When the Crown and Camera Exhibition came to the National Gallery of Victoria in 2004, a person might have assumed the collection was selected from photographs taken by the royal family. But this exhibition was subtitled Photographs of Colonial India 1855-69, and the photographers were definitely not royals.
Felice Beato, Secundra Bagh after the slaughter of 2000 rebels, Lucknow 1858.
Italian-British photographer Felice Beato visited India during the Great Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, being commissioned by the War Office in London. He visited all the mutiny sites; in Lucknow, he took 60 photographs of the city, where the defending British garrison had been besieged by the sepoys only months before.
Lucknow was evacuated and was not recaptured until March 1858, so it was shortly afterwards that Beato probably took this photograph. Why would Queen Victoria have wanted a scene from the Interior of the Secundra Bagh, so soon after 2,000 rebels are slaughtered by the 93rd Highlanders and 4th Punjab Regiment? I readily acknowledge that British women and children had also been mercilessly gunned down by the sepoys. But there was a difference - the British dead were buried, whereas the Indian corpses were left to rot as the photograph showed. A sign of imperial control, to be sure, but also an image of great insensitivity to Indian values.
John Murray, Taj Mahal with Figures Seated in Foreground Ruins, late 1850s
Dr John Murray, a Scottish medical man, only learned to be a skilled photographer while in the Medical Service of the Army of the East India Company. Stationed near the Taj Mahal in Agra, he focused on the Mughal architecture of the region. The Taj Mahal from the East with Figures Seated in Foreground Ruins, taken in the late 1850s, was a new look at an old and famous building.
Samuel Bourne was a British photographer who spent seven years (1863-1870) working in India in the time the NGV was most interested in. Together with Charles Shepherd, he set up Bourne & Shepherd first in Simla in 1863 and later in Kolkata. When he returned home in 1870, he carried with him thousands of photographs of interesting Indian landscape and architecture.
The Memorial Well in Cawnpore was photographed by Samuel Bourne. The Memorial garden had been built in 1860 to commemorate the tragic events of the 1857 Uprising, so this well-shaped symbol was chosen because many British women and children died as they were trying to draw water. The British also erected the All Souls Memorial Church, in the memory of their deceased; we can detect the church steeple in the distance. I am not sure what the locals thought of the mournful angel, surrounded by Henry Yule's marble Gothic screen. But the newspapers at home were well satisfied.
Samuel Bourne, The Memorial Well in Cawnpore, photographed in the mid 1860s
So my final question is: why were British photographs so important in this particular period, up to 1870? Kate Rhodes noted that the Indian Mutiny of 1857 led to large swathes of territory falling to the Indian rebels, only to be quickly suppressed. As a result Queen Victoria apparently stated that “India should belong to me”, so India was promptly declared a crown colony, governed directly by Parliament. This conflict gave rise to an elaborate mythology on both sides and effectively created two Indias: a] British India with 2/5 of the country and 3/5 of the population and b] the Native States, ruled by local rulers.
If the collection of British photographs really did represent a form of selective colonial memory, they did it well. When Bourne and Shepard sent their 1867 catalogue to the South Kensington Museum in London (later the V & A), they received an order for all of the thousands of views listed. Their timing was perfect.
Charles Shepard, Seated Maharaja 1862–4
In November 2011 a new Traders gallery opened at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, exploring the history of Britain's trade with Asia. I hope the gallery includes photos of colonial India as described above, and artefacts from the East India Company in particular.
Another book has recently been published which has gorgeous photos, and diary entries, recorded by a young Anglo-Irish woman visiting colonial India. Jessica Douglas-Home wrote A Glimpse of Empire (Michael Russell Publishing 2011) about her grandmother, Lilah Wingfield.
This was set later than the Crown and Camera book - Lilah visited in the years just before World War I when the Empire was at its peak, and where its power and opulence were brilliantly displayed in the 1911 Delhi Durbar. Lilah saw at first hand the new King George V being proclaimed Emperor before his Indian subjects. Beautifully illustrated with Lilah’s own photographs, the books adds to our knowledge of visual India at a time when this part of the British Empire was rapidly changing.
King George V and Queen Mary, 1911 Delhi Durbar. They were watching quarter-of-a-million spectators, including 500 maharajas.