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Royal court photography

In the mid 1840s in Bangkok in Siam (now Thailand), members of the royal court received training on the daguerreotype camera imported by the French Catholic Bishop in 1845.

One of these trainees took the business name of Francis Chit (1830–1891) when he started his own photography studio in Bangkok in 1863. He became the first professional Thai-born photographer of note. Photographs by Chit were among those given to British widow Anna Leonowens by the King of Siam, King Mongkut (Rama IV, reigned 1851–1868). Leonowens used these photographs to illustrate her 1870 tale The English governess at the Siamese court, which later inspired many book, stage and film adaptions – the most famous of which is the 1956 musical film The King and I.

The title page of Leonowens’s book draws special attention to the king’s gift, but the photographs were no mark of special favour. King Mongkut kept drawers full of photographic images to give to visiting foreigners.

The selection and styles of photographs in stock were carefully constructed to give Mongkut and the Thai nation a very dignified and substantial public image in Europe and America.

From his ascension in 1851, King Mongkut brought an astute and creative flair to the staging of royal portraits to exchange for those he was receiving from foreign monarchs and leaders. He spoke English well and was very familiar with Western science, and he understood exactly how to convey through photography the authority and dignity of his court and people, and thus their equality with their European counterparts.

Mongkut initiated various court protocols and made social reforms to align Thai and Western practices in order to smooth negotiations and meetings with foreigners. These adjustments included abandoning shaved heads and adopting European stockings and shoes. According to the occasion, the king might appear in traditional Thai dress, French-style military dress uniform or in his own simple white robes as a Buddhist monk.

In another concession to Western ideals, Mongkut appealed to European monogamous sensibilities by being photographed with a single consort and crown prince rather than with multiple wives and children.

Quite a large number of Thai royal portraits survive. As part of an exchange of gifts honouring the 1856 Treaty of Amity and Commerce, and Navigation Mongkut between Thailand and the United States, Mongkut sent a dignified yet simple portrait of himself with Queen Debsirindra, mother of the crown prince, to President Franklin Pierce.

Similar portraits were sent to Pope Pius IX, Napoleon III and Queen Victoria. The following year, Queen Victoria sent King Mongkut a daguerreotype outfit as a gift. It is still held in the Thai archives.

Foreign photographers were also often allowed access to the king. While travelling in Thailand in 1865, Scottish photographer and writer John Thomson (1837–1921), who had been working from a studio in Singapore from 1862, sought permission to photograph the Royal Palace in Bangkok. He was immediately granted access. In his 1875 book The Straits of Malacca, Indo-China, and China, or Ten years’ travels, adventures, and residence abroad, Thomson provides an eyewitness report of the king’s attitude to photography.

He tells how King Mongkut, after first appearing in his monastic robes and expressing a wish to be photographed in prayer, changed his mind and reappeared in his French-style military uniform. The king ensured that his brother, who Thomson was told had a good grasp on photography, watched the photographer at work.

In 1868, Mongkut was succeeded by his equally remarkable son King Chulalongkorn (Rama V), who ruled until 1910 and was even more energetic in exchanging and disseminating photographs of the royal family. King Chulalongkorn was especially concerned to present himself as a modern monarch and travelled to neighbouring countries and to Europe. Hundreds of photographs from his travels still exist.

Across the Pacific Ocean the royal family of Hawaii were also among the first photographed in 1845 by a visiting photographer from Peru. One of the finest treasures on loan to the Picture paradise exhibition is a striking wholeplate daguerreotype of the family of King Kamehameha III in Honolulu. The photograph from the Hawaii’s Bishop Museum was taken around 1853 by German-born daguerreotypist Hugo Stangenwald (1829–1899), who had arrived in Honolulu while travelling to Sydney from the goldfields of California.

Business was so good in Hawaii that Stangenwald stayed on and earned enough as a photographer to return to Vienna in 1858 to finish his medical studies. He later returned to Hawaii to open a medical practice.

The Hawaiian royals continued to employ photographers to take their portraits; however, unlike in Thailand, no native Hawaiians appear to have been trained.

The royal family, by encouraging diplomatic ties through the exchange of portraits, looked to the British to support their fight against the encroaching annexation by the United States. Although this bid for continued sovereignty failed when annexation took place in 1898, the surviving portraits are rich and varied. Queen Emma, consort to King Kamehameha IV from 1856 to his death in 1863, was praised by Queen Victoria for her dignity – a quality seen strongly in her portrait in Picture paradise.

Back in Asia, the resplendent portrait photographs of maharajas, clothed in silk and encrusted with jewels, indelibly fixed the mystery and allure of India in the West.

Photographic equipment arrived in India in 1840 soon after its invention in Europe, and many of the country’s princes, such as Maharaja Birchandra Manikya (reigned 1862–96), took more than a passing interest in learning the new medium themselves.

The most famous nineteenthcentury Indian photographer is undoubtedly Lala Deen Dayal (1844–1910), who worked for both Indian and British patrons, including the Nizam of Hyderabad and Lord Curzon. He later opened his own studio in Bombay win 1896.

In Japan, the earliest surviving daguerreotype portrait is of Shimazu Nariakira, the daimyo of Satsuma. It was taken by self-taught court photographer Ichiki Shiro (1828–1903) in 1857 on apparatus first imported by the daimo in 1848.

The Imperial family were uninterested in the new medium and were not photographed until the 1870s by Uchida Kuichi (1844–1875). By the 1880s, however, they were presenting themselves to the camera in Western dress.

Queen Victoria never travelled to Asia or the Pacific but it became the practice to dispatch crown princes on royal tours in the British colonial realms of the Asia–Pacific region. The tour of Prince Alfred to the Australian colonies in 1867–68 stimulated a scramble by local photographers all along the route to secure photographs.

As the royal entourage collected prints from local studios, these studios were also competing for the much desired Royal Warrant of Appointment, which allowed the supplier to advertise that they supply to the Royal Family – ‘By Royal Appointment’. The Prince’s yacht also had a photographer on board, ensuring that the tour was well documented. Various commemorative publications from the Prince’s tour were issued in Hong Kong, South Africa and Australia.

Tsar Nicholas of Russia similarly sent the crown prince on a tour of Asia and many gift photographs were collected. These occasions also benefited local photographers, as they were able to observe and learn about the latest trends from photographers who were travelling with royal visitors.

The sons and grandsons of deposed French royals also travelled to Asia and the Pacific and some became explorers. The Duke of Penthièvre and the Count of Beauvoir travelled around the world in 1866, gathering photographs along the way. Beauvoir’s book of their trip, Voyage autour du monde, was a best seller.

Explorer Prince Henri d’Orleans (1867–1901) became famous as an explorer in Asia. From 1895 to 1896, he travelled with his cameras from Hanoi in Vietnam to Assam in India. He followed the Irrawady River in search of its source and published the popular book From Tonkin to India by the sources of the Irrawady.

The 1850s French invention of the carte de visite, a type of small photographic portrait, arrived in the Asia–Pacific region in the 1860s. Cartes de visite were preserved in specially designed albums, and the popularity of the format in the British colonies was stimulated by the sale of one album in particular: London photographer John Mayall’s album of the British Royal Family, which was sanctioned and commercially released in 1860.

In turn, cartes de visite of just about every native king and queen in Asia and the Pacific also proved popular back in Europe.

The enthusiasm with which the royal families of Asia and the Pacific accepted photography almost certainly helped to secure the status and adoption of the medium worldwide. It is harder to tell, however, if the exchange of portraits between royals and dignitaries in the Asia–Pacific region and the West had any significant or lasting effects on diplomatic relations.

The royal portraits made up a small but vibrant part of the photographs on display in the exhibition Picture paradise: Asia–Pacific photography 1840s–1940s at the National Gallery of Australia from July to September 2008.

Gael Newton
Former Senior Curator, Australian and International Photography
National Gallery of Australia

this text originally published in 2008 on the NGA site


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