Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.

India through the eyes of 19th-century British photographers

India in sepia

In the eyes of early British photographers, 19th-century India was a place of romance. It’s an image most Indians at the time wouldn’t have recognised

In the eyes of early British photographers, 19th-century India was a place of romance. It’s an image most Indians at the time wouldn’t have recognised

Felix Bazalgette | April 25th 2016

At the Paris Salon de Photographie of 1859, French scientist Louis Figuier marvelled at the many exotic locations on display. Photography had barely even been understood, he wrote, before “a whole band of operators rushed forth…in all directions, to bring us back views of monuments, buildings, and ruins taken in all known lands of the world.” 

During the 19th century, technological advances and the spread of colonial rule led to an increase in global mobility – at least for members of the military and wealthy Europeans. The result was a boom in travel photography, a story richly illustrated by a new exhibition at the Prahlad Bubbar gallery in London. “Tripe Murray Bourne: Photographic Journeys in India 1855-1870” features the work of three early British photographers in India. 

Long exposure times meant that landscape and architecture often made the best subjects. India, with its mountain ranges, palaces, mosques and forts was immediately recognised as a gold mine for photographers eager to feed public demand. “As fine a field as any single country in the world,” enthused Calcutta-based missionary Joseph Mullens in 1857. “There is a deep and growing interest now felt in Europe in everything Indian.” 

Yet while the photography market was flourishing, India was going through a period of great political unrest. The Indian Rebellion of 1857, which led to the dissolution of the East India Company and the institution of the British Raj, had spread across the north of the country and lasted for more than a year before it was suppressed by the British. If anything, however, the rebellion heightened the public’s desire to see India through a viewfinder. Depictions of the sites of famous battles and sieges soon became wildly popular with Britons in both India and “back home”; they helped to gloss over the memory of this painful challenge to colonial authority, and encouraged new tourists to visit the sites and memorials. The eight photographs pictured here are intricately intertwined with this historical moment.

Gateway to Hoosainabad, Lucknow (c.1866)

Samuel Bourne arrived in India six years after the violent events of 1857; he was determined to become a successful professional photographer after quitting his job as a bank clerk. He was soon drawn to the already renowned sites of the rebellion. This photograph was taken at Lucknow, eight years after the siege there that was widely and luridly reported by the international press.

View on the Dal Canal, Srinigar, Kashmir (1856)

His eye was also caught by more rural scenes. This picture was taken during one of his trips in Kashmir, and shows Bourne’s skill at locating calm, picturesque scenes within the Indian landscape. Because of their air of tranquillity, says Sophie Gordon, the curator of the Queen’s art collection, Bourne’s photographs were circulated in Britain and Europe through exhibitions and publications “to encourage a belief in a vast and stable empire.”

Interior of Palace, Diwan-i Khas or Hall of Private Audience, Red Fort, Delhi (1860)

Bourne’s photographs had value as propaganda, but they also reveal him to have been a skilful photographer genuinely enamoured of his subject. Interiors like this one are expertly composed and lit to bring out exquisite details and a gaping sense of space.

The Jama Masjid, Agra (1856)

Dr John Murray, a civil surgeon, arrived in India in 1833, but it wasn’t until 1849 that he started experimenting with the early calotype photographic process and began methodically documenting the architecture of Agra, where he lived and worked. This image, of one of the largest mosques in India, is carefully framed to emphasise the stark, whitewashed panels. A close look reveals ghostly seated figures arranged in the foreground, which give a sense of the building’s daunting scale.

The Taj Mahal from the east (early 1860s)

At the time there was no simple way of enlarging a photograph beyond the size of its negative. Murray had to work with huge and cumbersome cameras in order to make sure the negatives were as large and detailed as possible, resulting in striking images like this one, which was part of his elaborate study of the Taj Mahal. Shot in the wake of the uprising, it was funded by the colonial authorities.

Aisle on the south side of the Puthu Mundapum, Madura (1858)

Captain Linnaeus Tripe is a relative unknown in the history of photography (“Only his name has been truly memorable,” observed one recent critic). Despite Tripe’s military credentials, of the three photographers he was also, ironically, the least interested in the events of 1857, preferring instead to immerse himself in studies of south Indian and Burmese architecture, far from all the fighting. That is until the post-rebellion authorities stopped funding him; in light of the new cost-cutting regime, they thought his expensive cataloguing activities superfluous.

The Great Pagoda in Tanjore, southern view (1858)

It is a shame Tripe was prevented from continuing his projects, as his images of south Indian pagodas, such as this one, are exceptional, boldy playing with framing and perspective. Though he had originally got into photography simply to make historical records of buildings and sculptures, towards the end of his career Tripe was seduced by the aesthetic possibilities of the medium, producing two final series of pure landscape “studies” in 1869 before his retirement. It was a refreshing change from the systematic architectural catalogues that had first made his name.

Maharaja of Patiala and Suite (1870s)

Though architecture dominates this exhibition, there are also a number of excellent portraits, such as this final image of the Maharaja of Patiala, made by Bourne & Shepherd, the photographic studio that Bourne established in Calcutta. It continues to do business to this day, making it the world’s oldest working studio.

Tripe Murray Bourne: Photographic Journeys in India 1855-1870 Prahlad Bubbar, London, until May 22nd

Readers' comment

Sign in or Create your account to join the discussion.

desmcs - April 27th 2016

Hi to Felix and 1843. I find it odd that in a digital world there are no direct links to the gallery, the exhibition or other related. The intriguing piece would be all the richer for it. desmcs