4 Sep 04 – 30 Jan 05
When Queen Victoria celebrated her sixtieth year in power in 1897 the British Empire spanned a quarter of the earth and its population, making it the largest colonial power to date. The ‘jewel’ in the crown of the Empire was India. The British had actively expanded their presence in the country from 1619, only retreating after India gained independence in 1947. The British East India Company (1600-1874) had a monopoly over all British trade in the region, achieving considerable commercial and political power soon after its establishment. Until its loss of authority in 1858, the Company acted as an agent of British imperialism, with its control spreading over almost the entire country. The term ‘Raj’ describes the period when India was ruled by the Crown until sovereignty was finally won from the British.
The invention of photography coincided with the start of Victoria’s reign in 1837 and was increasingly allied to Britain’s colonial endeavours. Since the 1780s, pictures of India’s architecture, landscape and inhabitants had been available to an eager audience through the art of travelling Britons. But the arrival of photography enabled a more accurate description of scenes than could be gleaned from prints and drawings. More generally, the rise of the new medium also coincided with the development of anthropology and the birth of the museum, both of which were premised on an impulse to collect and classify information about diverse cultures.
Crown and Camera draws on the intertwined histories of photography and colonialism in India. The images on display from the National Gallery of Victoria’s permanent collection, from the 1850s and ’60s, reflect the interpretation photographers gave to their experience during shifting political circumstances. While Queen Victoria never visited the country, the photographs offered both her and other Britons a marvellous window onto India. These images, taken by government, commercial and amateur photographers, meant that all who wanted to could literally possess a small piece of the colony.
This exhibition focuses on the ‘great’ photographers, celebrated in the history of the medium for their work in India. The work on display is, however, emblematic of the type of image making undertaken by others at the time. The most recognised names in this league of well-educated, bourgeois British gentlemen are Captain Linneaus Tripe (1822-1902), Dr John Murray (1809-98), Samuel Bourne (1834-1912) and to a lesser extent Major Henry Dixon (1824-83). Crown and Camera also includes the work of the travel photographer Felice Beato (c.1830-1907) who visited India for only a short time but created images that have since become some of the most memorable in the early history of photography.