Bright and Happy


Clifton Suspension Bridge. A magnificent structure spanning the Avon Gorge. It hangs 245 feet above high water level, and is 702 feet in length from pier to pier. The foundation stone was laid in 1836, the work of construction abandoned in 1853, resumed in 1861 and the completed structure opened on Dec. 8th 1864. The cost was about £100,000. [card caption]

The photograph is by Harvey Barton and Son Ltd of Bristol, and the New Year greeting would have been overprinted on one of their regular stock cards. It was posted from Clifton on 25 November 1912 to Miss Ceci Brodie, Lake St John, Remuera, Auckland, New Zealand.

A Silent Echo

As time passes by and you look at portraits, the people come back to you like a silent echo. A photograph is a vestige of a face, a face in transit. Photography has something to do with death. It’s a trace.
Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908 – 2004)

A Tale of a Tail

Every “serious” equipment-laden photographer can tell you how he or she started out with the most basic of cameras. It seems even the pioneers had their own version of the box Brownie story.

This [adventure in photography] began on my eighth birthday [1890] when two of my Californian uncles gave me a 4×5 Kodak, which had to be loaded in a darkroom with a roll of film for forty-eight exposures. The shutter was set by pulling out a piece of cat-gut with a round button on the end of it, the release of which produced the exposure. It had only one speed, and that was not very fast. My first picture was of the neighbour’s dog, a friendly little animal who wagged his tail at the moment of exposure so that the result resembled a fan where there should have been a tail, which pleased me greatly.

Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882 – 1966) Photographer. An Autobiography. Ed. Helmut and Alison Gernsheim. Dover Publications Inc., 1978.

Did all of you DSLR owners get that? One shutter speed – and cat-gut!

Deck the Halls

This postcard was sent from Ilfracombe, Devon, England, to Miss S. Woodley in Stratton, Cornwall, on 23rd December 1907.

Tuck's Oilette vintage postcard Christmas Greetings. Posted 1907.

Tuck’s Oilette C.275. One of a set of six by E. Longstaffe.

With Best wishes for a very Happy Xmas and Bright New Year. Hope you will have a right good time.
Love Gert.

Although this was posted 109 years ago, the message never gets old. So Gert and I wish you the compliments of the season and hope you have a right good time.

The Jasmine Tower


“Oilette” postcard by Raphael Tuck and Sons. No. 8946.

Jasmine Tower and Dewan-i-Khan, Agra Fort. The Hall of Private Audience in the Royal Palace at Agra consists of an open colonnade in front of an enclosed room behind. It is a miracle of beauty. The carving is exquisite and flowers are inlaid on the white marble in red cornelian and other valuable stones with fine effect. On the left of the picture is the Saman Burj, generally known as the Jessamine or Jasmine Tower. The chief sultana lived in this beautiful pavilion adorned with lovely marble lattice-work and with a fountain and retiring room over the river. [Card caption]

Victorian India

Walter Roper Lawrence “went out to India” at the age of twenty-two to be a civil-servant in the British administration. Contrary to the modern impression of the English in India, he grew to respect the country and its people, and learned from both. In these excerpts from an essay originally published in the Times, he remembers his time there, comments on changing bureaucratic attitudes in the early 20th century and considers their consequences.


Slow! It was slow in the Victorian time, for three to four months riding through the villages; and as we rode, others would join our cavalcade, yeomen of the country, and never an official save Shahji, a genial, burly Mughal, mounted on a horse befitting his stature. He taught me my work, covering my blunders with blunt courtesy. He capped every anecdote, and, free spender as he was, gave many a feast of a sheep, with ample rice and sugar. The cavalcade grew in size – we were the best of district committees. For these men knew the country and knew what the people wanted – just to be left alone. They would tell me of some local bandit, usually a Robin Hood, out for a better disposition of other people’s wealth. But they always disapproved and said he was dangerous and had become be-khauf (without fear), an evil portent in India. These men riding with me, whose families stock the regiments of the Indian Army, knew the danger to their homes when a young man became be-khauf.

So we rode on, in single file when the crops were tumbling over the track, or in open line when the country was waste; and one day as we rode, happily talking, suddenly we came on the railway and reined up as the train rattled by. The English passengers waved their hands, and I raised my battered sun hemet; the train passed, and we crossed the line. But the talk ceased, the charm was snapped, and old Shahji edged up on his horse, pointed to the dust of the train and said, “There goes your caste.” For we were a caste. We married and we ate in our own caste. What else? The other 60,000,000 untouchables live on the skirt of the towns, or the fringe of the villages, but we lived farther away in the Dudder Station, or in the Cantonment, if we were of the Army. It was inevitable that we, a few thousands, should come under the compelling influence, the mass osmosis of the many millions always within our sight and hearing. It was natural that we should absorb something of the spirit of the East…….

I used to hear of India being “Anglicized”; but in my experience it was rather the other way. It was we who were being Indianized. I never met an Anglicized Indian. I saw and knew many who spoke and dressed like Englishmen; but they will never be English. They have too much to lose and to leave, and the ancestral mortmain grips them. It would be far easier for the detached Englishman to become Indian. For we went to India at a most plastic and impressionable age, and for our first years we were in the hands of the most charming and courteous of teachers. I went through the hands of more than one Shahji. I am certain that, while I did nothing to Anglicize them, they did much to Indianize me. And it was caste, that great conserving force of India, the caste that went by in that train, that kept me English. The rules of our caste were three – and I had them burnt into my young mind in 1879 – Work hard, Keep English, Keep faith with the Indians…..

And above us was the Barra Sahib, the Head of the District, omniscient, untiring, and self-sacrificing. He knew that the whole machine would crash if weaklings touched it. So we had to work and fit ourselves for the great endeavour. If he ever had time to think, he must have known that his task was becoming too heavy. But in those days he had the Government behind him. I have been a small cog in the machine; have stood in the engine room; and in the last days of Queen Victoria I was a fly on the driving-wheel when it drove its fastest. But even I could see that the business was becoming too complex and too exacting for the District Officer, and that the craze of the Government for centralization, uniformity, and statistics would shackle the man on whom all depends. If he lost personal touch with the people of the district, then all was lost…….

In India it is all a question of pace. The pace of the villagers was the pace of the plough oxen, and in the Victorian days we kept in step with them. Is the day coming when we shall speed along the alien highroad in a cloud of dust, while our old friends and their buffaloes ruminate from afar, and the delegate from the city mutters, “There goes your gram-fed sahib, what does he care for you?” The pace was slow but sure. The pace has quickened now. Are we sure and are the villagers sure? For they are the deep, true sea of India, the cities the foam on its shores.

The Indian Civil Service. Sir Walter R. Lawrence. Fifty Years, Memories and Contrasts. Thornton Butterworth Ltd. 1932.

The Maharajah of Cooch Behar

India, 1891. Lord Frederic Hamilton, while on the staff of his brother-in-law, the Viceroy, was invited to take part in a five-week big game hunt organized by the Maharajah of Cooch Behar. It gave him the chance to escape the heat and humidity of Calcutta which, he thought, “could never be a really healthy place”.

A vintage postcard of the wharves on the Hooghly river at Calcutta, India.

The late Maharajah of Cooch Behar had had a long minority, the soil of his principality was very fertile and well-cultivated, and so efficiently was the little state administered by the British Resident that the Maharajah found himself at his majority the fortunate possessor of vast sums of ready money. The Government of India had erected him out of his surplus revenues a gigantic palace of red-brick, a singularly infelicitous building material for that burning climate. Nor can it be said that the English architect had been very successful in his elevation. He had apparently anticipated the design of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and had managed to produce a building even less satisfactory to the eye than that vast pile at the corner of Cromwell Road. He had also crowned his edifice with a great dome. The one practical feature of the building was that it was only one room thick, and that every room was protected by a broad double verandah on both sides. The direct rays of the sun were, therefore, powerless to penetrate to the interior, and with the double verandahs the faintest breath of air sent a draught through every room in the house.

We reached Cooch Behar after dark, and it was somewhat of a surprise to find the Maharajah and his entire family roller-skating in the great central domed hall of the palace, to the strains of a really excellent string band. The Maharajah having a great liking for European music, had a private orchestra of thirty-five natives who, under the skilled tuition of a Viennese conductor, had learned to play with all the fire and vim of one of those unapproachable Austrian bands, which were formerly (I emphasize the were) the delight of every foreigner in Vienna…… The whole scene was rather unexpected in the home of a native prince in the wilds of East Bengal.

The Maharajah had fixed on a great tract of jungle in Assam, over the frontier of India proper, as the field of operations for his big-game shoot of 1891, on account of the rhinoceros and buffaloes that frequented the swamps there. As he did not do things by halves, he had had a rough road made connecting Cooch Behar with his great camp, and had caused temporary bridges to be built over all the streams on the way. Owing to the convenient bamboo, this is fairly easy of achievement, for the bamboo is at the same time tough and pliable, and bamboo bridges, in spite of their flimsy appearance, can carry great weights, and can be run up in no time, and kindly nature furnishes in Bengal an endless supply of this adaptable building material……

It so happened that the Census of 1891 was taken whilst we were in camp, so I can give the exact number of retainers whom the Maharajah brought with him. It totalled 473, including mahouts and elephant-tenders, grooms, armourers, taxidermists, tailors, shoemakers, a native doctor and a dispenser, and boatmen, not to mention the Viennese conductor and the thirty-five members of the orchestra, cooks, bakers, and table-waiters. The Maharajah certainly did things on a grand scale.

Here, There and Everywhere, Lord Frederic Hamilton, Hodder and Stoughton, 1921.

Hamilton is such an entertaining writer on aspects of 19th century life that you can expect to see him back here from time to time.