painter, sketcher, professional photographer, surveyor, explorer and collector, was a son of a naval captain who had served with Nelson and the brother of Captain David Welch RN. Trained as a surveyor, he was attempting to improve his artistic skills by taking drawing lessons from William Strutt when he was invited to join Alfred Howitt 's official Victorian government relief party to the Burke and Wills expedition in 1861 at a salary of £120. He was then given lessons in photography from Melbourne’s leading studio of Batchelder and O’Neill so he could also act as the expedition’s photographer. Before setting out he and Howitt took four photographs of Studley Park in December 1861, which proved 'eminently satisfactory’. He took more when he reached the Darling, each time recording the subject in his diary. The first, taken on 1 January 1862, was of Menindie. 'Two days later he took a distant view of the entire expedition as well as a close-up of members of the party stuffing saddles at their camp. By 8 January, he had used six plates which Sampson took to Melbourne. Welch wrote in his diary: “Hope they are good ones.”’ (Bonyhady, p.34) After his sight began to fail, James Murray took over as the expedition photographer. All their photographs were ruined back in Melbourne when the messanger taking them to be developed at Batchelder and O’Neill’s opened them in the sunlight to see what they were like.

Welch collected and documented European and Aboriginal material at Cooper’s Creek, much of which survives. It includes some of Wills’s hair taken from the camel cushions on which he died, part of which he gave to friends in Melbourne to the 'regret and sorrow’ of Wills’s father (Letter SLV, quoted Bonyhady p.1), and also a lock of Burke’s hair 'cut off with a pen knife, previous to interment’ (ML). He gathered specimens and seeds of the nardoo plant. He also acquired artefacts from the Yantruwunta in October 1861, including a nardoo cake made by the Yantruwunta and 'one man’s wardrobe complete consisting of a girdle of grass rope and a grass net for confining the hair’ from 'a fine athletic young native’ in return for a pair of old trousers (Howitt, quoted Bonyhady). Other items, such as another hair net, a bag used for carrying fish, several weapons and 'curiosities’ and a sample of 'pitchery’ (pitchuri) were apparently exchanged for pocketknives and mirrors given by Howitt. Bonyhady calls Welch’s booty 'the first substantial collection of Aboriginal material from Australia’s far interior exhibited in the colonies.

Although one eye was badly injured on the expedition (for which he received £200 compensation) Welch had the great distinction of personally finding King, the sole survivor. Of this achievement, Thomas Chuck made a painting of scenic proportions, which included Discovery of King with the Natives , showing Welsh himself discovering King. The Grand Moving Diorama of the Victorian Exploring Expedition initiated and toured by the impresario George Coppin opened in April 1862 at Castelmaine, where Burke has been police superintendent, then toured Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania in 1862-63 reputedly seen by 80,000 people. All the scenes were painted by professional scene-painters (with Welch acting in an advisory capacity and perhaps participating in the one showing him with King). Welch’s collection of artefacts (ML, MoV) was displayed with the panorama, now long lost. A very slight pen-and-ink sketch, Cooper’s Creek.. Where Wills Died (ML), included in a collection of sketches by William Strutt who annotated it 'sketched by Welch’ is his only known drawing.

By 1875 Welch had returned to government employment and was superintending the construction of a bridge across the Pioneer River at Hermitage, Queensland. He photographed the bridge during its construction. By November 1876 he was in partnership with Stuart in a photographic business at Mackay, Queensland, the two having purchased P.G. Rosenthal’s negative plates and set up the Graphic Photographic Company in a studio opposite the Roman Catholic chapel. Within two years Welch alone was carrying on the business. During the late 1890s he was editor of the Australian Photographic Review .

Staff Writer
Date written:
Last updated: