Page 1: Biography
Photographer, chemist, actor
This biography, written by Chris Brickell, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2020.
Robert Gant is best known for his photographs of men taken in the Wellington and Wairarapa regions between the 1880s and the early years of the twentieth century. These historically significant images document the social lives of middle-class colonists while alluding to the intimate desires of their creator. Gant’s work provides a vivid glimpse into the mind of a homosexual man in late Victorian New Zealand.
Robert Gant was born on 2 April 1854 in Woolwich, now part of greater London, to Robert Boddy Gant and his wife, Elizabeth Couch, and grew up in the family home at 39 Artillery Place. His grandfather was a surgeon and his father, Robert senior, a chemist who taught young Robert the rudiments of his trade. In 1876 Gant sailed on the Lord Warden for a new life in the antipodes, serving an apprenticeship with chemist Henry Brittain in Wellington. In Wellington Gant enjoyed the close friendship of his cousins, the siblings Alfred Hill, who became a noted composer, and the accomplished painter Mabel Hill. There he also became involved in plays and musical theatre and performed with the Patchwork Company, a troupe run by Alfred and Mabel's father Charles Hill that toured the lower North Island. He took on numerous female roles under the alias Cecil Riverton and was lauded for his work. Of his performance in Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera HMS Pinafore, an Otago Daily Times reviewer declared Riverton ‘the funniest Buttercup yet seen’.1 Gant was also a member of the Wellington Amateur Dramatic Club.
In 1882 Robert Gant moved from Wellington to the Wairarapa town of Masterton, where he worked for chemist T.G. Mason. In his spare time he sang in fundraising concerts for the town’s rugby football and cricket clubs and the Masterton Volunteers. He also stage-managed productions for the Masterton Amateur Dramatic Club and the Masterton Philharmonic Society, and took to the stage himself. Gant played key roles in several local Gilbert and Sullivan productions, including Pirates of Penzance, The sorcerer and Trial by jury. He made friends with a number of local men in their early twenties, clerks in the local authorities, banks, the post office and the Loan and Mercantile Agency. These men, who constituted part of Masterton’s emerging middle class, also acted on stage and played in the district’s sports teams. They were the subjects of Gant’s new hobby: he took his dry plate camera and accompanied them into the hills, to the local swimming holes, and into the homesteads of the large farm stations, photographing them extensively. Gant appears in several of his own photographs; sometimes he used a long rubber extension cord and sat several metres away from the camera. Dry plate camera technology allowed reasonably candid shots: the shutter release time was between 1/60th of a second and one second in good light. He pasted the hundreds of resulting albumen prints into photograph albums, often captioning them with information about the subject or the photo shoot.
Photographing colonial men
Robert Gant’s photographs invite viewers to reconsider common assumptions about men’s lives in nineteenth-century New Zealand. This was not always a world of stoic, stunted and emotionless masculinity or rough frontier hardship. Gant and his friends were reasonably well-off, and theirs was a life of relative ease with opportunities for relaxation. Many of Gant’s photographs speak of an easy comfort with physical closeness, and these men constantly expressed their friendship in tactile terms. They hugged and glanced slyly at one another, their hands resting on shoulders and legs touching, and they often adopted an active relationship with their viewers. It is not always possible to know what meanings the sitters attached to these pictures, but Gant’s own interest is rather more visible. As a photographer he had a keen eye for angelic countenances and taut, athletic bodies. His camera focused on men’s facial features and necks, the sunlight falling on shoulders and torsos, and he sometimes directed viewers’ eyes to thighs and crotches.
Homoeroticism usually went unnamed in this pre-Freudian world, and among the general population physical desire was not always clearly distinguished from male friendship. For some, though, including Gant himself, male friendship shaded into eroticism. Some of Gant’s imagery shared elements of an understated international iconography common to men who wrapped their same-sex interests in a variety of visual camouflages. Gant presented his own interpretation of ‘The swimming hole’, for instance, a famous painting of naked male swimmers by the American Thomas Eakins. In other photographs, the sitters pose as saints. As a shareholder in the Rationalist Newspaper Company, Gant was apparently non-religious, but spiritual and religious themes spoke to many homoerotically inclined men of transcendence, salvation and redemption during the Victorian period. Similar allusions could be found in the photographs of Fred Holland Day, an American pictorialist who campaigned for photography to be regarded as fine art. Classical imagery appeared in Gant’s work too. Some of his friends were rendered as Greek busts, and youths posed against buildings in arcadian settings. There are striking similarities between Gant’s pictures of men and the classically inspired images of the Sicilian youths who sat for German-born photographer Wilhelm von Gloeden in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Such engagements with the classics offered another alibi, allowing photographers to allude to same-sex attraction in a socially respectable way.
Travelling, and returning to Wairarapa
Robert Gant left Wairarapa in 1891 and briefly returned to England to visit family. He was given a rapturous send-off by his friends and local dignitaries, who thanked him for his extensive voluntary work in the community. ‘During eight years’ residence Mr Gant has never been known to refuse his services at the call of charity. Every denomination, every society, public institution, Fire Brigade, Volunteer corps, Football and Cricket Club has at different times made use of his talent’, stated the Wairarapa Daily newspaper.2 Several months later, when Gant returned from his holiday, he set up as a chemist on his own account in the main street of Greytown. He resumed his active role in the social life of the district, organising plays and concerts for the local fire brigade, churches, schools and the Wairarapa Hunt Club, and serving as treasurer of the Greytown Horticultural Society. Gant’s creative skills extended beyond photography. In 1894 he wrote a comedy for the stage, The lady mayor, which was probably a slightly glossed-over reference to the life and career of Elizabeth Yates, Onehunga’s mayor and the first woman to serve in that office in the British Empire. Gant took the role of the mayor for himself, and he ‘came in for the lion’s share of the applause’.3 Another piece of writing was ‘At the end of a holiday’, a story published in Sharland’s Trade Journal the same year. This curious but evocative tale told of a seance, a young man’s disappearance, and an execution in China, and was full of references to homoeroticism and male beauty. It won a prize of one guinea in a competition run by the journal.
A same-sex partnership
In about 1898 Gant moved from Wairarapa back to Wellington, where he once again worked as a chemist. He had a house built for himself in Beere Haven Road in Seatoun, where he lived for six years before leasing out the dwelling and moving back to Wairarapa for three years. In 1908 he returned to Seatoun and lived with a male partner. Charlie Haigh, 33 years Gant’s junior, was a butcher’s son from Greytown. A draper by trade, Haigh took a job behind the fabric counter at the Drapery Importing Company (DIC), a department store in Lambton Quay. Gant and Haigh often spent their holidays together at Te Rakau Nui, the Haigh family homestead in Greytown. They led a life of musical and other genteel pursuits, and Gant posed his young lover and their friends for the camera in and around the homestead. Religious and classical themes continued to appear in Gant’s images. Haigh was a saint in one image from about 1910, his halo clearly visible. In another photograph a boy appears in a field with a wreath in his hair while holding a sheaf of poppies, a Greek and Roman symbol of life, fertility and death. Both men continued to visit Greytown in the 1920s and 1930s after Gant retired, and Haigh’s family ties endured. The relationship lasted until 5 July 1936, when Gant died of a heart attack at the age of 82. Charlie Haigh was the principal beneficiary of Gant’s estate. Five years later he too died of heart failure, aged only 53.
Many of Robert Gant’s photographs have survived in the collections of the Alexander Turnbull Library, the Wairarapa Archive and a private collection. They are an important record of long-overlooked aspects of the history of New Zealand masculinity and homoeroticism.