The Mysterious Art of Thomas Hinton

Thomas Hinton (1857-1933), who was found to have “unsound mental health,” was admitted on August 25, 1900, to the Hospital for the Insane in New Norfolk, Tasmania. He was “mad” about having his photo taken in various outfits and without clothes.

The admissions record states that Hinton had been sending “indecent photos” to Miss Headlam. These 15 photographs miraculously survived and were acquired by the National Museum of Australia in 2013.

In the Art Gallery of NSW exhibition The Photograph and Australia on the theme of “People and Place” in the 19th and 20th centuries, four photographs are now displayed for the first public time. This gallery shows the many photographic techniques used in Australia to document both personal and official history.

Hinton’s photographs may be a response from one person to Federation, but their full story is much more complex.

JW Beattie Studio, Hobart. Studio portrait of Thomas Hinton. 1900. National Museum of Australia

The images are a response to Australia in the early 20th century, using the conventions and styles of studio portraiture. The photos immediately show the Advance Australia coat-of-arms and other British, Australian, and Tasmanian symbols, such as flags and flora. Thomas Hinton, the subject of many of these photos, is less easily determined.

Hinton created the photos over time, since they were mounted on cards in studios in both Hobart and Launceston. Some props appear in the pictures, which indicates that Hinton created these dioramas.

The usual studio props were also used (the table, pedestal, drapes, and backdrop). Hinton, however, is the only one who has adopted the outfits and poses. He has taken inspiration from the sculptures of idealized heroes for his loincloths and his stance.

Untitled diorama, Thomas Hinton, Launceston Louis Konrad Studio, 1900. National Museum of Australia

Hinton’s photos, as well as what we know about him from other sources, provide a rare look into someone who was suffering a mental disorder at the time. His medical records show that he was twice admitted to New Norfolk, and other evidence indicates he’d been admitted previously to asylums in Sydney or Melbourne.

In 1900, Hinton was 43, single, and a driver or engineer in Tasmania’s middlelands. His condition seemed to be episodic and allowed him to work at times.

Tasmania’s mental healthcare was shaped by its history as a penal settlement. As the government was responsible for introducing social ills through the transportation of prisoners, it was thought that it should also be responsible for caring for the insane. In the 1820s, a hospital was constructed at New Norfolk. It became a sole asylum in the 1840s.

In the late nineteenth century, Darwin’s theory of evolution led to a belief that mental illness could be passed down through families. Recovery was therefore considered unlikely. It was common for family members to hide the mental illness of their loved ones. The staff was vastly outnumbered by patients, making it difficult to provide individual attention or treatment. Patients would be unable to express themselves or preserve their work.

Hinton’s photos are an example of a rare creative work created by someone of “unsound mind.” The fact that they are based on a pivotal moment in Australian history seems appropriate. Given that the photos were created in 1900 and that they use Australian imagery, they are a commentary on the Federation.

The Advance Australia coat-of-arms was also nationally recognizable. The phrase “Advance Australia”, which is now part of the national anthem’s lyrics, was used long before 1984. The word was first used in the 1820s and is best known as the motto on the unofficial Australian flag.

The embroidery is featured on several items in the Museum collection, including platters, pendants, and dog tags. The colonists believed in the future of Australia as an independent, unified nation.

Unknown photographer. Studio portrait of Thomas Hinton. 1900. National Museum of Australia

Thomas Hinton is not known to have taken any other photographs so that the collection could be the result of a short-lived obsession. These photographs are specific to Tasmania at the time of Federation. These photographs use familiar Australian icons, but they are in a very personal way. His version of “Advance Australia,” for example, is painted onto an inverted Tasmanian map and has an ostrich in place of an emu.

In nearly all of the photos, collage is used to decorate different elements of the banner. The collection, when combined, offers a compelling feeling of almost intelligible messages. Mental illness is reflected in their response to national issues. The “madman”, a historically voiceless character, created a visual recording that has survived despite the odds.

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