Chinese photo albums feature in next Chiswick Asian sale

Three photographic albums, to be offered in Chiswick Auctions’ ASIAN ART sale on May 16 2016, each give a different perspective on the European experiences within China in the first three decades of the 20th Century.

Given the civil war, World Wars and Communist struggles across China throughout the 20th Century, photographic documentation of this kind tended not to survive. Largely because of this, albums of this kind are important historical documents and their value in auction has increased dramatically in recent years. Occasionally, they turn up at auction as family attics are emptied.

Clearly, such depictions are heavily influenced by the cultural values and backgrounds of the people involved. The album of Herbert Dixon Summers, Secretary Directorate-General of Posts Peking shows photography between the years of 1916 and 1920.

Summers album (1)

The album shows images of an idyllic lifestyle filled with picnics and outings as well as visits to attractions including the Great Wall in 1917, the Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace, and the Forbidden City, all in and around Beijing. There are also views of the Tianjin floods of 1917.

The album of Cpl. RS Knott, in contrast, is more directly engaged with the Chinese themselves. It includes images of the Bund, in Shanghai and the Ming tombs, but also images of Knott and his friends dressed up in traditional Chinese robes and pictures of a number of Chinese people with whom they were associated. One tantalising series of images depicts a boating trip in which we see Knott and friends clad in bow ties and summer hats on the one hand, and then the camera is turned to the shore to depict inquisitive Chinese peasants and traditional dwellings along the river bank.

Knott album (5)

It is clear from the playful nature of the images that Knott had a strong joie de vivre but sadly his life was cut tragically short by war. A short diary also loosely inserted and dated 1916, and documenting his passage back from China, states “all male passengers as well as the ship’s Doctor are going home to enlist”, and loosely inserted note from the Records Office states that he was killed in fighting at the Somme during WW1.

Knott album (1)

Image from the Knott album

Indeed the Great War put a stop to much European involvement with China for more than fifty years. This included grand infrastructure projects including the railway building projects. The third album, more official in its scope, tracks the building of the Tianjin-Pukou railway, constructed between 1908 and 1912 with photographs of trains, carriages, track and staff and comes from the collection of engineer George Ridgway,who is pictured at the start of the album in a group shot.

train album (1)

Strictly for the railway enthusiast!

The three albums, each to be offered with an estimate of £200 – 300, will be offered in ASIAN ART, 16 May 2016, are at Chiswick Auctions along with Chinese silver and other objects from the same collections.



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