The Historical Photographs of China project was recently kindly given a copy of ‘The Pageant of Peking’. Published in Shanghai in 1920 and bound in exquisite gold blocked turquoise silk, this coffee (or tea) table book is introduced by Putnam Weale, who waxes lyrical on ‘the Pageant of Peking, a brilliant thousand year old tale’. Tipped in are sixty-six Vandyck photogravures taken by Donald Mennie.
Mennie was born in Scotland in 1875 or 76, and arrived in China in about 1899 to become eventually a director of A.S. Watson and Co., the pharmacy business that published the book. Mennie’s photographs illustrated the popular book about the lives of Chinese women ‘My Lady of the Chinese Courtyard’ by Elizabeth Cooper (1914) and ‘Pictures of Peking’. Indeed, during the 1920s, Mennie also published ‘China by Land and Water’, ‘Glimpses of China’, ‘China, North and South’, and ‘The Grandeur of the Gorges’.
Much of his published work is in the pictorialist style – his photogravures being more art objects than documentary photographs, often with rich or soft browns and subtle tones. “His subjects evoked a romantic vision of ‘antique China’, featuring dusty caravans, misty rural valleys, old palaces, and the Great Wall of China” (Source: Mennie’s Wikipedia biography). Donald Mennie died at the Lungwha internment camp in Shanghai (the camp novelised by J.G. Ballard in ‘Empire of the Sun’, and which deeply impressed him and his writing style, see his autobiography ‘Miracles of Life’).
Here is a slice of life example from ‘The Pageant of Peking’, a photograph entitled ‘The mid-day meal’. The pedlars and carriers have put down their loads, seemingly on a chilly spring day, to enjoy perhaps some hot soup and noodles, sitting at rough benches at a steamy street kitchen, chatting or in companionable silence, as a cauldron simmers gently on the stove. Photographers love steam, smoke and wind-born dust, so Peking was definitely up their street. On the building behind (softly focused naturally) is one of the ubiquitous Admiral posters, advertising Japanese liver pills. See also ‘The hour of rest’.