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Ambassador at the Court:
The Life and Photography of Effie Baker

by Graham Hassall

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Chapter 2


Her forebears were adventurers. Her father's father, Henry Evans Baker, was born in September 1816 at White Hills, Kent. In his youth he sailed the Atlantic to try his luck in New York. In 1852, now Captain of a sea-collier, Baker arrived in the port of Melbourne. He may have known - or he may not have known (for it does not now matter to us which) - that gold had been discovered in Victoria, and that speculators were rushing to the southern Australian colony from many parts of the world. Not one to miss the prospect of making a fortune, and unable besides to find sufficient crew to sail from Melbourne, this "thick-set, dark complexioned man", described for the record as "portly and jolly in appearance and rather deaf"1 sold his boat and joined the rush inland.

Henry Baker's wife, Euphemia Mcleash, grew up in Couper Angus, near Perth in Scotland. She too had ventured to North America, and had married Henry in New York. Her brother William Mcleash later joined Henry Baker in the quest for gold in Victoria. Baker, Mcleash, and their partners Robert Dodd and Samuel Crozier, discovered the Bealiba Reef (also known as the Queen's Birthday Reef). Their claim was registered on the last day of 1863. They erected a four horsepower engine on the site, and their first crush yielded seventy-seven ounces of gold.

Squatters had established the town of Goldsborough in 1854. What commenced as a temporary community, living in calico houses along streets with such names as "Pick", "Shovel" and "Windlass", expanded at one time to a population of 70,000. The Goldsborough reef was discovered in 1865, and the Bakers built their house near it in 1868. The broken ground of the Victorian gold fields, once covered with miners' claims is still visible. This was a culture of expedition. Not far from Goldsborough are weathered but proud monuments to the "Welcome stranger", the largest gold nugget found in Australia, and to the birth place of John Flynn, who established the Royal Flying Doctor Service. The fortune hunters are long gone, but the descendants of those who stayed are now farmers and small town dwellers in the Bealiba, Dunolly and Molaigul shires.

Her father John Baker was educated at Wesley College in Melbourne in 1868 and 1869. But then there was trouble with the family's mining claims, which obliged his return to Goldsborough. This was a culture of tribulation. In 1867 rival miners had attempted to "jump" the leased area on the basis of some improperly registered documents. Captain Baker and his partners won a subsequent court-case, but the legal battle absorbed their newfound wealth (Baker had made as much as five thousand pounds from gold-mining2). Still more capital was lost when Captain Baker made some unwise investments in land. John Baker subsequently worked as a foreman in the mines at Goldsborough and at others in Tasmania.

Her maternal forbears were also British. Her mother's father, James Cully Smith, was a descendant of the Smiths of Norham, - the landed gentry of Northumberland. He arrived in South Australia aged eighteen, and worked a bullock team. He married Eliza Ball in Adelaide in 1844. The Ball's daughter Margaret married John Baker in December 1879 in Goldsborough, where the Smith and Baker families were both temporarily settled. Euphemia Eleanor (Effie) was born on 25 March 1880, the first of nine children. Jack (born 1881) moved for a time to Eaglehawk, New Zealand, before settling in Dingee in Victoria. Esther (born 1883) remained at home with their mother. George (b. 1887) died in infancy, and Suzie (b. 1891) was killed in 1910, tragically, by a Melbourne tram. Lynne (1885), Jess (1889), Jim (1893), Pete (1896) and Beth (1898), mostly married and moved to other parts of Victoria. Effie travelled, adventured, and returned, and was the last of her family to live at Goldsborough.

From the age of six Effie lived with her grandparents in Ballarat. It was a much larger town than Goldsborough, making it easier to attend school. The younger Baker household at Goldsborough was, besides, expanding rapidly, and already had three additional children to feed, cloth, and house. The move to live with grandparents would in these circumstances have been a likely option. Henry Baker had made the move to Ballarat in 1873 to establish the Oddie Observatory (now the Ballarat Observatory). In that year at an exhibition in Melbourne he had won a silver medal for his astronomical work, and had subsequently constructed a 26-inch telescope for the Observatory. He later secured the prestigious task of re-polishing the mirror of Melbourne Observatory's cassegrain telescope. Henry Baker evidently possessed considerable technical ingenuity. On the voyage to Australia he had constructed a dynamo with which to provide his cabin with electric light, and in 1855 he had constructed the first horse-drawn rock-crushing mill on the Bendigo goldfields. His fame spread in the region, and his granddaughter was evidently amongst his admirers. From him she acquired an enthusiasm for science, for observation, and for the use of technical instruments, which she later employed in her own creative endeavours.

Effie was just twelve when Henry Baker died in May 1892. It was a loss she felt for the rest of her life. Her father, John Baker, died of "miner’s disease", now known as emphysema – the result of inhalation of dust, in 1915. It was, however, a culture of enterprise, and Effie seems to have had in her character the ability to make the most of the opportunities available to her. Uncle William Baker (her father's brother), a schoolteacher at Green Hill (a small town near Kyneton, northeast of Ballarat), was among those who took considerable interest in her welfare from her earliest years until after her travel abroad. Thus with the help of such family members, most of whom either painted, drew, or played the piano, she received the best education possible for a Victorian country girl at the turn of the century. She studied music under locally renowned pianist Edgar Nicolas (in 1892, at twelve years of age she won second and third prizes for piano performances at Ballarat's "South Street Eisteddfod"). Away from the schoolyard she explored the countryside on a white pony named "nugget".

Effie's lasting vocation, however, was in the visual arts. After attending Clarendon School, Mount Pleasant State School and Grenville College, she attended the Ballarat East Art School, then Carew-Smyth's Art School, and Beulie College. Having received a thorough grounding in colour and composition Effie became increasingly interested in the new science of photography. When still a teenager, she was presented with a quarter-plate camera by aunt Pheme (Henry Baker's sister). With this Effie took photos while on holidays in Perth in 1898, and around the Ballarat district in 1899, which she developed and printed, and presented in photo albums as gifts to her parents.

One of Effie’s earliest cameras was a No 2A Folding Autographic Brownie manufactured in Toronto, Canada, in 1913. It had four shutter speeds. The slowest, "25", was for "clear" conditions. "B" was a tripod setting for when conditions were "grey, dull, and very dull"; "50" was for ‘Brilliant’ and "100" for capturing ‘moving objects’. A separate lever changed the aperture, according to whether the subject was portrait, near view, average view, distant view, clouds snow, or marine, with the aperture getting progressively smaller.

Effie moved, at the age of 20, to live with aunt Pheme at Black Rock, near Sandringham, on Port Philip Bay. This was much closer to Melbourne, and brought Effie into contact with city life. Miss Baker was a school headmistress, and one of the first women to obtain entrance to the civil service university course in Victoria. Undoubtedly, her independence and success in her career left a lasting impression on Effie, who made her home at Black Rock for the next two decades. There were few women artists in Australia at the turn of the century, and Effie must have been among the most versatile of them. She established a workroom for her tools, materials, and projects. She made children’s toys, and painted wild flowers. She also photographed the wild flowers that grew profusely in the surrounding districts. Melbourne printers T. & H. Hunter published some of these photos in 1914. The booklet, Wild Flowers of Australia, was among the first in Australia to come off a three-colour printing press. Its' pages were tied together with green ribbon, and the mounted photographic plates (5&3/4 inches x 4 inches) were inter-leaved with tissue paper. Wild Flowers of Australia proved immediately successful and went into second (1917), third (1921), and fourth (1922) printings. There were seven prints in the first edition and six in the second, and a combined edition appeared in September 1922. The 1921 edition included a poem by Horace Smith as a frontispiece:

Your voiceless lips, O Flowers!

Are living preachers

Each cup a pulpit, every leaf a book

Supplying to the fancy

Numerous teachers

from loneliest nook.

A Melbourne newspaper reported that the colours were "faithfully reproduced with exquisite softness through the medium of hand-coloured photographs" and suggested to its readers that the booklet would make an ideal Christmas gift. Whether they did so or not is not known. If they did, however, Effie was as acute with money as with science. She later observed that the greater proportion of the profits seem to have been retained by the printers and retailers. In addition to her photographic work, and her painting of wildflowers, Effie worked with wood. Some of her work appeared in the "Women's Work in War Time" exhibition in the Sydney Town Hall in September 1916. Later, when sailing for England, she wrote an essay about her work for publication in the ship's paper:

"Toys for Australian Children"

Perhaps how I came to think about them may be interesting. Just after the war broke out, the Arts and Crafts Society held a sale of work in aid of the Belgian Relief Fund. Each member was asked to contribute. I was tired of painting wild-flower studies so I made a set of doll's furniture in three-ply wood upholstered in mauve leather. It was greatly admired and I was asked by the Arts and Crafts Committee if I could make some for Xmas sale. It was then that I began to think that there was no reason why Australian children should not have Australian toys. Possibly the fact would not have been realized but for the shortage of foreign made toys, brought about by the war.

I think I can safely say I was the first to recognize the possibility of the toy making trade. I had no special training in the work, but was always fond of tools and then the idea came to me, of creating toys typically Australian, and ones that would appeal to the developing minds of the young and of something that would encourage a child to use its hands to exercise its brains and so develop the constructing faculty. My first attempt was a small dolls house of 3 ply wood and so constructed that a small child could build it up and take it down again. Each piece fitting one into the other. Another original design I adapted the Biblical version of Noah's Ark into an Australian setting, substituting a bark hut for the traditional ark, representing Noah and wife as a blackfellow and his lubra, and the animals Australian fauna. This toy the child also is able to construct and then take to pieces again.

Expanding toys which open and expand on the lazy tong or hat-rack system upon which I put a procession of emus and kangaroos, with a native boomerang thrower bringing up the rear, was most popular. A flock of geese and fowls being fed were other designs. Dolls' furniture with raffia used to represent cane work. Dolls' houses all sorts and sizes with furniture complete.

After constructing the ark the child arranged Noah, wife and animals on a map of Australia which expanded when they were ready to enter the ark. Always my endeavour was to weave some purpose or meaning into each specimen I created and to keep a high class standard of toy. I think my efforts were rewarded by the demands made for my goods. Owing to ill-health I was obliged to cease work for some time. But I hope to return to our sunny land with renewed health and vigour and with many fresh and novel ideas to gladden youthful Australian hearts.3

Effie was small and energetic in appearance. She stood just 160cm (5'3"), and had blue eyes and light brown hair. Although she did not marry, she had not gone without suitors. At one time she had a close friend, Wally Watkin, but the two did not marry. Effie had chosen to care for her grandmother and her aunt, and Wally, not caring to wait, had evidently married someone else. Thereafter, it does not appear that Effie was romantically linked to other men.4 Her decision not to marry meant that she had to be self reliant in an era when women's pay was significantly lower than men's. Initially, Effie's economic situation was eased by inheritance of houses from her grandparents and her aunt. But each of these was eventually sold, the latter in order to finance her travel abroad. Opportunities for new experiences took precedence over financial security.

Effie's formative years provided the training for the important work that followed. By the time she encountered the Bahá'í Faith through Clara and Hyde Dunn late in 1922, Effie was mature both personally and professionally. Her character was humble, restrained, and disciplined. She had established herself as a successful freelance artisan, competent in fretwork, photography and painting. Her abilities in photography, model making and painting, refined in the Victorian countryside - together with the simple pleasantry of her personality - resulted in her becoming one of the first Western Bahá'ís to live for an extended period in Haifa. Not only did she make a distinct contribution to the early establishment of the Bahá'í Faith in Australia, and to the visual documentation of Bahá'í history both in Palestine and Iran: her perilous and arduous journey through Iran and Iraq taking the photos to accompany Shoghi Effendi's published translation of The Dawnbreakers provides an enduring accomplishment for which she received - on her own insistence - the barest of renown.

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