The British Empire Library

The Nicholas Brothers & A.T.W. Penn: Photographers of South India 1855-1885

by Christopher Penn

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
The author published in 2008 a moving account of his discovery that an ancestor, Albert TW Penn, was an accomplished photographer working in India in the second half of the nineteenth century. This new publication, which moves far beyond family history, is a thorough and much-needed investigation into the lives and work of two professional photographers: his ancestor Albert Penn and a contemporary James Perratt Nicholas. Perhaps because they worked in southern India, away from the commercial centres of Bombay and Calcutta, these two important photographers have been hitherto neglected but this volume goes a long way to rectify that.

An introduction sets the scene in India, presenting the state of photography in both Brita in and in India, and brings our focus on to Ooty (Ootacamund) in the Nilgiri Mountains, where both photographers were based . There follow eight abundantly illustrated chapters exploring the lives of Penn and Nicholas , and then colour plates . The Nicholas brothers, John and James, were to establish a studio in Madras in c.1858, with a second branch in Ooty. They quickly became known, through their portraiture work, exhibitions and their connection with the Photographic Society, as the leading professional photographers in the south. They were well connected (James's wife was the daughter of the man who established the booksellers Higginbotham's) and their business expanded in the 1860s. In I 864 they took on the young ATW Penn who had just arrived in India aged only fifteen and a half. The following year Penn moved to Ooty and was to remain there, running the photographic business well into the early twentieth century.

Throughout the 1860s, the firm Nicholas Brothers expanded rapidly, increasing its stock of views to cover Madras , Coonoor, Bangalore and Calicut as well as portraits of notable individuals and ethnographic studies. This continued even after the departure of John Nicholas in 1866, after which JP Nicholas ran the business alone . The author has conducted meticulous research in museums , libraries and archives in several countries, painstakingly identifying photographs potentially taken by Nicholas or Penn and then working out from inventories, inscriptions on the photographs, newspaper advertisements and other ephemeral material if they can be attributed to his two photographers.

This level of detailed research is rare within the history of photography, where it is not uncommon to find photographs dated to sometime within a couple of decades. Here the author's dedication is evident, as it is painstaking work and the results will serve as a valuable reference for future historians. The history of the two studios is followed until the deaths of the two photographers : Nicholas in 1895 and Penn in 1924.

Such close attention to the running of the businesses provides a very rare glimpse into the role played by a photographic studio in British society during the Raj. We see how important photography was as a way of communicating with Britain and how portraits and landscapes both helped people feel at home in India by keeping memories fresh and alive, as well as feeding a desire for news and information about the country. The author also focuses on the art and artistry involved in many of the photographs, drawing comparisons with leading professional and government photographers , including ED Lyon, Samuel Bourne and WW Hooper.

Gradually , through the telling of this detailed yet very readable story, we slowly put together a complete picture of what it was like to work as a photographer in India. Perhaps because of the personal connections, this is more than just a reliable, well-researched biography; we move from individual details, such as the tragic death of Penn's young son aged fifteen months, to broad context involving governors, politics and current affairs, and the story is the richer for it. Since producing this book, the author has self-published a further volume (The Herklots Folder of Photographs, 2014, 154pp., 74 plates) concentrating on a recently-discovered portfolio of nineteenth-century photographs of Coonoor and the Nilgiris. The photographer of these photographs remains unidentified, but he speculates that the important figure of Dr Alexander Hunter, the principal of the Madras School of Arts, may have had a hand in the production of the photographs or their compilation. This shows that for the author, despite having produced a comprehensive account of the work of Penn and Nicholas, the exploration of photography in India continues, and that can only be a good thing.

British Empire Book
Christopher Penn
First Published
Bernard Quaritch Ltd
Review Originally Published
Spring 2015 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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