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Ricketts photography collection

Introduction | Gallery | Listing

 

Samuel Bourne Wanga Valley, view 1860s albumen silver photograph 29.0 × 24.0 cm National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Samuel Bourne Wanga Valley, view 1860s albumen silver photograph 29.0 × 24.0 cm National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Since 1973 the Gallery's photography collection has grown to include about 15,000 Australian and international works, with the latter category chiefly being by twentieth-century European and American photographers. An energetic program of acquiring South and Southeast Asian photographs began in 2006 after Director Ron Radford initiated a more central role for art of the Asia-Pacific region. In February 2007 the Gallery acquired more than 200 nineteenth-century photographs from India along with a small group of works from Burma (Myanmar) and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). These came from a collection assembled over thirty years in London by Howard and Jane Ricketts whose holdings and research have formed the basis of a number of pioneering survey shows of Indian photography. Chiefly dating from the 1850s to the 1880s, the photographs from the Ricketts collection acquired by the Gallery include individual photographs on paper and those in albums and illustrated books by the best-known British photographers who collectively made some of the earliest images in India, Burma and Ceylon.

India was one of the first countries outside Europe and America to take up photography. By January 1840 a daguerreotype apparatus was for sale in Calcutta (Kolkata). Despite the difficulties of photochemistry in a tropical climate, a number of daguerreotype studios existed in India. Surviving daguerreotypes from anywhere in Asia, however, are scarce. From the mid-1850s the daguerreotype was superseded by the alternative process of photographs on paper from a negative on glass. The process appealed to the legions of mostly British men stationed in India as part of the East India Company and other colonial ventures. It was a diversion and a way of conveying what India was like to families, friends and investors. Photography also became for Indians a means of presenting themselves to the foreigners. Government bodies also soon adopted pioneering survey projects using photography to encompass and manage the huge physical and cultural diversity of India.

Among the earliest works in the Ricketts collection are twenty-six views from 1858 of significant sites in the First War of Independence (also known as the Indian 'Mutiny'). These were taken by Italian-born British professional photographer Felice Beato, who, having previously photographed in the Crimea and the Middle East, was the most experienced photographer to work in India. His images are the only known photographs of many of the historic buildings in the conflict that were later demolished. Beato went on to China in 1860 where he made pictures of the Boxer rebellion (of which an album is also held by the Gallery) and then established a studio in Japan. Beato went to Burma in 1885 to document the Third Burma War. He remained there developing studios which specialised in photographs of 'Burmese beauties' and 'native types'.

Charles T Scowen Sinhalese girl 1870s albumen silver photograph 28.0 × 22.0 cm National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Charles T Scowen Sinhalese girl 1870s albumen silver photograph 28.0 × 22.0 cm National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Large-scale albumen prints are the exemplary achievements of the nineteenth century; costly and technically demanding, only the best resourced photographers could undertake such mammoth prints. Those who did included military officers who had learned photography in India and came to be assigned on official monuments surveys or took on projects out of personal interest and ambition. In the Ricketts collection this type of survey work is represented by eleven large prints from 1855 to 1857 by Captain Thomas Biggs (1822-1905) of the Bombay Artillery and Dr William Pigou (1818-1858) of the Bombay Medical Service, which come from Architecture in Dharwar and Mysore, a three-volume photographically illustrated book by Anglo-Indian scholar Colonel Meadows Taylor published in London in 1866. Working from 1855 to 1857 Biggs and Pigou were the first designated 'architectural photographers' of sites in western India. Dr John Murray (1809-1898) of the Bengal Medical Establishment specialised in Mughal architecture of Agra, Fatehpur Sikri and Delhi and mastered the difficult process of mammoth plate paper negatives. The Gallery holds two of his dense but mezzotint-like prints, including one from his 1858 portfolio Agra and its vicinity.

Bombay photographers William Johnson and William Henderson were among the earliest to make ethnographic studies in India in 1857. Johnson's The oriental races and tribes, residents and visitors of Bombay (issued in two volumes in London from 1863 to 1866) was the first photographically illustrated ethnographical publication on India.
    Consumption of photography was by no means limited to foreigners' interests; royalty and upper echelon administrators in India and elsewhere in Asia were keen to present images of themselves as presents in exchange for the many photographs sent to them by the crowned heads and statesmen of Europe. A small group of portraits of maharajas by unknown photographers in the Ricketts collection reveal the splendour of the royal courts.

The largest individual holding and aesthetically the 'jewel in the crown' of the Ricketts collection is the group of sixty-four large prints by landscape photographer Samuel Bourne, an experienced landscape and portrait photographer in England active in societies and salons who moved to India in 1862 and worked there until 1870 and returned in the 1880s. He was in partnership with Charles Shepherd and later Colin Murray at various times. Bourne made a series on the sites of the 'Mutiny' in 1864 but his renown comes from the distinctive elegant abstract design of his landscape and wilderness views taken on extensive journeys to Simla, Kashmir and Himalayas in the 1860s, which won him medals in Britain.

Unknown photographer Maharana's elephant, Udaipur 1880s-90s albumen silver photograph 19.2 × 24 4 cm National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Unknown photographer Maharana's elephant, Udaipur 1880s-90s albumen silver photograph 19.2 × 24 4 cm National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Photography in India was impossible without local labourers. Bourne, for example, had some thirty porters and assistants on his Himalayan journeys. Indians were widely employed as assistants to foreign photographers but increasingly became photographers in their own right. In the 1870s a photographer at the Madras School of Industrial Art was employed by James Breeks to take photographs for his book An account of the primitive tribes and monuments of the Nilagiris, published in 1873. Current scholarly consensus is that the photographer was a local, C Lyahsawmy. The first high profile Indian-born photographer was Lala Deen Dayal (1844-1905), a civil engineer who became skilled as an amateur photographer by the 1870s while working for Sir Henry Daly, the Agent to the Governor General for Central India. Deen Dayal set up on his own studio in 1885, becoming the most prominent and acclaimed photographer of Princely India until his death in 1905.

Research into the spread of photography in the Asia-Pacific region has revealed that while some photographers and eras are widely celebrated, others such as Charles Scowen in Ceylon and Beato in Burma are not because their works are later than the colonial era of high adventures or 'first' views. The Gallery aims to bring to greater prominence many of these lesser-known bodies of work by pioneer photographers in the Asia-Pacific in the National Photography Festival exhibition from July until October 2008. The Gallery's survey exhibition will showcase many works from the Ricketts collection and will be the first such survey of photographic art in the region.

 

Gael Newton
Senior Curator, Photography, and curator of Picture paradise: Asia–Pacific photography 1840s–1940s

 

Notes

1 Ron Radford, A Vision for the National Gallery of Australia, presented to the National Gallery Council in June and August 2005, viewed September 2007, nga.gov.au/AboutUs/DOWNLOAD/NGAvision2005.pdf