I am an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award holder in my third year of my PhD at the University of Sussex and the National Maritime Museum's Centre for Art and Travel. The award has allowed me to spend time researching the significant yet largely unknown NMM collection of photographic albums bought and compiled by naval officers in the 19th century.
Traditionally the museum has catalogued these albums by the ships' portraits and topographic views included within them. However, these albums offer a fascinating insight into the social history of the Royal Navy as well as into each individual compiler's beliefs, interests and collecting habits. They also provide a rich comparative archive of material from which to examine the construction of photographic albums as a new form of visualizing the world and as revealing the dominant visual strategies of the day.
My thesis examines these albums from an art historical perspective, looking at how and why early travel photographs were bought by naval officers and how the officers' compilation of personal albums allow conclusions to be drawn as to how they perceived the world. Taken collectively these early photographic albums can reveal how naval officers were conditioned to see, how photographers overseas responded to their needs and how these men then 'curated' their own experiences from photographic fragments into modern narratives.
Paymaster Frederick North compiled three albums that are now in the Archive of Historic Photographs at the NMM [ALB0029, 30, 167]. The first of his albums, ALB0029, begins with photographic portraits of his friends and family before including views of people and places bought around the world. North had a strong aesthetic sensibility and he bought work by leading photographers who worked overseas, such as Felice Beato in Yokohama and John Thomson, who operated studios in Hong Kong and Singapore in the 1860s and 1870s.
North also enjoyed arranging the photographs he had bought overseas in unusual and artistic ways. He had bought his album at Reed the stationer's on Oxford Street, London and most probably compiled it in England between postings overseas. He hand-decorated several pages of his album and pasted the photographs in himself. At times he employed fashionable collage techniques usually associated with women's albums, such as this example of an anchor made from photographic portraits of people, a ship and a lighthouse:
He often centred his displays around things that were important to his life, such as the ship he was sailing on. Captain Tynte F. Hammill similarly centred some of his photographic displays around his ship, for example in this page from his large-format album that documented travels made throughout his career:
Hammill's album includes 666 photographs from the 1860s to the 1890s. On this album page the H.M.S. Rodney can be seen at the centre of a display of eighteen photographs chiefly featuring Japanese views and people. Hammill sailed on the Rodney as an 18 year-old midshipman in 1869, and his album also includes officer portraits from this time, taken on board in Yokohama and Hong Kong.
From these few examples it is possible to glimpse the complex layers through which these albums can be read. I am hoping my thesis will examine both the construction of individual photographs seen in the albums as well as the selection processes by which officers such as North and Hammill acquired them and the further selections they made in their personal arrangement of images into travel narratives of their own. In this way I hope to reveal the contribution made by early travel photography and photographic albums to the visualization of the world in the 19th century.