One of the works in the ECA Rare Book Collection that places us firmly in a place and time in history is a book of photographs taken around the time of the notable expedition of Lord Elgin, James Bruce, to China on a diplomatic mission and military campaign. If one does not know much about Chinese history, which I must admit I know little of, you might view this image at first glance as simply another beautiful view of Chinese landscape and architecture. Upon further reading into the life of the 8th Earl of Elgin and the Old Summer Palace, as well as the photographers whose works are featured in the album, it becomes a much different story. One of these photographers was the talented Felice Beato who was known for photography that created images of war as a continuous process. He documented each stage of his subjects, including gruesome scenes of the aftermath of battles and seizes. This method provides great insight into the progression of Lord Elgin’s presence in China as many images fit into his timeline. Although the above photograph taken in 1860 seems to show a sturdy structure overlooking a stunning mountain range, it does depict a cultural landscape that was near the end of its time and one that was extremely vulnerable at the time. The caption for the image tells a snapshot of the gruesome story. The caption reads “View of the Summer Palace, Yuen-Min-Yuen, showing the Pagoda before the burning, Pekin. Octr 1860.” This could easily be one of the last photographs of the site before its infamous looting and burning on October 18, 1860. Many of the items taken from this event are still held today in the UK and other prestigious museums in Europe, although there is an ongoing conversation of where these works of great art and cultural importance belong.
While this particular album cannot be traced directly to Lord Elgin, the contents open a window into the time which he spent in China. Lord Elgin, as a diplomat for Britain in China during the Second Opium War, was sent abroad to convince Chinese officials to renegotiate a treaty between the two parties, as the Chinese in the past were beginning to reject the old treaties. These negotiations were set hand in hand with British raids and control of Chinese forts and towns. In this time, a group of diplomatic men from the British party were sent to seriously negotiate the current terms and create this new treaty that was at the forefront of the mission. Upon reaching the Old Summer Palace, a centre of Chinese cultural heritage, Elgin was greatly saddened by the manner in which his French counterparts were handing the sacred space. As spoils of war were normal, Elgin decided to set up an auction to properly sell the beautiful items his troops found at the site. Unfortunately, many of the troops were motivated to either keep what they found for themselves or to destroy them completely. Word soon reached Lord Elgin that his men sent for diplomacy would not be retuning as they were captured and many were tortured and killed. This sparked something deep inside Elgin and he ordered not only the cultural artefacts of the palace to be destroyed, but that the entire palace be burned down with them.
Although the University of Edinburgh actively investigate the provenance of their acquisitions, and is careful to only acquire works that have a legal transaction history, these images do bring up an interesting question of where art belongs and under what circumstances. We have an amazing record with this photography album into the world of China moments before these events took place. As innocent as the view seems to the ignorant eye, there is a much larger significance of this book other than a ‘diplomatic mission’.
As an interesting article from the BBC states, many important pieces of Chinese history are being sold off for extremely high prices because of their origins from the Old Summer Palace. This is somewhat of an ethical debate between scholars and art professionals, but one that is not black and white. After over 150 years where does anything ‘belong’? Should all works known to be associated with this traumatic event be sent back to their country of origin? Would China then build a museum where these works once lived or split them up between cultural institutions as they have done with the few remnants that they have retained throughout the years? For us, it is interesting to think about this book of photographs and how it tells a visual side to this complicated history. The album itself has a presence that fills the user with awe and sorrow. The elaborate album, with images partially attributed to Felice Beato, among many others working outside of the area, stands at 69 cm, has gilt edges and tooling and is one of the heaviest books I have ever handled. This is no casual gathering of images, this is an important documentation of the history of photography in war as well as the world before the destruction of one of its most precious sites.
As a student of Book History and Material Culture, this story strikes a chord with me as I study collections and the importance of an ethical approach to acquisitions. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to work with these images as they have opened my eyes to the questions of morality and international relations through cultural artefacts and works of art. I think we have a great resource here and I hope that others will visit its material form at the CRC soon for more research. There is much more to discover from the mysterious album than I have uncovered. Other images in the ECA Rare Book Image Collection include the ‘interior of the 2nd North Fort, Pekin after the surrender on the 21st Augt 1860. Wherein 2000 prisoners were taken’ and one port scene that has no description.
University Shelfmark for this book as available in the Centre for Research Collections : RECA.MS.8.
BBC article can be found at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-30810596
Caitlin Holton, MSc Book History and Material Culture