26 October 2013

Colonial India in photographs: Crown and Camera

The book Crown and Camera: The Royal Family and Photography 1842-1910 was written by Frances Dimand and Roger Taylor, and published by Penguin in 1987. The book displayed photographs from the Royal Archives, starting in 1842 when the first known photograph of a member of the royal family was taken, and ending in 1910, the year King Edward VII died. It was based on an exhibition of the same name that had been exhibited in the Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace.

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.

The essay written for the exhibition by Kate Rhodes, assistant curator of photography at the National Gallery of Victoria, was excellent. “Photography played a major role in promoting colonial messages. The desire to collect, order and process the treasures of India, including its landscape, was enhanced by this new means of permanent recording”. Does the colonial context explain such records? Do colonial ideologies help us to understand what we see or don’t see in these pictures today? Clearly yes. Rhodes noted that all the photographers shared compositional qualities, a limited interest in photographing Indian people, a sense of mystery about the places they captured and a desire to record rather than interpret each scene.

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

Charles Shepard’s photo of a Seated Maharaja 1862–4 was not in the NGV exhibition. However this lovely art object is in the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, so I have included it in this article. And because he was Samuel Bourne’s partner.

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.  


Andrew said...

Queen Victoria did not visit India. I wonder if George VI visited. Some brief searching indicates that he did not. I wasn't aware George V had visited. India, fascinating as always.

We Travel said...

We visited the Traders Gallery soon after it opened at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. It was worth going just for that review of colonial history alone.

Hels said...


I can't find any mention in Queen Victoria's biographies about her visiting her British colonies - she was pregnant every second year so that took up 20 years and then her husband tragically died. Perhaps the creation of the title Empress of India for Queen Victoria in 1877 was a consolation for not actually visiting.

King George V, on the other hand, was in India a number of times. He loved the experiences.

King George VI ruled at a difficult, disruptive time. He wasn't even Emperor of India, after independence in 1947 and was too ill to travel in his last years.

Hels said...

We Travel

Thank you. I too have been to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich and loved it. But not recently.

The home page says "Traders: the East India Company and Asia" is a new permanent gallery exploring Britain’s maritime trade with Asia. For 250+ years, the East India Co. uniquely shaped trade between Britain and Asia. The gallery explores the influence of Company trade and power, tracing the changing relationships between Britain and Asia that this brought about.

Hermes said...

Looks such a really good book; will look out for this, thanks

Hels said...


Yes indeed. There are fantastic exhibitions in the world each year, but the chances of any individual art lover being in the right city at the right time are minimal.

So I am finding that it is well worth buying exhibition catalogues, in absentia, as it were.

sila mahmud said...

old is gold.

Hels said...


that is true. The Royal Archives must hold a treasure trove, of which we see only a small amount.