The meeting of Marius Sestier and H. Walter Barnett

When and where did Marius Sestier, the Lumière operator commissioned to exhibit the Lumière cinématographe in India and Australia, meet the Australian portrait photographer Henry Walter Barnett?

The original secondary source that tells how they got together is Jack Cato's The Story of the Camera in Australia.1 Later historians – Wasson,2 Baxter,3 Barnouw,4 de Serville,5 Reade,6 Neill,7 and probably others – directly or indirectly refer8 to this book, sometimes spicing up the story à la "Chinese whispers".21 The relevant text from Cato is as follows.

One of [the Lumière brothers'] cameramen was a Frenchman named Maurice [sic] Sestier, who, with his wife, set out to cover the palaces, the temples, and the picturesque life of India. ...

In January, 1896, Walter Barnett left Falk's Studio, Sydney, for a holiday in London, returning later to Australia in a liner that called at Bombay. There in the Taj Mahal Hotel, Barnett met Sestier who was very disappointed with the reports on his work from Paris.

This version of events was criticised soon after it was published (in 1955) by Albert James Perier,9 but Perier specified that his notes were "NOT TO BE OPENED DURING THE LIFETIME OF MR. JACK CATO, Melbourne". Cato died in 1971. Perier writes of the above:

Cato includes a very generous survey of Walter Barnet, [sic] but the statements are somewhat wide of the facts. His connection with the introduction of the [Lumiere] Motion Picture to Australia was purely accidental. Monsieur Sestier and his wife were fellow passengers with Barnett on a M.M. steamer, Sestier having been appointed sole concessionaire for the introduction for the instrument to Australia.

Cato, born in 1889, was only seven years old at the time these events putatively occurred. In 1909, in London, he was hired as an operator by H. Walter Barnett, and most of what he learned about Sestier and the first Australian movies would have been told to him by Barnett – obviously with Barnett's biases. Furthermore, his book was published 45 years after his time with Barnett, and possibly the details were not well-remembered when written about. Cato's version of events cannot be considered accurate. (He didn't even know Sestier's forename.)

Perier, on the other hand, was 25 at the time, employed with the photographic firm of Baker and Rouse, involved with the local photographic society, and had an active interest and involvement in the introduction of motion pictures to Australia. And it is also likely that he met Sestier. He could, and did, say, "I was there".10 But, again, when he wrote his criticism, his memory of the events of the time may not have been 100 %.

An obvious and crucial element of the story of the meeting is that Barnett had to have been out of Australia at some time when Sestier was either travelling or in India. On their voyage from France to Australia, Marius Sestier and his wife travelled on three ships (all of the Compagnie des Messageries Maritimes):

So Sestier took just over 3 months to get from France to Sydney. Although details of Barnett's activities in this period are scarce, the information we do have indicates that it is highly unlikely that he was out of Australia during this time. Note that the travelling time between Sydney and Bombay was more than 2 weeks, so the round-trip time, accounting for having to wait for a return ship, was over a month.

In early June 1896, Barnett was in Melbourne. During the months of the middle of the year, many photographs by "Falk" of actors and actresses in the dress of their roles in current theatrical productions were published in newspapers; these photographs may not all have been taken by H. Walter Barnett, but some certainly were because they were later directly attributed to him. On 29 August 1896 he (without his wife) attended the premiere of "A Trip to Chinatown" at the Princess' Theatre, Melbourne.22 Also, he was in Sydney on 10 September 1896 for the wedding of the actor Scot Inglis and the actress Yda Hamilton – this was a week before Sestier arrived in Sydney. (It is not impossible that soon after the wedding Barnett went to Melbourne and took the Polynésien back to Sydney; nonetheless, he is not listed as a passenger.)

The passenger list for the Yarra notes that Sestier and wife were passengers (presumably just for Bombay) but there is no mention of Barnett. The Yarra left Bombay on 2 July 1896 for various ports on the way to Yokohama, Japan; again there is no Barnett amongst the passengers listed.14

The Yarra waited at Colombo for the arrival on 6 July 1896 of the Australien on its way to Australia. There is no Barnett in the list of passengers disembarking from the Australien at Sydney on 26 July 1896.15 (The ship did not dock at Melbourne.)

When the Calédonien left Bombay for China and Japan, via Colombo, the Sestiers were the only passengers listed for Sydney and there is no Barnett listed as going to Melbourne.12

And the various lists of passengers on the Polynésien16,17,18 do not include Barnett.

No evidence has been found that Barnett was away from Australia at any time in 1896.

Interestingly, Harry Rickards and family were on the Polynésien from Melbourne to Sydney. Almost certainly Sestier and Rickards met on the ship, so did this somehow get confused to Sestier meeting Barnett?

Problems with Cato's story

Cato has Sestier's forename wrong. This error has propagated, and continues to propagate, to much writing on the history of motion pictures in India and Australia. (Cato may have copied the name from A. J. Perier, who, apparently deliberately, referred to Sestier as "Maurice".25 But Cato could have checked the original text that Perier misquoted.)

Cato says that Barnett left Sydney in January 1896 for a holiday in London. In the lists of passengers departing by ship published in The Sydney Morning Herald for January 1896, the only time the name Barnett appears is for a passenger going from Sydney to Melbourne on 27 January 1896 on the F.M.S. Ville de la Ciotat. This could well have been H. Walter Barnett, but he wasn't listed as leaving the country. (However, it is not unusual for the destination placename in these lists to be incorrect.)

Moreover, the Barnetts were in Melbourne on 15 February 1896: they are noted as attending the first night of the farewell season in Melbourne of the Brough-Boucicault Comedy Company at the Princess' Theatre.23

And Barnett's name has not been found in any passenger list or index of a list for 1896, both for departing and arriving passengers in England and Australia. This does not mean, of course, that he did not travel from or to Australia in this year: his name might have been misspelled in a list or mistranscribed, or might somehow have been omitted from a list. Or he might have travelled under a pseudonym (or even had his name removed from lists that were published).

Given that Cato has other erroneous dates in his book (and in particular he has the wrong year for Walter Barnett's death), January 1896 is certainly wrong. Barnett did leave Melbourne in January 1897 to go to Adelaide, from where, on 1 February, he left to go to England to live and work (and not for a holiday).

Cato states that Barnett met Sestier in the Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay, but this hotel was not built until 1903. (Did Sestier and Barnett initially meet in a hotel in Sydney?)

Cato also says that

Walter Barnett offered to finance and bring Sestier to Australia in the same ship, under some loose partnership arrangement which must have been agreeable to the Lumieres, for they continued to supply their film.

The first part of this is demonstrably false. Sestier's mission for the Lumières was from the start to go to India first and then on to Australia. The first review of Sestier's Indian exhibitions published in The Bombay Gazette on 9 July 1896 says:

Messrs. Lumiere Brothers, [sic] who are on their way to Australia, are the exhibitors of [the cinematographe], ....

(It was some time before The Bombay Gazette managed to get Sestier's name correct.) Perier points this out, too.

Cato also implies that the "same ship" on which Barnett supposedly arrived in Bombay stayed in dock long enough for Sestier to communicate with the Lumières (in France) to obtain their agreement to Barnett's offer, and for Sestier to finalise his stay in Bombay. It's not impossible, but usually the steamers only stayed in port a day or two. Anyway, the CMM ships that stopped at Bombay went on to Japan, not Australia. And Barnett certainly didn't "bring Sestier to Australia in the same ship" because, as pointed out above, Barnett was in Sydney a week before Sestier arrived there.

And Cato contradicts himself, as far as dates are concerned, in his story of Barnett taking photographs of the American actress Dorothy Usner during her visit to Australia at about the same time as Barnett would had to have been in India meeting Sestier.

There are so many errors in Cato's version of events that none of it can be accepted as true. It is extremely unfortunate that for several decades this story has been the "standard version".

Possible answers

A more prosaic version of the meeting is that Barnett, as a photographer, was a customer of the Lumières, maybe using or marketing their famous Blue Label photographic plates, and that he was therefore an obvious person for Sestier to contact when he reached Sydney.19

Or even more simply, when Sestier arrived in Sydney he sought someone in the photography business; he either first contacted Barnett, or eventually met him. As (apparently) Barnett was fluent in French and Sestier's command of English was not strong, and in the absence of another photographically-minded person whose French was good, Barnett would certainly have been able to help Sestier get established.

Furthermore, a contemporary newspaper20 states:

[Marius Sestier] came out unostentatiously in one of the French mail-boats, and was immediately seized upon by Mr. Walter Barnett, of the Falk Studios, who, in conjunction with Mr. C. B. Westmacott, arranged for him to exhibit his wonderful machine in Pitt-street.

And there is no mention of Barnett in connection with the cinématographe until almost 2 weeks after Sestier arrived in Sydney, and a week after the first advertisements for exhibitions were published. If he had known it was coming to, or was actually in, Sydney, surely he would have publicised it earlier. Nor has any contemporary record been found of Barnett stating that he was responsible for bringing Sestier and the cinématographe to Australia.

There is another scenario for Sestier meeting Barnett that is worth consideration. Up till mid-September 1896, when Sestier arrived in Sydney, the Barnetts had been living at 94 Elizabeth Bay Road, Elizabeth Bay, Sydney, and had previously lived at 49 Elizabeth Bay Road. At number 53 was Eugène Blanc, the principal Australian agent for the Compagnie des Messageries Maritimes, and it is not unlikely that in this well-to-do neighbourhood Barnett and Blanc had become acquainted. And Blanc was an amateur photographer.26 In 1896 Blanc visited France for business matters, and returned to Australia on the same voyage of the Polynésien that took Sestier to Australia. (Blanc disembarked at Melbourne and returned to Sydney by train, so he arrived there a day before the ship.) Blanc would have seen (or at least known about) the on-board cinématographe presentations that Sestier gave for evening entertainment on the way from Colombo to Australia, and in all likelihood would have met Sestier.

Maybe it was Eugène Blanc who told H. Walter Barnett about the Lumière operator Marius Sestier who had come to Australia to exhibit the cinématographe, and Barnett immediately saw the business opportunity and "seized upon" Sestier. (This scenario also recovers the 'meeting on a ship' element of Perier's version.)

References and notes

[1] Jack Cato, The Story of the Camera in Australia (Georgian Press, Melbourne, 1955 (1st ed.)), p.116.
The second and third editions, of 1977 and 1979, have identical content to the first.

[2] Mervyn Wasson, The Beginnings of Australian Cinema (Australian Film Institute, Melbourne, March 1964).

[3] John Baxter, The Australian Cinema (Pacific Books, 1970).

[4] Erik Barnouw, Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film (Oxford University Press, 1993 (2nd revised ed.)).

[5] Paul H. de Serville, entry on Henry Walter Barnett in Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol.7 (Melbourne University Press, 1979), pp.182-183.

[6] Eric Reade, Australian Silent Films: A Pictorial History of Silent Films from 1896 to 1929 (Lansdowne Press, Melbourne, 1970), p.9.
The relevant material is repeated in:
Eric Reade, The Australian Screen: A Pictorial History of Australian Film Making (Lansdowne Press, Melbourne, 1975).
Reade neither cites nor acknowledges Cato, but he obviously used his book as a source.

[7] Roger Neill, Legends: The Art of Walter Barnett (National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, 2000).

[8] The various relationships between sources are summarised as:

1955     1964      1970      1974
Cato <- Wasson <- Baxter <- Barnouw
  ^       ^
  |       |
  |  de Serville 1979
  |       |
  |       v
  +---- Reade 1970
  |       ^
  |       |
  +---- Neill 2000

[9] Albert James Perier, Some comments on Jack Cato's professional photographic "Story of the Camera in Australia" (National Library of Australia, manuscript MS1488, c.1956).

[10] Keast Burke, I was there – Celebrating the Ninety-first Anniversary of the Birth of A. J Perier (Australian Popular Photography, May 1962), pp.30-35.

[11] Le Petit Marseillais (Marseille, France), 12 June 1896, p.4efg, Compagnie des Messageries Maritimes.: advertisement with dates and times of departures of ships from Marseille.
Le Petit Marseillais, 14 June 1896, p.2a, Nouvelles Maritimes.
The Bombay Gazette, 1 July 1896, p.3f, SHIPPING INTELLIGENCE.

[12] The Bombay Gazette, 27 August 1896, p.3f, Shipping Intelligence.

[13] The Sydney Morning Herald, 17 September 1896, p.6h, Arrival of the Polynesien.

[14] The Bombay Gazette, 3 July 1896, p.3d, Shipping Intelligence.

[15] The Sydney Morning Herald, 27 July 1896, p.4a, Shipping.

[16] The Age (Melbourne), 10 September 1896, p.6i, M.M.S Polynesien at Albany.

[17] Public Record Office Victoria, Index to Unassisted Inward Passenger Lists to Victoria 1852-1923.

[18] The Sydney Morning Herald, 17 September 1896, p.4a, Shipping.

[19] Jacques Rittaud-Hutinet (ed.): Letters: Auguste and Louis Lumière (Faber and Faber, 1995), pp.xvii-xviii, 27-28.

[20] The Referee (Sydney), 14 October 1896, p.7g, People Prominent, M. Marius Sestier.

[21] With amusing results.

Cato starts with: ... Sestier ... was very disappointed with the reports on his work ...
Wasson gets a little stronger: Sestier had just received a letter ..., castigating him ...
Baxter ups the ante: ... an abusive letter received from the home office.
and Barnouw goes to extremes: Sestier ... had a blistering letter from the home office ...

In Sestier's book of accounts of his Indian and Australian tour, he notes that on 24 September he received a cable from the Lumières telling him that a negative had been opened by Customs – so presumably the undeveloped film had been ruined (by exposure to light). This would appear to be the origin of the story about the bad report from France – but note that it doesn't refer to Sestier's filming work. (And there is no record indicating that he later received a letter about his films.)

The National Film and Sound Archive of Australia has a digitised copy of the accounts book as Title no. 1467275: [MARIUS SESTIER COLLECTION] : [TOURNEE SESTIER : ACCOUNTS BOOK]. I am greatly indebted to Mme. Dominique Petitbois and M. Robert Sestier, great-grandchildren of Marius Sestier, for allowing me to consult this document.

[22] Melbourne Punch, 3 September 1896, p.11, Lady's Letter.

[23] Melbourne Punch, 20 February 1896, p.125a, Social.

[24] The Bombay Gazette, 31 August 1896, p.5b, STEAMER MOVEMENTS.

[25] See Australasian Photo-Review, 1 October 1951, p.646a, FIRST MOTION PICTURES IN AUSTRALIA
Perier wrote:

Maurice Sestier (extract, "Sydney Morning Herald," September 22, 1896).
"Mr. Sestier arrived in Sydney last week from Paris to exhibit the Cinematograph. [...]"
The original text, on p.6c of the Herald, reads:
M. Marius Sestier arrived in Sydney last week direct from Paris to exhibit in Australia the French Cinematographe, [...]
Presumably Perier had a copy of the newspaper article to refer to, so why the several changes in the transcription? He consistently referred to Sestier as "Maurice" over several decades, the earliest known use being on 9 June 1922. This is surprising, as they were both French.

[26] Photographic Review of Reviews (Australasian edition), November 1894, pp.10,11b, St. Mark's, Darling Point, Sydney. (Through a tele-photo.)

Copyright © 2010 - 2020 Tony Martin-Jones Edition 9·4  (2020-07-10)