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Gervaise Churchill Purcell

1919-1999

Gervaise Churchill Purcell was born on 2 November 1919 to parents Marmaduke and Ann Purcell of McMahons Point in Sydney, New South Wales. Gervaise became interested in photography from the age of about 12 while he attended North Sydney Boy's High School. He took photographs for the school magazine and his first published photograph was in 'Kodak Review'.

During the 1930s, Gervaise’s passion for photography was nurtured by his uncle Theo Purcell who, as an amateur photographer, encouraged the teenager to use his darkroom. During this time, Gervaise experimented with various photographic processes such as Carbro, dye transfer, Dufay, Duxachrome, Ansachrome, gum bi-chromate, transparencies, stereoscopic and microscopic photography. Theo then sent his nephew, who was just 16, with famous Australian aviator Charles Kingsford Smith in his monoplane ‘Southern Cross’, to learn the skills required for aerial photography. Gervaise’s first professional role then followed, as a photographer with W Webber in Carrington Street, Sydney.

In 1938, Gervaise was employed by John Lee from Studio Sun of London, England. Lee had recruited Gervaise for his Sydney office due to his ability to print photographs in black and white as well as in colour. On 27 February 1940, he enlisted in the Militia or Citizen Military Forces at North Sydney, more recently known as the Australian Army Reserve. Within a year, however, he was seconded by the army to work in Canberra under a Professor William Dakin, Director of the Defence Central Camouflage Committee. The army disapproved of the professor’s involvement in military affairs, so by 1942 the committee became an independent advisory body. In 1939, the Sydney Camouflage Group had been formed which comprised artists, photographers, architects, scientists, engineers and civil servants. Dakin was the chairman and by April 1940, the group included the famous artists and photographers, Sydney Ure Smith, Max Dupain and Frank Hinder. Gervaise joined this elite group and worked with Hinder, Russell Roberts and Eric Thompson to research and experiment with various camouflage methods. These artists were referred to as ‘camoufleurs’ and though it was considered a feminine term for their line of work, Hinder joked and devised the term ‘camopansies’ for himself and his comrades.

In 1943, Gervaise was transferred to the Royal Australian Air Force bases in Townsville, Queensland and Darwin, Northern Territory. In the same year, The Canberra Times featured articles on his first solo exhibition which he had initiated to raise money for the Prisoners-of-War Fund. The three-day exhibition was held at the Hotel Canberra from 11 March and received the praise and endorsement of Lady Zara Hore-Ruthven Gowrie, wife of Governor-General of Australia Sir Alexander Gore Arkwright Hore-Ruthven, first Earl of Gowrie. The exhibition featured colour prints of land and seascapes and portraits of animals and children. ‘The Canberra Times’ claimed that about 300 people visited the exhibition in its first day. Another article noted that Gervaise was ‘taken from the Army by the Government who needed his services on work of national importance, and he is now official camouflage photographer, doing work which calls for great skill in photography, and accuracy in detail’ [‘Proposed showing of pictures’, ‘The Canberra Times’, 1 March 1943, p 3].

After the war, Gervaise was recruited by Monte Luke before he decided to set up his own studio in 1952 in Underwood Street, Sydney. From the late 1940s, he had begun to focus his lens on fashion photography as well as other commissions which involved maritime links to the swimwear manufacturer, Jantzen and the cruise ship operators, the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P&O). He also worked for retailing giants David Jones and Hordern Brothers, radio technology manufacturer Amalgamated Wireless Australasia (AWA) and tourism operator Ansett Airways.

Gervaise’s son Leigh Purcell described how his father would hire the models for the Jantzen photo shoots, choose a location and set up the props. In the 1950s he used a Graflex Crown Graphic camera and flash gun mounted on a tripod which took large format sheet film. Its cumbersome nature meant that a limited amount of film was carried and the shots had to be taken carefully so as not to waste the film. After the photographs were printed and retouched they would be used for promotional purposes, often appearing in publications such as the 'Australian Women’s Weekly'. Unfortunately, the few prints that were hand-coloured have not survived the test of time.

The photographs of the launch of the regular Ansett Airways flying boat service between Rose Bay in Sydney and Lord Howe Island demonstrate Gervaise’s skill as a photographer. In the 1950s, flying boats were perceived as a romantic and adventurous way to travel, and his photographs of them exude a sense of spontaneity and freedom. This is also evident in his images of young women modelling the latest swimsuit styles. As noted by Leigh, Gervaise’s photographs displayed ‘the modernity, hint of luxury and carefree leisure that we still associate with the endless holiday of our dreams and which is inherent to Australia’s beach culture’ [Leigh Purcell, 'Gervaise Purcell Photographs: Beachwear 1947-1962', exhibition catalogue from Manly Art Gallery and Museum, Sydney published 2000]. Gervaise Purcell won a string of medals and awards throughout his career and exhibited throughout Australia and internationally in Brazil, Scandinavia, Belgium, Canada, France and England.

Sources:

Dr Ann Elias, ‘The organisation of camouflage in Australia in the Second World War’, Journal of the Australian War Memorial, No 38 April 2003,

Leigh Purcell, 'Gervaise Purcell Photographs: Beachwear 1947-1962', exhibition catalogue from Manly Art Gallery and Museum, Sydney published 2000.

Service record for Gervaise Churchill Purcell via National Archives of Australia, Service Number - N85601, Item barcode 5692737, NAA: B884, Accessed 12 July 2013.