Story: Harding, William James

Page 1 - Biography

Harding, William James

1826–1899

Photographer

This biography was written by John Sullivan and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 1, 1990

According to family information William James Harding was born on 19 September 1826, at Southampton, England. He was one of eight children of Thomas Harding, cooper, and his wife, Mary Ann Bennick. On 3 September 1853 Harding married Annie Baker at the New Christian Church in Argyle Square, London. At that time he was a coachbuilder. They were to have eight children.

William and Annie Harding arrived in New Zealand in 1855. Two brothers had already emigrated – John in 1842 and Thomas in 1848. The three brothers, and Annie, were followers of Emanuel Swedenborg, and strong supporters of the Total Abstinence Society. William and Annie settled in Wanganui, where William set up briefly as a cabinet-maker but in 1856 established a photographic studio. By the 1860s his studio was installed in a two-storeyed, corrugated-iron building on Ridgway Street.

William Harding undertook both portraits and landscape work, but preferred the latter, sometimes renting out his portrait rooms to other photographers. In portraiture, however, lay financial security; in 1876, when a series of views of the Manawatu Gorge bridge had attracted no interest, despite ruinously low prices, the Wanganui Herald commented that 'Mr Harding…is surely more enamoured of the beautiful art than of another art very different in character, that of making money.' When taking portraits, moreover, Harding failed to flatter his sitters either by investing in elaborate studios and fittings or by retouching.

Harding was a gentle, kindly and pious man with a lively interest in the sciences, who worked for the love of it rather than for financial gain. In a letter of 1877 he described the cut-throat competition that raged among Wanganui photographers, in particular between C. H. Monckton and an unnamed rival, and his own half-hearted response: 'Then…another Photographer to shut him [Monckton] up reduced his charges to half wat Monckton does Then Monckton takes vengeance on him and builds a fine place for himself a short way from him in the same street. As for me on my part I was obliged to have new skylights put to my Portrait-rooms.'

Harding could not survive in this milieu. Despite attempts to supplement his income by doing various odd jobs of electroplating and carpentry, he was never to escape his financial burdens, at one stage falling into bankruptcy. The family's survival was largely due to Annie Harding who established a successful school on their arrival at Wanganui and also taught music and dancing.

The 1880s brought increasing competition and Harding's financial distress deepened. In October 1889 he and Annie went to Sydney to live with a daughter, leaving behind more than 6,000 negatives of settlers and landscapes in the Manawatu and Rangitikei areas – a testament to the integrity of a committed and meticulous craftsman, an uncompromising artist; and an unequalled record of the colonial experience. The negatives are held in the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, and the Wanganui Regional Museum. Harding died in Sydney on 13 May 1899.