Curators' Blog

Views of 19th century Japan

Horsham Museum and Art Gallery is fortunate to have substantial World Cultures, or ethnographic, collections. The items, typically brought back to Horsham by its more intrepid citizens, represent the material culture of societies from across the globe, including Africa, Asia, the Americas and Australasia. These items show the connections that have been forged between local people and the many cultures and communities around the world. They help to provide a historical context for the awareness and acceptance of the broad spectrum of beliefs and cultures that is central to contemporary society.

One of the ways in which the Museum’s collections reflect the links between Horsham and the wider world is through photography. The museum holds tens of thousands of photographs and albums dating from the 1850s to the present day. Following the introduction of the daguerreotype in 1839, the popularity of photography rose in a meteoric fashion. Inventors, photographers and scientists such as William Fox Talbot, Louis Daguerre, Anna Atkins and George Eastman created various, competing technologies that saw more and more people engaging with the art-form. By the end of the 19th century photographic studios were commonplace and foreign travelers would stop by to collect souvenir images to send back to Britain.

This was certainly the case for Horshamite Robert Henderson, who, during his world tour of 1874, collected photographs from studios in India, Indonesia, Thailand, China, Japan and America. The volume of images from his time in Japan, which was donated to the museum following the death of his wife Emma, includes a number of photographs from the studio of renowned photographer Felice Beato. Between 1863 and 1877, Beato created the first substantial photographic record of Japan available to Europeans. His work spanned the period when Japan was emerging from the feudal, non-industrial society governed by the Shogun to the modern, industrial power ruled by the Meiji Emperor. The last remnants of traditional Japan are documented in Beato’s major 1868 publication, the two volume collection Native Types and Views of Japan, alongside his important series Photographic Views and Costumes of Japan.

A number of the Beato photographs collected by Henderson are hand-tinted. The art of photography since the 1830s, yet the majority of photography was black and white until the mid-20th century. Photographers were experimenting with colour techniques as early as 1855, but the result was not realistic – the images tended to be fully tinted with one colour, like the bright blue cyanotypes produced by Anna Atkins, one of Britain’s first female photographers.

Due to the difficulties in producing colour images, many photographers would hand-colour their work. Typically, they would use watercolours, oils, crayons, pastels and other paints or dyes, applied to the image surface using brushes, fingers, cotton swabs or airbrushes. Hand-colouring remained the easiest and most effective method to produce full-colour photographic images until the mid-20th century, when American Kodak introduced Kodachrome colour film. Though the hand-colouring of photographs was first introduced in Europe, the technique gained considerable popularity in Japan, where the practice became a respected and refined art form from the 1860s. Beato was one of the first photographers to consistently employ hand-colouring in Japan.

The below video includes a selection of the hand-tinted photographs from the Henderson album, many of which came from Beato’s studio.

For further information visit Horsham Museum & Art Gallery’s temporary photographic exhibition A Lost World: Views of 19th Century Japan from Wednesday 22 August to Saturday 20 October 2018.

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