Collections Crossover: Outposts of Empire
Collections Crossover: Outposts of Empire

The British Empire reached its zenith in the first couple of decades of the 20th century just as photography was becoming available to a mass market. Its administration required a huge number of people to travel and live around the globe, to govern over a quarter of the world's landmass. These dignitaries and civil servants, and the families who often travelled with them, recorded the people and places they saw in what were, in Britain at this time, remote and unfamiliar lands.

In this Collections Crossover, we wanted to highlight a number of smaller photo collections which document the far-flung lives of individuals in some of the British Empire's colonies and protectorates. Charles Couldry's collection focuses on the Gold Coast in West Africa (it gained independence in 1957 as Ghana) where Captain Sir Cecil Armitage (1869-1933) became Chief Commissioner of the Northern Territories in 1910. His photograph with a group of Ashanti kings is almost a cliché of western colonialism.

On Call in Africa is the photo archive of Dr N.P. Jewell chronicling his time as a young doctor in the Seychelles (1910-14), as a Medical Officer in the army in East Africa during the First World War, and in Kenya working in the Colonial Medical Service (1920-32). The photographs are featured in a book On Call in Africa in War and Peace 1910-1932, a remarkable account based on Dr Jewell's official medical diaries and personal memoirs.

Later known as photographer Margaret Monck, Margaret Thesiger was the youngest child of Frederic Thesiger, Viceroy of India from 1916 to 1921. At the age of eight, she was given a Kodak Brownie camera for her birthday and began to take pictures of the upper class life in colonial India that included excursions, hunting, amateur dramatics and viceregal functions. She was there when the first England-India international flight landed in December 1918, an event she recorded on camera.

Two decades later, India was photographed by Lt-Col Ralph Ponsonby Watts (1892-1991), in a collection owned by Nigel Sorrell. Lt-Col Watts was an officer in the British Army in World War One, from where he joined the Indian Political Service. During this time, he was posted to a number of locations in the Persian Gulf and India, and brought away images of their people, landscapes and cultures. In 1932 Watts was sent beyond the Empire's borders on a 50-day trek through the Himalayan Mountains to Kashgar on the old Silk Road, now in Xinjiang province in western China, which he recorded on glass negatives.

The Jean Hoile Collection returns to Africa with the 1947 Royal Tour, when Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret accompanied King George VI and Queen Elizabeth for their three-month trip to South Africa and Rhodesia. It was the only occasion when the Royal Family toured jointly, and was the first official overseas visit of both princesses. Elizabeth, only five years from becoming Queen herself, celebrated her 21st birthday there.

The personal family albums of Peter Ashford feature snapshots of Kenya, Aden and Singapore in the later fifties and sixties, while Anne Burton's collection, complete with idiosyncratic caption notes, shows her family's travels in Sudan, Egypt and Burma (now Myanmar) in the early 1950s.

We hope you've enjoyed these bijou collections. Although comprised of relatively few images, they offer a personal and candid perspective that can summon up a real sense of time and place. Get in touch by email at or by phone on 020 8318 0034 for your globetrotting picture needs.

Mary Evans Picture Library Ltd.  59 Tranquil Vale  Blackheath  London  SE3 0BS. United Kingdom.
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