Linnaeus Tripe: life and work

A pioneering 19th-century British photographer, Linnaeus Tripe (1822 – 1902) is best known for his striking views of Indian and Burmese landscape and architecture taken between 1852 and 1860, while he was an officer in the East India Company army. Through these early photographs, Tripe explored the possibilities of this new medium, showcasing and documenting archaeological sites, monuments and landscapes, rarely seen in the West.

Colossal Statue of the Gautama close to the N.end of the wooden bridge by Linneaus Tripe, 1855, Burma. Museum no. 1527-1909. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The road to photography

Tripe was born on 14 April 1822, in Devonport (then Plymouth Dock), Devon, the 9th of 12 children. After his sister Emily married an army colonel in the 3rd Madras Light Infantry, Linnaeus also pursued a career in the military, and joined the East India Company army in 1838 as a cadet for the Madras Infantry. His career quickly progressed and he became a lieutenant in 1840 and joined his regiment in the south of India.

After 11 years in India, Tripe returned to England in 1850 on leave for two years, extended due to ill health until 1854. It was during this time that he began to experiment with photography in both London and Devonport. His earliest surviving photographs are of Devonport in 1853, though the earliest in the V&A collection date from 1855.

Mengoon pagoda from N.W (Mingun) by Linnaeus Tripe, 1855, Burma. Museum no. 1578-1909. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Tripe returned to Bangalore, India, as a captain in June 1854. He made his first India photographs while on leave in Mysore, South India, in December that year, and exhibited 68 of them – showing previously unphotographed temples – at an exhibition of Southern Indian arts in February 1855. The jury highly praised his work, calling it the "best series of photographic views on paper".

Photographing in Burma

In April 1855, Lord Dalhousie, Governor General of India, recommended a British political trip to Amerapoora (Amarapura) in Burma. Colesworthy Grant, a Calcutta artist, was due to accompany the group, but there was a growing feeling at the East India Company that photography was a more suitable medium for documentation – a view reinforced by the Court of Directors in London proclaiming photography as the main means of recording architecture because it offered "perfect accuracy, small expenditure of time, and moderate cash". Dalhousie recommended Tripe for the job and in June 1855 Tripe joined the Burma expedition as photographer.

West entrance to the Shwe-San-dau pagoda, Prome by Linneaus Tripe, 1855, Burma. Museum no. 1485-1909. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Tripe made over 200 photographs during his Burma trip. After the expedition, back in India, Tripe was asked by the Government of India to print 50 copies of each of the 122 selected images for an album called Burma Views. Although he had been under pressure to produce the series quickly and had noted in a disclaimer that he would have preferred more time and better working conditions, Burma Views was distributed widely and was very well received.

The V&A's series of photographs from Burma Views was presented to the Museum in 1909 by Lady Ida Low, whose father-in-law, General Sri John Low, as a member of the Council of India, had received the album in 1857.

As Tripe owned the negatives to the series, he also printed a selection for his own distribution, including a set of 92 views of Burma, which were given to the King of Prussia and several hundred prints offered for sale at 2 rupees per print at Griffiths and Co., in Madras.

Official photographer

In July 1856, Tripe became the official photographer to the Madras Government. His aim for the role was "to record, before they disappear, buildings, sculptures and inscriptions … including the picturesque".

Field Marshal Sir Patrick Grant by Linnaeus Tripe, 19th century, India. Museum no. 33921. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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 commissioned by the government, in order to attempt to make his photographic office self-supporting. Meanwhile, British rule in the North India was threatened by the 1857 uprising, which affected Tripe's funding and the security of his project.

Mrs Baker with children & Ayah by Linnaeus Tripe, 19th century, India. Museum no. 33915. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Street view, Trichinopoly by Linnaeus Tripe, 1858, India. Museum no. 33800. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Elliot Marbles

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.

Standing Figure, The Elliot Marbles by Linnaeus Tripe, 1858, India. Museum no. 33781. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

He selected 480 negatives to print, aiming to make 70 copies of each. However, it would have taken over two and a half years to print this amount, so he was forced to reduce the number to 70 copies of only the best images and 12 of the rest.

One of his most ambitious works was a 19-foot-long panorama made of 21 separate prints showing the inscriptions around the Bimanum of the Great Pagoda at Tanjore. To make this, Tripe had to ensure the camera was perfectly level as he moved around the base of the temple. He sent Elliot a copy of this panorama. Elliot was thrilled and called it a 'noble triumph of photography'.

Relief, The Elliot Marbles by Linnaeus Tripe, 1858, India. Museum no. 33764. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The decline of official photography

Following the 1857 uprising, control of India was taken from the East India Company by the British Crown. A new governor, Sir Charles Trevelyan, was appointed, who was keen to cut costs. Presented with Tripe's bill for seven months in 1859, Trevelyan agreed to pay it, but questioned whether the photographic project was a necessity or a luxury.

The government asked Tripe to justify his work and make a list of the buildings and sites that were at risk of perishing and therefore essential to document. Tripe didn't seem to understand the threat posed to his project and listed only 16 locations as being in need of urgent photography.

In mid-June 1959 the government ordered that Tripe undertake no new work and to close the business and sell off all equipment, though he was fortunately allowed to keep his negatives.

Tripe's photographs from his Madras studio didn't sell well because using paper rather than glass negatives was perceived as an old-fashioned technique. Copies of many of his remaining works were given to British and Indian institutions, including the V&A.

Tripe returned to the army in 1863 after recovering in England from exhaustion and having his request to continue as a government photographer declined, and eventually became a Colonel in August 1873.

Tripe made his two final series of photographs while staying at Tonghoo, Lower Burma, in February 1869, where he focused on landscapes made on glass negatives. He titled some of these 'studies', suggesting that he was beginning to concentrate on more 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, more concerned with collecting shells and corals rather than practising photography. Tripe died in his home in Devonport on 2 March 1902.