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Friday, 5 December 2014

Which New Zealand photographer claimed the patronage of the Grand Duke Alexander of Russia?

William Robert Robinson 1859–1942

The casual reader of the Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich Romanov's autobiography, published in exile in 1932, would never know that he had ever set foot in New Zealand. In fact as an officer on board the Russian corvette Rynda, the Grand Duke spent almost two weeks in the country in 1888 at a time when the "Russian Scare", which had led to the building of major fortifications along New Zealand's coast, was still a very recent memory.

As cousin to Tsar Alexander III, Alexander Mikhailovich was the most important Russian ever to have visited the colony.

The Rynda docked at Auckland on 15 March 1888 and, after 4 days in the city, the Grand Duke made a week-long excursion to the Hot Lakes, Rotorua and Taupo. His hectic itinerary, however, proved only mildly more interesting to the New Zealand public than his run-in with a Queen Street storekeeper, and his involuntary donation of £8 to a charitable institution in Rotorua.

But if Alexander found his experiences of the country less than memorable, his presence proved enduringly rewarding for one young Auckland photographer. Summoned to the Rynda to photograph two groups of officers and the ship’s band, William Robert Robinson afterwards used the experience to promote his career, captioning his portraits, “By Appointment to His Imperial Highness the Grand Duke Alexander of Russia”.

Born in Dorset in 1859, Robinson had arrived in New Zealand in 1884. Initially he based himself in Wellesley Street in Auckland, before moving to a more prominent location in the Victoria Arcade around 1887. In 1888/9 he took over Tuttle's Queen Street studio, which was where the Grand Duke made his acquaintance. In 1892 he on-sold the business (together with his own and Tuttle's negatives) to C H Clemens, subsequently acquiring George Gregory's West End Portrait Rooms in Ponsonby. By 1894 he was back in Queen Street, trading as Robinson and Yates at the recently deceased Edward Arnold's former studio in Edson's Buildings. Two years later, in 1896, he sold out to Charles Hemus and moved to Ellerslie. From at least 1908 he was at Whanganui, where for 23 years he was employed by the notable photographer Frank Denton. He died in 1942, and is buried at Whanganui's Aramoho Cemetery.

William Robinson supplemented his income by acting as an agent for the Dunedin-based Burton Brothers partnership. Customers who purchased 52 Burton Brothers views paid just one shilling per print per week. This Burton Brothers photograph shows Queen Street in 1884, with Clarke Brothers’ Fine Art Studio in the centre adjacent to the building faced with scaffolding. (Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries. 4-782)

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