Page 1: Biography
Crombie, John Nicol
This biography, written by William Main, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990.
John Nicol Crombie was born in Glasgow, Scotland, on 11 August 1827, the son of John Crombie, a weaver who later became a grocer and merchant, and his wife, Margaret McKellar. Emigrating to Melbourne, Australia, at the height of the goldrush in 1852, Crombie was unable to find work in his trade as an engineer and instead took a job with the American photographic firm of Meade Brothers. In 1855 he arrived in Auckland, New Zealand, where he opened a studio in Shortland Street.
This lively and entertaining man had a penchant for gaining publicity, and through numerous advertisements and reports in local papers it is possible to trace his meteoric rise as a professional photographer and a member of the business community.
In January 1856 Crombie offered 'every man, woman and child an opportunity of procuring a portrait which for artistic finish and mathematical correctness is not to be surpassed'. Mounted in handsome cases or gilt frames they were 'calculated to deck a cottage or adorn a palace'. The advertising succeeded: Crombie claimed that during his first 15 months in Auckland he took over 1,000 portraits.
From September 1856 to September 1858 Crombie toured the 'Southern Provinces', advertising his 'royal photographic gallery' (he claimed that Governor Browne had permitted him to assume the designation 'Photographer to His Excellency') in Canterbury, Nelson and Napier newspapers. In 1859, after his return to Auckland, he moved his premises to Queen Street, and maintained that they were now equal to any in Europe – 'a most perfect studio of photographic art'.
Despite this assertion, in May 1862 Crombie returned to Europe partly to learn about the latest developments in the photographic field. While in Scotland he gave an address to the Glasgow Photographic Association, discussing photography in New Zealand and claiming that only a handful of photographers had been there before him. He described how he first used the daguerreotype process to produce portraits. As each image was unique, the process was expensive and limited to those who could afford a guinea or so for each likeness. Nevertheless Crombie claimed to have made just over 1,000 images in Auckland in one year, and Nelson had responded with 450 commissions during his six month stay. He explained how in 1857 he had changed to the production of glass positives (ambrotypes), and then to paper positives from wet-collodion plates. Before returning to New Zealand in 1864 Crombie married Harriet Berry on 23 May of the same year, at Yarpole in Herefordshire, England.
Crombie was one of the first photographers in Auckland to record outdoor scenes. One panorama from Point Britomart won a medal at the International Exhibition in London in 1862. Always with an eye to publicity, Crombie also covered events that had caught the public's imagination and the photographs now constitute a valuable photographic record of Auckland between 1855 and 1869. Subjects include the injunction case over the Commercial Bay embankment in 1859, portraits of 12 Māori chiefs at the Kohimarama conference in 1860, portraits of the members of the House of Representatives in 1861, the collapse of Sibbin's building in Queen Street in 1865 and the visit of the Duke of Edinburgh in 1869.
By the mid 1860s Crombie's carte-de-visite trade was flourishing (in 1865 he received an order for 1,000 prints for the actors Mr and Mrs Case), and at 9s. a dozen it can be seen that he was fast becoming a wealthy man. He invested his earnings in real estate in Auckland, and in mining operations in the Thames-Coromandel area. In 1871 he was elected chairman of the Caledonian Gold Mining Company which two years earlier had paid out over £½ million in its first year of operation.
In 1872 Crombie decided to leave New Zealand for good and return to England. Selling his photographic equipment to J. Cater, Crombie left most of his other investments intact. In a typically flamboyant gesture he and his wife gave a farewell ball in the Auckland town hall. In 1878, on the return journey from England to Auckland to look into some of his interests, Crombie died in Melbourne on 15 December. He was survived by his wife and five of his seven children.
During his 18 years in New Zealand Crombie not only provided a colourful addition to Auckland's social and commercial worlds, but also did much to elevate the art of photography from that of a street pedlar to that of a respected professional.