Linnaeus Tripe was born on 14 April 1822, in Devonport (then Plymouth Dock) Devon, the ninth of twelve children. His mother Mary (1786-1842) founded the Devon and Cornwall Female Orphan Asylum in 1832, and his father Cornelius (1785-1860) was a surgeon, also interested in natural history and art. After his sister Emily married a colonel in the 3rd Madras Light Infantry, Linnaeus was able to pursue a career in the army, and joined the East India Company army in 1838, nominated as a cadet for the Madras Infantry. He progressed rapidly, becoming a Lieutenant in 1840 and joining his own regiment at Palaveram in the south of India.
In 1850, after 11 years in India, Tripe returned to England on leave for two years, extended due to ill health until 1854. Between 1851 and 1854 he began to experiment with photography, and bought photographic supplies in both London and Devonport. His interest in photography had either developed previously in India, or was sparked by the 1851 Great Exhibition in Hyde Park. Photographs of statuary in the great exhibitions of London and Paris were discovered in his collections of photographs after his death. Tripe's earliest surviving photographs are of Devonport, England, and date to 1853.
Tripe returned to Bangalore, India, as a captain on 19 June 1854. He made his first photographs of India on leave from his regiment in Hullebede and Belloor in Mysore, south India, in December that year. Tripe prepared 68 photographs of previously unphotographed temples from his trip for the 'Madras Exhibition of Raw Products, Arts, and Manufactures of Southern India', which opened in February 1855. The jury stated his work to be the 'best series of photographic views on paper' and it came to the attention of Lord Harris, governor of Madras, and the Honourable Walter Elliot, both members of the Madras Photographic Society.
Photographing in Burma
In April 1855 Lord Dalhousie, governor general of India, had recommended that a political trip to Amerapoora (Amarapura), Burma, take place following the annexation of Pengu (Bago), part of Burma, by the British after the 1852 Anglo-Burmese war. Colesworthy Grant, a Calcutta artist, was due to accompany the group, but photography was considered a more suitable material for accurate documentation, and Grant was not skilled in photography. The Court of Directors in London drew up an 1855 directive claiming 'photography as a means by which representations may be obtained of scenes and buildings, with the advantages of perfect accuracy, small expenditure of time, and moderate cash'. They asked that photography be the main means of recording architecture. Dalhousie recommended Tripe. Tripe joined the expedition in June 1855. Ambiguously, Grant also accompanied the group and produced sketches of similar areas to those photographed by Tripe. Some of Grant's works were included in the album of 106 landscapes and portraits, titled 'A Series of Views in Burmah taken during Major Phayre's Mission to the Court of Ava in 1855'.
During his time in Burma, Tripe tried to teach photography to a member of the Burmese court, and worked shoeless in temples - a ruling by the envoy to act in deference to the King of Burma. Back in India, Tripe was asked by the Government of India to print 50 prints of each of the 120 selected images, Burma Views. Tripe found it hard printing in hot and cold weather - heat melted wax on his negatives, and some of his assistants collapsed due to the high temperatures. Many prints were rejects but the project was finished in March 1857 with the publication of Burma Views.
Tripe had been under pressure to produce the series quickly, and evidently would have preferred more time and better working conditions. He wrote an accompanying disclaimer for the albums:
'The accompanying Views…in justice to him as a Photographer employed by the Government of India, should not be looked upon as a challenge to Photographic criticism; but as a series of views of subjects interesting on account of their novelty…As excuses too, for these defective photographs he would wish it known, that he was working against time; and frequently with no opportunities of replacing poor proofs by better. Also that, from unfavourable weather, sickness, and the circumstances unavoidably attending such a mission, and actual working time was narrowed to thirty-six days.'
Tripe's Burma Views were distributed widely and were very well received. Tripe sent 50 copies to Calcutta. Fourteen sets from these were distributed by the Government of India, including seven sets to members of the Mission to Ava, former capital of Burma. Twenty sets were ordered by the East India Company's Court of Directors, and most were given to members of the Court. It is not known what happened to the remaining sixteen sets. Due to Tripe's ownership of the negatives, he printed a selection of his photographs for further distribution. A set of 92 views of Burma was given to the King of Prussia, and more sets were given to the Madras Photographic Society and associated figures. Two hundred and ninety additional prints were offered for sale at 2 Rupees per print at Griffiths and Co., Madras.
In July 1856 as a response to the 1855 directive, the Madras Government proposed that Tripe should become official photographer to Madras as soon as his work on the Burmese photographs was finished. He was asked to propose a mandate. Compared to the Bombay Government photographer's mandate of 'taking copies of the sculptures and inscriptions in Western India', Tripe's was broad. He proposed recording, 'before they disappear' buildings, sculptures and inscriptions… including the picturesque'. He wanted the creative space to experiment with his own photography, to carry out an extensive survey, and to train others in photography. He asked to be based in Bangalore where printing conditions were easier. The government agreed a compromise whereby Tripe would be based in Bangalore but would teach at the School of Industrial Arts in Madras for the hottest two months of the year when printing anywhere was difficult. (Nevertheless, the teaching didn't happen as Tripe was opposed to it on many counts, including difficulties of working in the heat, the costs of maintaining his Bangalore setup whilst he was in Madras, as well as the loss of time for his work.)
Tripe began work in Madras on 19 March 1857. He started work on glass negatives, taking photographs of objects shown at the Madras exhibition. He then worked on portraits of Madras residents. He sold copies in addition to those required by the government in order to attempt to make his photographic office self-supporting.
Meanwhile, British rule in the north was being threatened by the 1857 uprising, which affected Tripe's funding and the security of his project.
The southern districts tour and Madras presidency photographs, 1857-58
As official photographer to the Madras Government, Tripe set off from Bangalore on 14 December 1857 after delays due to waiting for modifications to his new English camera, and his recovery after falling from a horse. He arrived in Madras on 30 April 1858 having travelled via Srirangam, Tiruchchirappalli, Madurai, then Pudukkottai, Tanjore, and Tiruchchirappalli again. Tripe looked for subjects with architectural or antiquarian interest, and wanted to ensure his images were practical too: before he set out he asked the chief engineer for guidance on what would be most useful from an engineering perspective, and incorporated this input into his work.
Tripe stayed in Madras in 1858 to photograph sculptures from the ruined Buddhist stupa at Amaravati, called the 'Elliot marbles' after Walter Elliot, the antiquarian, linguist and member of the Madras Council who recovered them. He then began printing his 480 selected negatives, aiming to provide 70 copies of each series as requested by the government. He was forced to modify this to providing 70 copies of the best images, and 12 of the rest due to time constraints - it was taking him one week to print 250 successful prints, and so the project would have taken over two and a half years. He also sent Elliot a copy of a panorama of the inscription around the bimanum of the Great Pagoda at Tanjore. Elliot was thrilled and noted the 'noble triumph of photography'.
The annual exhibition of the Madras Photographic Society opened on 12 May 1859 and Tripe exhibited 50 photographs from his 1857-8 tour. The jury dubbed his photographs 'the best in the Exhibition' but as Tripe could not be classed an amateur, he could not win the gold medal.
The decline of official photography
Following the 1857 uprising, control of India was taken from the East India Company by the British Crown. Management of the presidencies altered slightly, although the same problems with finances remained. A new governor, Sir Charles Trevelyan, was appointed, and was keen to cut costs. Presented with Tripe's bill for seven months in 1859, Trevelyan said he would pay the bill, but added,
'I submit for the consideration of my colleagues whether the Government Photographic Establishment is not an article of high luxury which is unsuited to the present state of our finances'.
The government asked Tripe to justify his establishment, and make a list of 'such ancient buildings or inscriptions, as are rapidly falling to decay, and require being recorded photographically at an early date 'ere they pass away altogether.' Tripe apparently interpreted this narrowly, not understanding the threat posed to his undertakings. He listed only sixteen locations as being in need of urgent photography, and unsuccessfully argued that it was vital for him to record less attractive buildings that would be overlooked by commercial or artistic photographers.
In mid-June 1959 the government ordered that Tripe undertake no new work, stating that closure of the establishment was not only financially right, but 'conducive to the object of having the monuments of the country pictured and explained in an able and intelligent manner.'. Tripe managed to convince them to fund the production of further copies of seven of his series for sale, recouping some of the outlay spent on the photographic establishment. Walter Elliot still championed Tripe, and suggested that he be allowed to carry on for another year, until 1860. It was not to be, and Tripe was ordered to close the business and sell off the equipment by the end of 1859, luckily keeping his negatives.
Tripe's photographs from the Madras photographic establishment were disposed of. They didn't sell well, due to what was perceived as the old fashioned techniques (ie. paper rather than glass negatives). Copies of many of the remaining works were given to British and Indian institutions, including the V&A.
Tripe went back to the Army in 1863 after recovering in England from exhaustion and having his request to continue as a government photographer declined. Tripe was continually promoted, becoming a colonel in August 1873. Whilst staying at Tonghoo, Lower Burma, in February 1869, Tripe made his two final series of photographs. Tonghoo was the centre of a powerful kingdom in the 15th and 16th centuries, and contained much religious architecture from that period. Tripe, however, focused on landscapes made on glass negatives. He titled some of these 'studies' hinting that he was distancing himself from straight record photography and concentrating on aesthetic concerns.
Tripe left India in 1873, and retired from the army in April 1874. Back in England he spent his retirement with his extended family, and was passionate about collecting shells and corals rather than practising photography, many of these are now in the British Museum, the Natural History Museum in Brussels, and private collections. Tripe died in his home in Devonport on 2 March 1902.