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P3185 Photograph, hand-painted ambrotype, studio portrait of John Pascoe third officer on the 'Dunbar', collodion / paint / glass / wood / paper / metal / velvet, photographer unknown, place of production unknown, 1854-1857. Click to enlarge.

Ambrotype of John Pascoe, third officer on the 'Dunbar'

  • 1850-1857
This photograph is significant because it is one of the few surviving hand-painted ambrotypes with links to Australia. While millions of these ambrotype photographs were produced around the world and many thousands in Australia remarkably few have survived that can be linked to Australian society during the 1850s. The accession register states that the sitter in the portrait is 'Master Pascoe of the Dunbar'. Further research has revealed this is Master John Pascoe, third officer on board the …


Object No.


Object Statement

Photograph, hand-painted ambrotype, studio portrait of John Pascoe third officer on the 'Dunbar', collodion / paint / glass / wood / paper / metal / velvet, photographer unknown, place of production unknown, 1854-1857

Physical Description

An ambrotype showing a half length portrait a boy wearing a sailors uniform. The boy looks directly into the camera and has his left hand resting on his hip. The ambrotype has been tinted with the boy's cheeks pink, the buttons and chain on his uniform gold and the braid on his hat also gold. The ambrotype is enclosed in a hinged case made from wood that has been covered in leather. The lid has detached from the base, however it would have opened to reveal the ambrotype on the right hand side. The ambrotype is framed in an oval brass mat. The opposite side of the case is lined with green velvet featuring an embossed decorative pattern. On the outside of the case, the leather also features an embossed decorative pattern. Two metal hooks on the the side of the case would have allowed the case to be closed securely, however one of the hooks is missing.



85 mm


10 mm



  • 1850-1857


In 1851 Frederick Scott Archer announced the discovery of a new photographic process that could adhere to glass. This was a major breakthrough in the story of photography for the process made clear highly detailed negatives form which multiple copies could be made.

The general public had become used to their photographic portraits being taken using a daguerreotype process which were displayed in a small glass fronted case. To compete with this trade a special kind of collodion process, known as the ambrotype was introduced. This was essentially the same as other collodion negatives except that once the exposure had been taken the emulsion on the glass was bleached to whiten it. When this bleached negative was placed in a case against a black background it formed a positive image which bore a remarkable resemblance to the daguerreotype except it had the added advantage of not being highly reflective.

Australia followed rather than set photographic trends but in the 1850s, the massive boom caused by the discovery of gold ensured it was very quick to take up new processes like the ambrotype. Over the 1850s the ambrotype replaced the daguerreotype as the preferred method of taking portraits but even in the late 1850s daguerreotypes were still being made for more conservative customers.

Geoff Barker, Curatorial, September 2009

J. Cato, The Story of the Camera in Australia, Third Edition, Institute of Australian Photography, Hong Kong, 1979
Michel Frizot, A New History of Photography, Amilcare Pizzi, Milan, 1998
Helmut and Alison Gernsheim, A Concise History of Photography, Thames and Hudson, Germany, 1965
A. Davies and P. Stanbury, 1985, The Mechanical Eye in Australia, Oxford University Press, Melbourne



The image shows Master [John] Pascoe a member of the crew the clipper 'Dunbar' which was wrecked on a reef off South Head on its approach into Sydney Harbour on 20 August 1857.

On 20 August 2017 it was the 160th anniversary of New South Wales' worst maritime disaster, the sinking of the 'Dunbar'. On a pitch-dark rainy night with a gale blowing a total of 121 passengers and crew of the sailing ship, 'Dunbar', lost their lives not long after midnight. This was not far from Sydney's South Head lighthouse and only few kilometres from the safety of one of the world's "finest and easily accessible harbours". The captain is said to have misjudged the entrance to the harbour with tragic results.

This was no flimsy, leaky old tub overcrowded with immigrants, but a first-class, three-masted ship built of best British oak and East India teak declared at the time as "the finest merchant ship afloat". Her main mast alone weighed 9 tons. The ship was launched at James Laing's shipyards, Sunderland, England, only four years earlier for the London shipowner, Duncan Dunbar & Co. and was commanded by Captain James Green, described as a "cautious, vigilant and experienced sailor". If the portrait of the ship's third officer, John Pascoe, is anything to go by, Captain Green's compliment of 59 crew members were well turned out and professional. Young Pascoe, who hailed from Cornwall, was only 18 when his life was tragically cut short in a ship which no-one could have anticipated would be wrecked.

After leaving Gravesend on 24 May 1857, and a rapid but uneventful 81-day voyage out to Australia, you can image the excitement of the 63 Dunbar passengers that night as they neared their voyage's end. As mothers put their children to bed they would be telling them they would wake up in Sydney. Many of the passengers were from established colonial families returning to Sydney after a trip back "home". The ship's demise was quick, it struck rocks, and passengers (mainly women) ran up on deck screaming, waves washed over the ship and pushed Dunbar broadside, the top masts crashed down and water quickly entered the hull.

You can scarcely imagine the horror in Sydney when news soon spread that an unidentified ship had come to grief. From daylight people flocked to the cliffs above, appalled at the sight of bodies and body parts being dashed back and forth across the rocks near The Gap. Only one person survived the disaster. Able Seaman James Johnson had a miraculous escape by being washed up on a rock ledge and clung there for over 36 hours before being found and rescued.

Timber and debris from the 'Dunbar' entered the harbour and accumulated in bays. Human bodies and the carcases of bulls were located floating as far as The Spirt in Middle Harbour. Parts of the teak deck and masts, clothing including waistcoats, gloves, trousers, and bedding were at various locations.

The outpouring of grief in Sydney was palpable as families expecting a loving reunion were shocked and distraught. Many would have known someone or knew of someone who had died. We can appreciate these feelings 120 years later when a Sydney-bound Blue Mountains commuter train derailed and hit bridge stanchions at Granville in 1977. It was Australia's worst rail disaster where 84 died and 210 were injured.

Back in 1857 some 20,000 mourners gathered along George Street to pay their respects as the Dunbar's funeral procession passed. Friends and family who could identify their loved ones had their bodies handed over to them for burial. Eighteen bodies, not claimed, were buried together in Camperdown Cemetery (St Stephens Church, Newtown). Some were identified by laundry marks on their underwear or personal effects such as jewellery and tattoos. Johnstone, the survivor, identified some of the passengers and crew by sight.

The Dunbar was carrying a large and diverse cargo including a piano, saddles, livestock, haberdashery supplies including reels of cotton, a large number of candles, boxes of boots, casks of beer, boxes of raisins, Manila hats, tablecloths and stationary. Some of the lighter material was washed up in the Harbour with haberdashery supplies floating in Mosman Bay. In the Museum's collection is this small cotton reel, the provenance for which notes that Watson Augustus Steel collected the reel washed up on the shore after the wreck in 1857.

Timber from the wreck was made into furniture, tableware and souvenir boxes. This turned timber goblet 235 cm high is one such memento. It seems macabre to us today to make money from tragedy and in 1977 it would have been unthinkable to make metal trinkets from the crushed carriages from the Granville rail disaster, but times have changed.

Before photo journalism the written word was used to paint a picture of the Dunbar tragedy. Contemporary accounts conveyed the scene in extraordinary and disturbing detail. Sydneysiders in 1857 couldn't get enough of the Dunbar disaster. A pamphlet entitled 'A Narrative of the Melancholy Wreck of the Dunbar' sold in its thousands while poems and paintings followed and a portrait of the survivor, James Johnson, was available from the celebrated city photographers, Freeman Brothers.

The Dunbar is remembered by memorial services at the churchyard where the Dunbar victims were interred and many would be familiar with one of her anchors displayed at The Gap. The location of the wreck, south of The Gap and near the Signal Station and appropriately named Dunbar Head, was forgotten for almost 100 years. In the 1950s and 1960s it was rediscovered by SCUBA divers. Many souvenirs were taken from the wreck which is now protected under legislation.

The Museum has a large collection of finds. Probably the most poignant is a silver pencil case said to have been found by divers in Captain Green's desk.

Margaret Simpson, Curator


Credit Line

Gift of Royal Australian Historical Society, 1981

Acquisition Date

13 August 1981

Cite this Object


Ambrotype of John Pascoe, third officer on the 'Dunbar' 2023, Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, accessed 8 June 2023, <>


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