Travels in Tibet when photography was new - sale of early photography at Bonhams

Polar II; India and Beyond, Travel and Photography
4 Dec 2012
London, Knightsbridge

An exceptionally rare group of photographic albums featuring images of Tibet taken between 1885 and 1910 are to be auctioned in the Travel & Photography sale at Bonhams in London on 4th December.

These albums show a lost world captured by the first pioneers of photography as well as military men, explorers, diplomats and a field telegraph engineer. The albums range in price from £2,000 to £8,000. Besides the images these albums bear testament to the early and ongoing issue of China's involvement in the region and the need to tread carefully.

A confidential report of a mission to Sikkim and Tibetan frontier by Colman Macaulay, of the Bengal Civil Service. provides a 'Memorandum on Our Relations with Tibet, first edition, author's presentation copy inscribed in pencil on flyleaf "J.D. Hooker from the author, June 1885"", 22 albumen prints, folding map, 1885. Estimate £5,000-7,000. This scarce copy was gifted by the author to the botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911), who had travelled to Sikkim in 1848, a journey that resulted in his Rhododendrons of the Sikkim-Himalaya, 1849–51.

One of the diplomatic conventions of the time (then as now) was that China would give passports for a British mission to Lhasa, but the possibility of doing so was shelved until Macaulay, the Finanical Secretary of the Bengal Government was sent to the border to discover whether a mission was likely to be accepted by the Tibetans. In this he was assisted by Sarat Ghandra Das (the model for the Babu of Kipling's Kim), and returned to Calcutta convinced that the Tibetans would welcome a mission. In 1886 a trade and political mission, led by Macaulay, was assembled at the border, only to be cancelled by London at the last moment when it was realised that Lhasa had never been consulted about the mission, which was likely to be met with armed resistance.

Another album in the sale offers 48 views of Tibet, presumed to have been compiled by a member of the Field Telegraph group, erected to connect Chumbi with Gyantse, during Younghusband's Mission to Tibet, 1904, estimsted at £2,000-3,000.

A third album by John Claude White, with 53 images of Tibet and Lhasa, including a folding panorama, dated 1908, is estimated to sell for £7,000-8,000. This is a rare series of images from Younghusband's Tibet Mission of 1903-1904. Johnston and Hoffman's promotional catalogue of 1905 mentions that the images were initially issued individually or in albums, as half-tone or carbon prints. They were later issued in a two volume set with letterpress descriptions by C.B. Bayley, dated 1907-08. These were almost immediately withdrawn from circulation for fear that the information contained would reveal classified details to the Chinese. Consequently, very few copies remain and are exceptionally rare. Hardly less rare is the volume offered here was published a few months later. For example, there is no copy of this edition in the British Library.

Images in this volume include eight views of the Potola, the palace of the Dalai Lama; a portrait of Ti Rimpochi, the Regent of Tibet with whom "the Dalai Lama left the ecclesiastical seal when he fled, and it was he who affixed the seal, and his own, to the Treaty signed in the Potola on 7th September 1904".

Finally, there is a fourth album of Tibet an Sikkim which offers 100 views and portraits, thought to have been compiled by an officer of the 120th Rajputana, [c.1905-1910], is estimated to sell for £2,000-3,000.

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