins became aware of the work of British photographers, including that of Dorothy Wilding, who was best known for her widely-published photographs of royalty and British dignitaries.  As had been the plan, her parents returned to Britain in 1929 after her father retired from the Mint.  The four children remained in Western Australia.

In 1929, Beryl was a school prefect, she achieved her Leaving with English, Biology and Drawing and won a Form VIa Academic Prize,[2] while her sister was engaged to be married. On her graduation, Beryl’s father proposed that the sisters return to England, for Hilda to have a final tour as a single woman. While in London, Edith wrote to three photographic studios seeking work, and was surprised, delighted, and a little in awe, to be accepted by Wilding.

Watkins remembered Wilding as a difficult and exacting teacher, but felt fortunate to have been taught by such a capable photographer.  Wilding was the first female appointed as the British Monarchy’s Official Royal Photographer in 1937 and her portraits of artists, academics, political and military leaders and other high-profile individuals ensured that her photographs were regularly featured in magazines and reproduced in newspapers.  Her mentor must have recognised Watkins’ capacity as she granted her special attention and, after a time, permitted her two hours a day in the studio to work on her own projects.  Watkin’s early prints were often deemed to be unsatisfactory, with Wilding tearing them to pieces.  She first assisted Wilding during the difficult sitting of Irish writer, playwright and activist, George Bernard Shaw. Photographic historian and curator, Terrance Pepper writes of the event in In Pursuit of Perfection:  The Photographs of Dorothy Wilding, the catalogue that accompanied the exhibition of Wilding’s portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, London, in 1991:

Shaw’s arrival at the studio had been unannounced and unexpected. He had gone to Bertha Hammond’s hairdressing salon, situated in the same building as the studio, and being pleased with his haircut decided to have his photograph taken. Wilding was hastily contacted at the consulting rooms of her Harley Street doctor. Her two successful portraits show Shaw twinkling as ever in rapt attention, craning forward due to his partial deafness to catch what she was saying. The portrait of Shaw holding his hands to his head became even more well known when it was cast in bronze by Kathleen Scott, Lady Kennet. The other pose is reproduced on the dust jacket of Wilding’s autobiography.[3]

In her autobiography, Wilding smoothed over the drama:

Another Irishman I photographed with joy was George Bernard Shaw, who also came into the Bond studio. [4]

My meeting with him that day allows me to state two certain facts about Bernard Shaw.  He enjoyed being photographed and he liked female attention. He most willingly struck any pose I asked and positively purred as my girl assistants fussed around him[5]

However, as one of the ‘girl assistants’, Watkins’ recollection is vastly different.  She noted that Shaw had particularly ‘ugly’ hands and did not want them to be included in his portrait.  Wilding disagreed and suggested that she could manage them through her judicious posing and use of lighting.  The discussion became heated and Wilding left in tears, leaving Watkins hovering awkwardly in the studio with Shaw.  Wilding returned and shot various poses, with and without hands.  On seeing the proofs, Shaw wrote to apologise and acknowledge his error, demurring to select two unique portraits, both with hands featured:  one with him clasping a book in profile and the other with his head resting in both hands and furtive eyes as they looked towards the camera.

Wilding, in turn, had apprenticed under artist and photographer Marian Neilson (1875 – 1965).  In Neilson’s Bond Street studio, Wilding came to learn the art of retouching negatives and absorbed Neilson’s style, which was characterised as more relaxed and modern, with scenery from contemporary life as background, rather than the standard formal Victorian photography.

Wilding consciously discarded the detail of Neilson’s backgrounds to create clean and sparse spaces in which the features of the sitters, and the contours of their clothing, created the drama.  Wilding was influenced by Art Deco aesthetics and classical lines, and this was also reflected in her Deco studio logo that featured Wilding as an artist with palette at work, with her distinct wavy hair.


Susan Watkins Logo

Watkins benefited in many ways from being part of this legacy of generations of women photographers. Watkins’s professional logo, “Susan Watkins Camera Portraits”, reflected a more pared-back aesthetic, and she understood the need to adapt and reflect the desires of contemporary sitters.  Props and scenery were absent from her portraits, with Watkins relying on the camera and lighting to frame and capture an accurate representation of each sitter.  She was adamant that her portrait photography contained no trickery, noting that negatives and prints were corrected to ensure that a stray hair, errant fold of material or speck of dust did not disrupt the composition of the photograph and distract from the sitter.

Beryl adopted the professional name ‘Susan Watkins’ while in London, and returned to Perth with ambitions to open her own studio. She was offered the opportunity to design her photographic rooms, based on her working knowledge of Wilding’s studio, with cantilevered lights and plain backdrops on sliding screens in light, medium and dark.  At the age of 23, she opened her own photographic studio at Nestle House, 188 St Georges Terrace in Perth in 1935.  As a woman establishing her own studio in the male-dominated photographic profession during the Depression, Watkins soon demonstrated her capacity as a highly technical and capable photographer with an acute understanding of the need to sensitively manage her sitter’s expectations.  Hers was the only Perth studio offering a set price list and fee for photographic sittings at the time. In a 1995 interview, Watkins recalled her experiences working in her studio:

Well, I loved taking childrenWith women, I liked young women and old women. [laughs] The middle-aged ones I found extremely difficult. They had no idea what the years had done and I had difficulties. [laughs] Either I pleased them and their families said, “Oh, dear, that is flattering,” or I pleased the family and they said, “Oh, don’t I look an old hag [?].” So, it was very difficult.[6]

Watkins was acutely aware of the aspirational aspect of portrait photography and her need to dance the fine line between presenting a recognisable and realistic likeness of the sitter and obtaining the approval, and payment, of her client.  Her sensitive photographs and her capacity to read people and gently manage them to best effect saw demand for sittings increase.  Word-of-mouth recommendations ensured that the month’s sittings were often booked out within minutes.

As the Daily News reported on 15 November 1935:

Miss Susan Watkins, who was born in Perth and educated at St. Mary’s Church of England Girls’ School, is another of the younger generation of women who has encroached into the male’s field in her choice of profession.[7]

In addition to the perception that Watkins may have been broaching into a male profession, her arrival in Perth created some interest, and rivalry, amongst the established Perth photographic studios.  Unbeknownst to her at the time, her request list of equipment necessary to establish her studio had been circulated to other studios, and time and again she was thwarted in her request for both equipment and photographic supplies.  It was Dorothy Wilding who bought studio equipment for Watkins and sent it from London.  Later, when Australian-made Kodora paper (Gelatine chloro-bromide development paper created for the professional market) proved to be inadequate for Watkins’s enlargement prints, ‘Miss Wilding’ again sourced English-made supplies and sent them to Western Australia.  Watkins equipped her studio with a large Kodak camera, and later a Graflex Reflex.  She also acquired a Minex camera: its macro focusing ability made it particularly useful for photographing children.  She initially began using Kodak film and later imported her own Ilford film.  Watkins did not have close associations with other Western Australian photographers, although she did express an appreciation for Axel Poignant and his late photographic work.

At the peak of demand, Watkins employed 13 staff – all women – within the facility that she had designed with no thought as to the future need for this many staff.  She recalls everyone being very cramped but that there was great collegiality:

Well, there were four girls in the retouching room, three girls in the finishing room, one girl using the studio to work in where there was a spare desk if there was no sitting, a receptionist and an assistant receptionist. I don’t know how many I’ve got to – and two in the dark room, not all the time. I mean they kind of milled around, but that was the worst period.[8]

Watkins was very specific about the technical requirements of photography, but also aware of the need for creative input and artistry.  Most photographers in Western Australia used Australian panchromatic film, but Watkins used orthochromatic film, which is blue or green-sensitive and unable to capture reds.  Later she used hydrochromatic film, which is also insensitive to the red end of the spectrum and so lipstick had to be removed as it photographed black. Her film choice provided Watkins with a clear tonal separation and an ability to capture fine detail (and blue eyes!). However, this film required a lot of sensitive retouching.  She considers the difference:

Well, blue eyes on panchromatic film tend to photograph without any detail in them. I always said they had a boot button look. They do!
They lose you don’t get all the little flecks. The lighter colour eye usually has a rim around the edge of the iris, you don’t get that. It somehow lacks character, a print from a panchromatic film, especially for men. Men on orthochromatic or hydrochromatic film, you get a much richer texture. Personally, I don’t think there’s any comparison. [9]

Watkins also inherited a special, secret recipe for developer solution from Wilding. The chemical ingredients were mixed from scratch and resulted in warm, not sepia, tones.  Processing was completed on the basis of experience and close observation, rather than using commercial products and simply timing the process.

Erica Hall was Watkins’ school friend and enthusiastic supporter, encouraging her to open the studio.  She was the first receptionist and is likely to have actively encouraged their circle of friends and associates to have their portraits photographed by Watkins.  Hall’s own fresh-faced portrait is featured alongside representatives from other well-known Perth families in the social pages of “The Passing Show” on page 29 of the Western Mail, published on 4 June 1936.  Since opening the studio in 1935, during the Depression, sittings with society women, including debutantes and other young women from wealthy families, such as Miss Pat Drake-Brockman, was the mainstay of her business.[10]  Her own family was regularly mentioned in the social pages of the newspaper, and she was known to many of her sitters.  Indeed, over the years, her clients included generations of affluent Perth families.  Watkins use of strong light, and the resulting high contrast, enabled the portraits to reproduce well in newsprint, and the many ‘Susan Watkins Camera portraits’ of relaxed, confident young women enlivened the social pages.

The Western Mail, 4 June, 1936

“The Passing Show”, The Western Mail, 4 June 1936, pg 37.
All photographs on this page are from the Susan Watkins Studio.


It is likely that Watkins would not be pleased that many of her proofs are now publicly available, as she was fastidious about her work and the working proofs are not consistent with the quality of the final enlargements.  That said, they do provide useful insights as to her process.  Watkins booked a maximum of three sittings per day.  Negatives were developed, and a set of prints created.  Hours were then spent retouching negatives before the creation of another set of prints – these were the proofs that were shown to the client.  Prints were selected and the proofs returned and checked again, with any other corrections made on the negatives.  Finally, enlargements were printed and finished with judicious hand-work on each print.

As a founding professor of English and former Chancellor of The University of Western Australia, Professor Walter Murdoch is an example of the politicians, academics and social figures who sought Watkins’ services for formal portraits.  Using a dark background and her preferred overhead lighting, the head of the esteemed professor is the lightest area and the high contrast draws attention to his face.  His brows cast shadows and add weight to his eyes as they gaze intensely outwards.  With pipe in hand, the line of the pipe further directs attention to his face.  Crop marks indicate the edges of the enlargement to be printed and the judicious removal of his exposed arm results is a solid and impressive portrait.


slwa b3924861 1

 Professor Walter Murdoch, 17 October 1939. 304572PD. Courtesy, SLWA

This portrait was taken in 1939, a time of great turmoil for Watkins.  Her eldest brother had died unexpectedly of appendicitis, and her parents had been captured on German-occupied Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands, in the United Kingdom.  Her father died that same year. Watkins, working under duress —managing her studio during a period of high demand and wartime restrictions of materials—was unable to quickly recover from a virus. She decided to take six months leave, during which time an experienced photographer, Mattie Hodgson, ran her studio.


Studio portrait of 385 Flight Lieutenant Charles Cuthbertson Learmonth.

Formal portraits of individuals in uniform feature during the war years, including a portrait held in the Australian War Memorial of  Flight Lieutenant Charles Cuthbertson Learmonth.  Watkins took the portrait in 1941. He died when a Beaufort Bomber crashed into the sea near Rottnest in 1944.


slwa b2393985 1

Portrait of Miss Minnie Goldstein, 1942, 220168PD, Courtesy, SLWA

In another proof taken from a sitting in 1942, we see Sister Minnie Goldstein in her military nurses’ uniform, framed in a halo of light. Minnie Goldstein is mentioned as an associate of Watkins, who attended a party at her flat in August 1935. And yet, in this portrait, Watkins has chosen to formally represent her friend in her offical capacity. Nurse Goldstein enlisted in Northam, Western Australia, on 28 August 1942, and is here captured far more sensitively than her enlistment photographs.[11]  It is likely that the portrait was taken while she was on leave in July 1942. The sharp lines of the white, starched collar combine with the soft focus of her head-dress to frame her face. The photograph demonstrates great control of focus as her eyes and military insignia are in sharp focus, while the lines of her face are softened, as she gazes forward into the middle distance. The demarcated area indicates that the enlargement will square up the portrait, presenting Goldstein, Service Number – WX32605, as a solid and reliable individual. Her contribution to the operations of the blood bank in Alexishafen, New Guinea, was documented by Official War Artist, Nora Heysen in 1944.[12]


Watkins’ photographs, taken in 1943, [attributed] of bride, Hilda Mary Hartle, demonstrate the exacting technical and presentation standards to which she worked.  Much time and effort was required to realise a quality enlargement print, which was then mounted within seven layers of specially cut paper, with care to maintain sympathetic proportions around the print.



Portrait of the Bride, Hilda Mary Hartle, Perth, WA, c1943. Photoria Collection


In order to try and reduce the variables that could negatively impact upon a sitting, Watkins preferred the controlled environment of the studio.  When asked to document a wedding, she would invite the wedding party to her studio after the ceremony, and carefully arrange the sitters, preferring also to focus upon photographing single sitters.  The final print, as in this case, was tinted with colour on request.  Again, she advocated for the subtle use of paint and a very light touch in order to create a sensitive representation of the sitter.   In this example, Watkins takes full advantage of the soft, diaphanous material to frame the figure, and anchors the flow of the fabric against the structure of the stairs. Again, following Wilding’s example, when satisfied with the enlarged and finished print, Watkins would sign in pencil on the left beneath the print.  This is consistent with their shared understanding of photography as an art, and the unique qualities of each photographic print.


“No Photographs When Susan Watkins Weds”,
Daily News (Perth, WA), 7 January 1946, p. 6.

In 1946, Watkins married Gerald Hughes and they managed the photographic studio together. This enabled Watkins more time to spend with their young daughter. By 1958, the couple were able to move the studio to their home, at which point Watkins resumed the running of the business.  She now enjoyed the flexibility of booking up to three sittings per week, completing all of the work herself, and to her own schedule around school holidays.



Studio portrait of Colonel Leslie Ernest Le Souef, OBE ED MD FRCS FRACS.
P03614.001. Courtesy Australian War Memorial.

The portrait of Colonel Leslie Ernest Le Souef was taken on 16 February 1950 in Watkins’ home studio. It is a warm and lively portrait of a bemused Le Souef, gently enhanced with the aid of her brush and paint to create eyelashes to frame twinkling eyes.


Watkins’ legacy remains in the countless high-quality studio portraits that are held by hundreds of families and in various Australian public collections, including the State Library of Western Australia, the National Portrait Gallery, The Australian War Memorial and the National Library of Australia. In addition, she trained generations of women within her photographic studio — photographers, including Jill Crossley, and many technicians, developers, re-touchers and finishers who worked with her over the 23 years that she ran a commercial photographic studio.  Susan Watkins continued to work from her home studio until her retirement in 1978.



About the Author:
Lee Kinsella is a writer and visual arts curator who lives in Boorloo/Perth on the traditional lands of the Whadjuk Noongar peoples. She is currently curator of the Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art at The University of Western Australia. She has curated and managed exhibitions at Australian state and national public institutions, including the Art Gallery of Western Australia, The Australian War Memorial and The National Film and Sound Archive (formerly ScreenSound Australia). Kinsella has written catalogue essays, articles and contributed to several books on Australia art.


The Author would like to thank:
Stephanie Neille, Archivist, and Dr Jan Ring, Researcher at The Marlene Carter Heritage Centre, St Mary’s Anglican Girls’ School, and Emma Withers, Archivist, Hale School. And special thanks to Photoria for the invitation to write and for all technical support.




[1] Interview by Criena Fitzgerald, Edith Beryl Watkins (now Hughes) talks about her long career as a portrait photographer. Transcript, p. 5. State Library of Western Australia, J.S. Battye Library of West Australian History, 1995, OH2638

[2] Academic record thanks to the staff at the The Marlene Carter Heritage Centre, St Mary’s Anglican Girls’ School

[3] Terrence Pepper, In Pursuit of Perfection: The Photographs of Dorothy Wilding, 1991 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 5 July 1991 – 29 September 1991), p. 53.

[4] Dorothy Wilding, In Pursuit of Perfection, (R.Hale: London, 1958), 68.

[5] Ibid, p. 69.

[6] Transcript, op.cit. pg. 22

[7] “Personalities Among Women”, The Daily News, Perth, Western Australia, 15 November 1935, p. 10 (LATE CITY), http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article85730204

[8] Transcript, op. cit.  p. 26.

[9] Transcript, op.cit. p. 16

[10] National Library of Australia, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/37774226

[11] NAA: B883, WX32605. GOLDSTEIN MINNIE SUTHERLAND : Service Number – WX32605 : Date of birth – 13 Aug 1908 : Place of birth – RAVENSTHORPE WA : Place of enlistment – NORTHAM WA : Next of Kin – GOLDSTEIN MINNIE

[12] Australian War Memorial, https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C176127