Capta in Linna e us T ri p e : Pho tog r a ph e r of In di a an d B u rm a, 1 8 5 2 – 186 0
fter ten years’ service as a young officer in the East India Company’s army, the distinctively named Linnaeus Tripe came home to England in 1851 on his first leave. His return came at a propitious time for his future involvement with photography: the Great Exhibition of that year saw the medium displayed for the first time to a wide general audience, which flocked to this extravagant celebration of modern technology, design and applied art. The early years of the 1850s were to see a blossoming of photography, both at a commercial level and through amateur associations and societies. While the precise date of Tripe’s own introduction is uncertain, his election as a founding member of the Photographic Society of London in February 1853 establishes that he too was entranced by its descriptive power and potential for artistic expression. The small surviving group of views of his native Devonport taken during this three-year period of home leave signal both an individual eye and technical expertise in the manipulations of large-format photography, but it was to be in the East that his talents were developed and refined. Tripe lost no time in putting his newly acquired skills to the test in the unforgiving climate of south India. In December 1854, only a few months after his return to duty, he travelled cross-country from Bangalore with his colleague Dr Andrew Neill to make a photographic record of the richly sculptured Hoysala temples at Halebid and Belur. This work – consisting of around 100 negatives – provided an organised and comprehensive photographic survey of these celebrated sites. Taken in a private capacity, but clearly foreshadowing the future direction of his ambitions, the expedition may well have been intended as a demonstration of photography’s aptitude for archaeological and architectural documentation and an advertisement of his own suitability to undertake such work. In any event, these photographs, glowingly reviewed when they were exhibited in Madras in early 1855, coincided with the adoption of photography as a tool of record by the Indian authorities and placed Tripe in a position to benefit from the growing official interest in the medium.
News of the introduction of photography in 1839 had quickly spread to India, and while a few early pioneers had struggled to master the new technology, photographers’ attempts to establish a foothold throughout the 1840s met with limited success. But by the mid-1850s this unpromising situation had been transformed: commercial studios were starting to make their presence felt and flourishing photographic societies were active in the three presidency capitals of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras. These supplied information to those striving to practise photography in challenging Indian conditions, as well as acting as forums for discussion, exhibitions and lectures. The support of the East India Company gave further encouragement – in 1854, aware of the escalating costs of employing artists to document India’s material culture, the directors recommended the use of “photography on paper” and offered to supply equipment. This absorption of the medium into the arsenal of the colonial government’s information-gathering resources, allied to events on the country’s eastern borders, resulted in a major opportunity for Linnaeus Tripe. In the course of three wars of encroachment between 1824 and 1885, the expanding imperial domains of British India swallowed up the Burmese empire. The conclusion of the second of these conflicts in 1853 saw the British occupying the province of Pegu, precipitating the overthrow of King Pagan Min and the accession of his half-brother, Mindon Min. While the latter assumed that in due course his land would be returned to him, this formed no part of British plans, and in 1855 the Governor-General Lord Dalhousie proposed that a mission should be sent to the Burmese court at Ava to persuade the king to sign a treaty transferring the conquered territory to British rule. In addition to its stated diplomatic objective – about which Dalhousie entertained little hope of success – the mission was seen as a rare opportunity to gather information about a country hitherto largely closed to Western penetration. To this end, its personnel included officers whose duties were to investigate and survey the land, its people and culture and to explore its commercial potential. Significantly, Dalhousie considered that a visual record “would
V&A Magazine Summer 2015
V&A Magazine, Issue 37, Summer 2015 Style, sex and psychology