Degotardi, an Austrian ex-pat, arrived in Australia in 1853 and worked in numerous printing houses in Sydney. Later in his career, he became interested in photography. His panoramic views of Sydney and the surrounding country won him many awards and recognition.
photographer, engraver, printer and publisher, was born on 26 September 1823 at Laibach (Ljubljana), Yugoslavia, son of Johann and Josephine Degotardi. He grew up in Graz, Austria, where he became, successively, apprentice compositor and compositor for the printing firm of Andreas Leykam Heirs where his father worked as a printer. Degotardi left Graz, never to return, on 24 October 1843. In 1844 he worked briefly for the printing firms of L.F. Fues (Tübingen) and J.G. Cotta (Stuttgart). From September 1844 until August 1848 he worked in the printing-house of P.S. Schönefeldt in Itzehoe, apart from an eight months’ break when he worked for the printer C.H. Andersen in Tönning.
In August 1848 Degotardi travelled to London. He remained until January 1853, working as a compositor for John Wertheimer & Co. In London, on 24 April 1852, he married Minna Fränkel from Lower Saxony whom he had come to know in Itzehoe. A London friend with whom he was still corresponding in the 1870s and 1880s was Friedrich Carl Bobardt, subsequently a prominent printer in Halle-an-der-Saale. In 1849 and 1850 Degotardi acted as London correspondent for the Grazer Zeitung , reporting on the city’s political and cultural scene. His diary (October 1843—April 1852) and a notebook on printing techniques (started in 1849) survive.
John and Minna Degotardi sailed from Gravesend for Sydney in the Panthea on 23 January 1853. There Degotardi quickly established himself as a jobbing printer. Between 1853 and 1866 he produced a steady stream of circulars, labels, maps, plans, sheet-music and pamphlets. He occupied a series of George Street premises, staying longest at 20 York Street (1854-57) and at his Sydney Printing House (1860-66) in Robin Hood Lane, off George Street. A preference for the visual and the graphic in his lithographic work is already evident by 1854 in his four-colour printing of Woolcott and Clarke’s Map of the City of Sydney (engraved by J. Carmichael, q.v.) and typified as late as 1865 by the coloured plates in S. Bennett’s The History of Australian Discovery and Colonisation . Illustrations after F.C. Terry and S.T. Gill were also produced from his printery.
From June 1855 until January 1856 Degotardi edited and published The Spirit of the Age , a monthly digest with a guaranteed circulation for each issue of 2000 copies. When the magazine folded he launched, on 5 April 1856, his Australische Deutsche Zeitung which appeared weekly (Saturday) until late in 1859. In the closing months of the paper’s life Degotardi printed the first four issues (May-June 1859) of J. Kruse & H.W. Puttmann’s DeutscheMonatschrift fürAustralien , which was published in Melbourne. Despite the failure of the paper, Degotardi exercised a practical and life-long involvement in the affairs of the German community in Sydney and New South Wales.
From 1859 until 1864 Degotardi conducted a warm, even intimate, correspondence with Alois von Auer, director (1841-68) of the Imperial and Royal Court and State Printery in Vienna. Seven letters and seven further documents from Auer have been preserved. Auer praises, and criticises, the various examples of printing forwarded by Degotardi; he also answers at length, often with additional notes, Degotardi’s questions on nature printing and, above all, on photo-galvanography and photolithography. There is something of Auer’s bouncy entrepreneurial flair behind Degotardi publishing, in 1861, his The Art of Printing in Its Various Branches: With Specimens and Illustrations (facsimile reprint, Brandywine Press and Archive, Sydney 1982). Said to be the first Australian work on printing, the twenty-four-page booklet is in essence an ambitious prospectus for Degotardi’s Printing House and the services there available. It includes descriptions of the processes of photolithography, nature printing and electrotyping.
An example of Degotardi’s new-found expertise in photolithography was his colour printing in 1862 of F.H. Reuss and J.L. Browne’s Map of New South Wales and Part of Queensland , described by a Sydney newspaper on 7 July 1862 as 'printed by means of the newly-discovered art of photo-lithography and … is, we believe, the first application in this colony of the art to purposes in which the draughtsman or engraver have hitherto labored’. A further news item in the same year reported that Degotardi had 'entered into arrangements with the Government for making photo-lithographic copies of official plans for public works’.
Degotardi’s heavy investment in photolithography (including his purchase of lenses from Voigtlander in Brunswick) seems to have sharpened his focus on photography itself, an art he had effusively praised in 1861 in The Art of Printing . By the end of 1866 Degotardi, who now styled himself 'Landscape photographer’ and 'photo-lithographer’, had produced from his Robin Hood Lane premises a Holtermann-like photographic panorama (25.5 × 156 cm) of Sydney, and a series of city views which were awarded a medal ('beautiful collection’) at the 1866 Melbourne Intercolonial Exhibition. His earliest extant photograph is Government House from Garden Island (c.1866, Mitchell Library). His studio, or rather 'Portrait and Landscape Gallery’, was subsequently at 287 George Street (1867-72), previously the studio of William Hetzer , then at 348 George Street (1872-75).
Degotardi showed twelve Photographic Views of Sydney and Surrounding Country, New South Wales at the 1870 Sydney Intercolonial Exhibition; a set is in the National Library. Five frames of his photographs in the New South Wales annexe of the 1871 London International Exhibition were shown by J.H. Newman , presumably acting as his agent. Three were separate frames of opalotypes (photographs on opaque glass), cabinets and cartes-de-visite, while the other two consisted of portrait vignettes, among which the Bishop of Sydney was the only obvious celebrity. He won awards for his landscape photographs at Sydney in 1870 and at the 1873 London International and the 1879 Sydney International exhibitions.
In 1873 Degotardi was briefly in partnership with the engraver S.T. Leigh. Then from 1875 until his death he worked from the family home, purchased in 1859, in John (later Edward) Street, Peacock’s Point, Balmain. A notebook kept by Degotardi from 1871 to 1873 lists the views and people ('¾ lady’) he photographed. A large proportion of the 143 negatives recorded were taken for (and presumably at) David Jones’s store. Other subjects were provided by the Herald , Government House and, with unnerving frequency, the Mortuary. The same notebook comments on the procedures used. Here Degotardi received help, advice and chemicals from F.C. Bobardt in Germany.
He received still more help and advice from Germany when his unmarried half-sister, Josephine Degotardi (b. 1843), came to Sydney on 7 March 1873. She had spent the last three months of 1872 ensconced in the bustling Munich workshops of Josef Albert, and she brought with her extensive notes on photolithography, photographic exposures and developing techniques and, naturally enough, on Albert’s pioneering new calotype process. One immediate result of Josephine’s imported cache (which has survived) was the (unspecified) 'New Procedure’ introduced by Degotardi on 1 April 1873 into his daily photographic routine. In 1875 he was awarded a medal by the Victorian Intercolonial Exhibition for his 'Photo-mechanical Printing … the process stands unrivalled’. A further, final, medal was awarded in Sydney in 1879 for his 'Heliotype process … the negative being worthy of commendation’.
That John Degotardi remained content to practise rather than significantly advance the art of photography was probably due to encroaching ill-health. He died of a cerebral haemorrhage with paralysis at St Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney, on 16 December 1882. His wife Minna (b. 1827) had died of breast cancer on 29 January 1872 and his second wife Anna, née Jung (b. 1840), died on 23 December 1877 in the fifth month of their marriage. Minna and John Degotardi were survived by four of their eight children, of whom John junior (1860-1937) became in turn a prolific and noted photographer within the Public Works Department in Sydney, taking the now famous photographs of the Rocks area of Sydney during the bubonic plague of 1900.