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The legacy of George Pye Crombie

Another link, expanding on my blog post can be found on Te Papa's website by Gareth Watkins.

Anzac Day, 2016, is fast approaching. A time to look back with gratitude and sadness for the many young lives sacrificed. Just a century ago the world was in the death grip of the 'Great War' and our New Zealand boys were in the thick of it.

Researching my own connections revealed eleven young men across both sides of the family who perished in World War One. Some fell in the bloody trenches of the Somme, others on the hillsides of Gallipoli. It is a shocking number and sadly, had I not gone looking with some purpose, I would never have known about them. Through silence and the passage of many decades their stories had either been forgotten or kept from view. Initially, I searched for their names on memorials, as though an incision in stone was a marker that at least they existed for a time. Recently I've thought more about the lives they led and what each left behind. As time passes, the more compelling the desire becomes to discover more.

One of those soldiers was 'George Pye Crombie', a first cousin to my great grandfather

'George Archibald Pye'. Both were the namesakes of their shared Scots grandfather.

Born in Edinburgh on the 20th of December 1882, 'George Pye Crombie' came to New Zealand as a very small child and grew up in Roslyn, Dunedin. He worked in his father's tailor shop as a cutter. George however, was a talented photographer of some merit. In his spare time he was an enthusiastic member of the Dunedin Photographic Society and was well known in those circles.

A portion of his collection has just recently been released by Te Papa and the Hocken library and the images are freely available to download under a creative commons license. This example was taken in 1912 and entitled 'Snapped'. I can identify the three women with some accuracy. Firstly, through a clear family resemblance and secondly by their age. They are his younger sisters: Kate born in 1885 (behind the camera), Margaret born in 1890 (also wearing a hat) and the youngest, Elsie, born in 1896 (in ribbons). Of a series of five vistas, each one richly detailed - another shows two of the sisters walking the hills high above Purakaunui and is entitled 'Picking Daisies'.

These are unusual for the time, when photographic portraits, especially of women, were largely limited to stylised interior studio shots. They extend the convention of 'plein air' painting, popular with artists and were taken in late summer near Waitati. He employs an artistic device within the first shot that has them photographing each other and it is interesting to see a long forgotten process revealed. Working on gelatine silver, glass plate negatives, the image quality is superb even at quite high magnification.

There is a tenderness toward the subjects that creates an intimacy for the viewer and strangley, I feel his presence in these images. Clearly, George had an eye for great composition and a love of the New Zealand landscape. That his sisters seemed happy to trek great distances uphill in starched white poplin and co-operate so well, intimates a real family closeness and an appreciation of his art. Or perhaps he paid them very well not to complain!

Another five years later 'Private' George Pye Crombie, 1st Battalion, Otago Regiment N.Z.E.F, service number 29744, would lay buried in the Belgian war cemetery of West Vlaanderan - killed in action on the 13th of June 1917 at Messines Ridge, barely a year after he volunteered. At just 35 years old, that creative spirit was lost to the world forever - the quiet loveliness of these photographs could not portend the horror he must have endured.

From his sympathetic and sensitive obituary in the Otago Daily Times, it strikes me that he was a man who appreciated beauty in all things. I would love to see more of his work and really hope more of his collection is released in the future. Even though his name is recorded on both the Tasman and Mapua war memorials and is written in stone outside the gates of his old school in Kaikorai, George remains forever a long way from home. I hope someone, at sometime over the last ninety-nine years has lain a flower on his grave. I'm sure he would have liked that.

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