Francis Frith & Co
One of England’s largest photography printing studios and archives of the nineteenth century, Francis Frith & Co produced and published prints of scenic views and monuments across England, continental Europe and Asia. Established by businessman-photographer Francis Frith in 1860, the company was a key player in the development of travel photography in nineteenth-century England and beyond, publishing prints in formats such as catalogues, albums and picture postcards. The studio remained active for over 110 years, until 1971, building an archive of 2,50,000 photographs and 60,000 plates depicting views from across the world. Among this collection are 882 images of views of India in three series, which although relatively few, evidenced an increasing interest among the British public for images from the unfamiliar lands and cultures in general, and India in particular.
Frith’s business targeted the mass market by catering to Victorian aesthetic ideals of beauty and the lure of foreign lands, through visuals that conjured up spectacle and mystery. Scholars have also noted an orientalist aura in these photographs — Europeans posing among monuments in foreign lands and natives of those lands presented in an awkward, staged manner — elevate the landscapes through association in the former and render them mysterious and ‘other’ in the latter.
The company was built on the commercial success of Frith’s photographic work from three expeditions to Egypt, Nubia (earlier part of Sudan), Palestine and Syria between 1856 and 1859. His travels to the historical and religious sites in these places were initially born of a personal interest and subsequently of an awareness of the commercial potential of such photography as his own. Bolstered by the reception to his photos in the lectures and exhibitions he held, Frith set up Francis Frith & Co in Reigate, a town in Surrey, which specialised in factory-scale, rapid, centralised printing of glass plate negatives. During his travels, and in his printing business, he made images in the standard (20 x 25 cm), mammoth (40 x 50 cm) and stereoscopic formats. In order to keep up with the demand for idealised and romantic travelscapes in England, Europe and beyond, the company began to acquire negatives from photographers and studios elsewhere; by 1876, it had acquired about four thousand images of Asia, Canada and the United States.
Starting in 1850, the company commissioned three separate catalogues of topographic and architectural views of India. The first, thought to have been printed around 1870, consisted of about three hundred photos – many of which were of Kashmir, Spiti and Kulu; some of the Bombay Presidency ; and some assorted images of Delhi, Agra, Lucknow, Benares, Calcutta, Madras and Cawnpore (now Kanpur). The second, printed in 1874, contained three hundred more photographs, while the third 1893 edition consisted of 260 large-format (25 x 31 cm) photographs and smaller cabinet-card sized copies. Some of these formed a part of other series, such as the larger Universal Series — featuring some of their earlier prints from the Middle-East and elsewhere. Although most photos bore the stamp of the company, a few were signed by the photographers themselves. Some early images of Bombay and Calcutta, however, have been ascribed to William Johnson, JM Drury and Oscar Mallitte.
Although travel photography was hardly a new phenomenon — French photographer Alexis de la Grange’s photos of India were published as early as 1850 — there were few in England who undertook the publishing and dissemination of such prints on the same scale as F Frith & Co While some such as the London publisher J. Hogart had already begun publishing views of India (especially of Tamil Nadu and Agra) by 1859, their stereoscopic prints, which had to be distributed with stereoscopic glasses, didn’t have the same impact in a rapidly-growing marketplace. In India as well there were photographers and successful owners of studios, such as Lala Deen Dayal and Samuel Bourne, who tended to concentrate more on the subjects and their aesthetic potential, rather than purely demand and commercial potential. Francis Frith & Co. therefore had a nearly unbroken monopoly until the 1940s, well after Frith’s death in 1898, especially in the postcard business after the postcard was approved by the British Post Office in 1902.
The studio’s collection continued to grow through contributions from photographers who still abided by the strict standards imposed, until 1971 when the studio closed. The evolution of other photographic technologies and changes of taste and topography relegated the photographic products to a bygone era, and their collection fell into neglect. A substantial collection of the original glass plates was restored and is now maintained at the Birmingham City Library as an important record of nineteenth-century England and other geographies. The Victoria and Albert Museum, London, also carries a collection of over four thousand prints from their various catalogues.
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