Isabella Lucy Bird – photographer and traveller

Isabella Lucy Bird, Carstairs collection, JC-s091.

Isabella Lucy Bird, Carstairs collection, JC-s091.

Mrs Isabella Lucy Bishop (née Bird), FRGS (1831-1904), was a remarkable traveller, writer, photographer, horsewoman and natural historian.  In 1892, she became the first woman inducted into the Royal Geographical Society and she was elected to membership of the Royal Photographic Society in 1897.  Travelling in China in 1897, she visited the China Inland Mission centre at Paoning-fu (Langzhong) and met Dr W.W. Cassels (later Bishop of Western China).  Afterwards she sent him a cheque for £100 towards founding the Isabella Bird Hospital, pictured below.

Isabella Bird Hospital, Paoning (Langzhong), 1917, Elliott collection, El01-59.

Isabella Bird Hospital, Paoning (Langzhong), 1917, Elliott collection, El01-59.

Among other travel books, Bird is the author of ‘The Yangtze Valley and Beyond’ (1899) and Chinese Pictures: Notes On Photographs Made in China’ (1900), both containing many of her photographs – some of these can be viewed on the Royal Geographical Society Picture Library site.  More of her photographs and papers are held at the National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh – a city she made her home when not on the road.  Isabella Bird was fascinated by China and, when she died in Edinburgh, aged 72, her bags were packed for a return trip.

Interest in Isabella Bird was revived when some of her travel books were republished by Virago Press in the 1980s.  She is the subject of the BBC radio programme Great Lives – Meg Rosoff on Isabella Bird.

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Christmas card

Road after snowfall, with rickshaw, Hulme collection, OH03-007.

Road after snowfall, with rickshaw, Hulme collection, OH03-007.

Compliments of the season to all friends of ‘Visualising China’ – and all best wishes for the road ahead.

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Location Location Location

First World War memorial, Weihaiwei.  Ruxton collection, Ru-s087.

First World War memorial, Weihaiwei. Ruxton collection, Ru-s087.

As we digitise more material, more connections are elicited.  For example, a photograph (BL04-71) in the recently copied Love collection was captioned in the album ‘Great War Memorial Wei-Hai-Wei’.  Seeing this photograph brought to mind a photograph in the Ruxton collection (Ru-s087) – which shows a detail of the very same memorial.  However, the Ruxton photograph came to us without any captioning; thanks to the Love collection photograph we now know that this is a First World War memorial, in Weihaiwei (Weihai).

First World War memorial, Weihaiwei.  Love collection, BL04-71.

First World War memorial, Weihaiwei. Love collection, BL04-71.

Many thanks to Terry Bennett for locating Wi02-04 and Ta01-14 (as blogged).

Also to Special Collections at SOAS for information including the location of OH03-010.

Another useful recent discovery is the location of the pagoda in OH02-27 (as blogged).

The revised location information on the Historical Photographs of China database will soon appear in the relevant entries on Visualising China too.

A big thank you to everyone who has helped with various known unknowns.

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Lucky Eights: 8888 photographs now online

The project just posted its 8,888th photograph. 8 is an auspicious number in Chinese culture because of its closeness in sound to the word for wealth/fortune across a number of dialects. Companies compete for telephone numbers with multiple eights, and the 2008 Olympics in Beijing opened at 8.08 pm, 8 August 2018, not forgetting the 8 seconds.

To mark the occasion here’s a colourful favourite of ours, snapped in glorious Kodachrome colour on 29 November 1945 — 68 years ago today in fact (8 again!) by British Air Vice-Marshal Arthur Fiddament on a street in Kunming.


‘Kunming. V. small child in highly coloured frock. 29 November 1945′, Booker collection, RB-t887, © 2010 Rosemary Booker.


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Darwent Revisited: Shanghai now and then

Photography is the context, subtext and pretext for an exhibition that opens today.  The exhibition includes new photographs by Jamie Carstairs inspired by the text of Shanghai: A Handbook for Travellers and Residents, a guidebook to the city by Revd. Charles Darwent, first published in 1904.

Darwent was a Minister at the Union Church in Shanghai, and a founder member and first chairman of the Shanghai Amateur Photographic Society (S.A.P.S.).  His guidebook includes useful phrases in ‘Pidgin English’, including some for use ‘At a Photographer’s’ which hint at the guide book’s particular flavour, for this book was very much a photographer’s companion. ‘Twelve pieces wanchee wallop’, it begins: ‘I want these twelve plates developing’.

Serendipity brought a carefully annotated album of Darwent’s original photographs to the ‘Historical Photographs of China’ team in 2009, and many of the prints were originals of those reproduced in his guide. In 2011, inspired by the album, photographer Jamie Carstairs set off to revisit Darwent’s Shanghai, following Darwent’s guidebook instructions, and seeking to recapture the spirit of the book.

Like the Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado, the words of the Bible must have been the ‘soundtrack of Darwent’s life’ – it is marvellous that some of his original photographs have survived, for time is not kind to pieces of photographic paper “As the chaff which the wind driveth away” (Psalms 1:4, King James Bible ‘Authorised version’. In his album, Darwent captioned his photograph of a woman winnowing wheat with this biblical quotation – see below).

Darwent Revisited: Shanghai now and then is part of the University of Bristol’s InsideArts festival and was funded by the AHRC and the British Academy.  The exhibition features photographs by Jamie Carstairs, Charles Darwent and other images from the Historical Photographs of China collections.  It is on at The Island, Bridewell Street, Bristol BS1 2LE, until Friday 22nd November, 10am to 6pm.

A visitor at Darwent Revisited: Shanghai now and then. Photograph by Jamie Carstairs.

A visitor at Darwent Revisited: Shanghai now and then. Photograph by Jamie Carstairs.


A page from an album of photographs given by Revd. Charles Darwent to H. Wilcockson.
‘Where did you get that hat?’ Photographs by Charles Darwent. © 2009 Jane Hayward.

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Art imitates art


Programme for a Customs musical evening, Nanking, 1902, Hedgeland collection, He01-077, © SOAS

One of the images (on the right) in Historical Photographs of China, features the same compositional idea as Angus McBean’s photograph (below) of the theatre designer and producer William Chappell (1907-1994) – juggling heads.  This brought to mind Geoff Dyer’s The Ongoing Moment in which Dyer ducks and dives, dodges and burns, through the history of photography: the book is structured around the observation that the great (mostly American) photographers that he discusses, often photographed the same things (Barber shops, benches, hands, roads and signs, for example).   It is an entertaining conceit, but flawed of course in that he selects the few images that fit this thematic approach – images that are of the same things – and ignores the hundreds and thousands that are not.

The Angus McBean photograph is held in the Theatre Collection, University of Bristol, and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard University.  Other fine McBean (and John Vickers) portraits from the John Vickers Collection are due to be exhibited in Faces of Theatre, as part of University of Bristol’s InsideArts festival.


William Chappell juggling actors. Publicity photograph for ‘The Globe Review’, Lyric Hammersmith, London, 1952. Photograph by Angus McBean. Theatre Collection, University of Bristol. © Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard University.


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Peking Picnics

Feo, Stancioff and Sir Miles Lampson, Ann Phipps Collection, © 2008 Charlotte Thomas

A figure who looms large in Sino-British diplomatic relations in the late 1920s — literally because he was well over six foot tall, and hefty with it — was Sir Miles Wedderburn Lampson, later 1st Baron Killearn. Uncle Miles is how we know him in the office, though, for we have now digitised several albums of photographs taken or owned by his niece, Ann Phipps. Phipps twice visited the Peking Legation for extended periods between 1926-33 when Lampson was British Minister to China (the position was not upgraded to Ambassador until the 1930s).

Some 230 of these photographs have now gone live on the site. This is real Peking Picnic territory, the world sketched quite wonderfully in Ann Bridge’s novel of that name, first published in 1932. Bridge knew her territory, for she was married to Sir Owen O’Malley, who was Acting Counsellor of the British Legation from December 1925 until, embroiled in an insider trading scandal in 1927, he was ‘Permitted to Resign’ from the diplomatic service. (He was subsequently exonerated, and resumed his diplomatic career). There are picnics galore in Ann Phipps’s albums, and days at the Peking races, and holidays in the Western hills. We only lack some of Bridge’s bandits.

Lampson is generally most closely associated with Egypt, where he served as High Commissioner from 1933-46, but his contribution to the improvement in British relations with the Guomindang, and its National Government of China after 1927 was substantial. So, what do our photographs tell us about Sir Miles that has previously been little noted? Well, one thing to us is quite obvious: he liked his hats.

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Who took the photograph, reprised?


Photographing in military earthworks, after fighting, Love collection, BL-n087.

BL-n087 is a photograph of a photographer taking a photograph.  You may be able to identify the photographer at work, if you recognise the photograph he probably took here: a scene including a human corpse and battle debris – the aftermath of an engagement, at a makeshift earthworks fort, taken during or just after the Boxer Uprising.  One can imagine the hot pungent working conditions of this unidentified proto-photojournalist.


A photographer taking a photograph in military earthworks, Love collection, BL-n088.

It is possible that the photographer operating the large view camera on a tripod (see BL-n088, a detail of BL-n087) is the American James Ricalton, who “was widely acclaimed as one of the most important (certainly most popular) photographers of his time.” (Source: ‘James Ricalton’s Photographs of China during the Boxer Rebellion’ by Christopher J. Lucas)?  Ricalton took many stereoscope photographs in China in 1900, published by Underwood and Underwood.

BL-n087 is a copy of a photograph, made on a glass plate negative – and is one of a set of 59 negatives, being photographs of various items assembled and then copied on a copy stand with a dry plate camera, possibly in about 1902-15, that together illustrate the story of the siege of the Legations in Peking (June-August 1900).  The items copied include photographs from at least two different albums, also unmounted photographs (including some by Reverend Charles Killie), notes and letters sent during the siege by Claude Macdonald, Colonel Shiba, Herbert Squires, Admiral Sir Edward A. Seymour and General Alfred Gaseley,  and a plan of Peking and other printed magazine illustrations (from the Royal Engineers Journal and the Illustrated London News), and also the diners signatures on back of a menu for a ‘Lest We Forget’ dinner.  It can be surmised that this narrative set was created to make prints for exhibition, or to illustrate a publication.  The glass negatives are in a wooden box at the Billie Love Historical Collection picture library.

For a lighter set of pictures of photographers at work, see

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Who took the photographs?

Our collections are generally identified with a single individual, in most cases the woman or man who lived and worked in China, and who provides the current owner’s family link to China. In some cases we can certainly state with great confidence that the images in, for example, the G. Warren Swire or Fu Bingchang collections, were taken by Swire or by Fu. We know that they were adept amateur photographers, and we have often been working with their negatives, rather than prints. But the collections of photographs brought to us are often in fact amalgamated from a great variety of different sources. We are now so used to thinking of our family or personal collections of photographs as being taken by us, that we forget that for most of the history of photography so far this has not been the case.

The albums we receive and copy are often collections of photographs that have been purchased from photography shops and studios (as postcards would now be bought), commissioned from photographers, or otherwise acquired from work, or from friends. In many cases we might find that only a minority of images, if that, have actually been taken by the man or woman whose name we have assigned to the collection. (They might well have been taken by other members of the family). Shop-bought images would be cheaper: no need to purchase a camera, and film, and to pay for processing costs. Photographs bought from a shop are also likely to be technically better, and could show sights and scenes to better effect than might otherwise be caught. We might now assume that a photograph we took ourselves would be a more authentic record of our experience, but this was not necessarily a view held by visitors or residents in the past.

We see this most obviously in one sub-category of photographs that are quite pervasive: images of executions, including the 1904 and 1905 executions by slow-slicing (lingchi) of  Wang Weiqin and Fu Zhuli in Beijing, the execution of the pirates of the ship the Namoa in 1891, and executions carried out in the 1920s and 1930s in Shanghai. These turn up across different collections, and sometimes lead some current owners to believe that their ancestor witnessed the events. This is usually not the case: the photographs have been bought. While this is the most dramatic example of the practice, many other images in people’s collections were also purchased from shops, and advertisements in newspapers and guidebooks highlight the fact that shops and studios had images to sell. We do have less unpalatable examples across our collections, such as these below, of a man posed eating rice from a bowl, and of a pagoda near Fuzhou. This does not detract at all from the quality and unique interest of the collections that we have seen — or that you might have. It is instead a complication that makes them all the more interesting, and which sheds light on the social history of the photograph, and the history of these documents as objects.


Smiling man with a bowl of rice, Chatterton collection, Ch-s17.

no01-12-Good Appetite.jpg

Smiling man with a bowl of rice , from the book ‘Shanghai’ (published by Max Nössler, c.1907).











White Pagoda, Foochow, Banister collection, ba04-82.


White Pagoda, Foochow, Wilkinson collection, wi01-03.










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Magical pagodas


Cracked pagoda: Oliver Hulme collection, OH02-27, © 2012 Charles Poolton.

A guest blog from Dr Tehyun Ma: This rather magical photo, taken by postal official Oliver Hulme around the turn of the century, is one of my favourites.

Looking at the structure, which was probably in the vicinity of Hebei, you can’t help but be struck by a sense of the supernatural: that perhaps it was the presence of these peasants, lined up in an almost ritualistic fashion, that’s holding up this holy and ancient edifice, after it had been mortally wounded by an earthquake. And maybe – just maybe – their devotion could also make it heal … just like Xian’s Little Wild Goose.

The Little Wild Goose Pagoda, built in the eighth century, suffered a similar calamity at some point in its long lifetime: a long crack down its spine which went unattended until the 1960s. Since its completion, Little Wild Goose has not only withstood more than 70 earthquakes over 4.0 magitude, but has also healed itself time and time again. The crack, legends have it, becomes smaller to the point of disappearing until the next big quake, when the cycle restarts. Healing lore of this kind also surround Dali’s Three Pagodas and others pagoda of this style in the region.

Though the veracity of the pagoda’s self-healing powers remains unconfirmed, the ability of some split pagodas to withstand collapse has intrigued scientists. The long-standing theory of a wok-base foundation, which some suggest gave the structure a ‘Budaowen’ (or roly-poly) quality, has recently given way to a new hypothesis about the ‘stepped’ or stair-like foundation. This building technique, drawn from old Chinese tomb construction, lessens the impact of the quakes and may allow the two halves of the structure to collapse gently back onto each other.

This particular pagoda was not so fortunate. Attempts to track down its precise location have thus far drawn a blank, and at some point, it seems likely that it collapsed without being rebuilt. We’d be keen to hear from anyone who might be able to help identify it.

UPDATE November 2013, Mystery solved: In Spring 1913 American Luther Knight (1879-1913) took at least two photographs of the pagoda, which are reproduced (without the mesmerising audience) in Looking back at Chengdu: Through the Lens of an American Photographer in the early Twentieth Century (回眸历史:20世纪初一个美国人镜头中的成都), just published by China Travel and Tourism Press. The site was the Longxing Temple, in Pengxian county (now Pengzhou city, north of Chengdu), Sichuan province (四川省彭县城龙兴寺) and –magically the pagoda, much altered, still stands.



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