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 Largely because of this, albums of this kind are important historical documents and their value in auction has increased dramatically in recent years.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.



Unusual photo albums of China up for sale

Two photograph albums of unusual views, and people in China, around the turn of the 20th century come up for sale on March 28 at Rob Michiels Auctions in Bruges, Belgium (
One album contains 132 photos of an interesting and extensive trip to China, including Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong, Tientsin, Canton, Macau, Nanking, Outchang, Wouhou, Chienkiang, and Mongolia,.
Based upon observations in the captions (which are in French), the album possibly was the property of a Belgian official working for the railroad development team of the Beijing-Hankou Railroad, negotiated by the “Belgian Mandarin” Paul Splingaerd, a Belgian official in the late Qing government.
One of the photos shown is a portrait of Liung Chang, with the caption (in French): Portrait of Liung Chang, vice king (Emperor) of China, with whom I’ve had diner on the 21st of May, 1897. Including many fresh albument prints of high quality, some hand-colored, including very graphic renderings of the everyday life in China at that time as well as portraits of important military officials, with hand-written captions in French.
Also included is a large tryptich of 82 x 20 cm with caption: Vue généralle de la ville d’Outchang sur le Yangtzé ou fleuve bleu de Chine. Another curious photograph is a self-portrait of the owner of the album, dressed as a Chinese and of the type favoured by travellers at the time (see below).
There are altogether 103 large albumen photograps of ca. 27 x 20,5 cm, 20 mid-sized photographs and 9 small size (ca. 14 x 10 cm)
Estimate: € 5000 – € 7000
The other album, which contains 250 photographs, is a little bit later in date probably around 1910 but contains some extraordinary images. In addition to the usual beheadings and punishments, which so intrigued European visitors, there is an interesting sequence of photographs of a train wreck, possibly as the result of the collapse of newly erected railway infrastructure. Military historians will be interested by photographs of soldiers and munitions, possibly related to civil insurrection in 1910. The album was evidently the property of a Danish person as the captions are in Danish. It is estimated at a more modest Euro 1,500-2,000.
railway accidentTrain wreck in China ca. 1910