Linnaeus Tripe

I can’t now remember when I first became interested in the history of photography in India, but it was something that fitted in with my desire when writing about photography to see the medium from a wider viewpoint than the typically European or US histories. And when looking at the photography of the Indian sub-continent I wanted also to place it in the context of colonialism.

Writing a dozen years ago in 2003, it was hard to find on-line resources to use to research the work of Linnaeus Tripe (1822-1902), and harder still to find well reproduced examples of his images.  The web has developed considerably since then.

I was reminded of this by a post on British photographic history by Michael Pritchard of a link to the US National Gallery of Art on-line resource Captain Linnaeus Tripe: Photographer of India and Burma, 1852–1860, on their exhibition which is coming to London later this year, at the V&A from 24 June to 11 October.

It seems to give an excellent account of  his life and the context of his pictures, but if the online exhibition is a proper representation of the actual show to have avoided the inclusion of many if not most of his best pictures. I hope this is not actually the case, but looking at it on-line it would appear to be rather disappointing in this respect.

Of course curators often have problems in loaning the material they would like to show, but with the backing of the NGA I would be surprised if this was the reason in this case.  Any summative exhibition about a photographer should start by trying to show his work at its best, not to illustrate a particular thesis.

Some of the details of what I wrote about Tripe back then are corrected and clarified by the research since 2003 and behind this show, and my article spent some time discussing published information that has been shown to be in error. Like most of my articles it incorporated little or no actual first hand research, though after publication I think I made a few changes from information supplied to me by descendents of the photographer who contacted me. Rather than rewrite it to bring it up to date, I present it here with only very minor corrections and omissions.

Linnaeus Tripe (1822-1902)

Photography in India 3


The Tripe Family

The Tripe family was apparently well known in Devon, particularly around Dawlish and Devonport, where Cornelius Tripe, Linnaeus’s father, was mayor in 1838/9. Cornelius was a surgeon, and his son Lorenzo went on to be a doctor in the area. Linnaeus was one of a large family, many of them with unusual names, some of which were handed down in the family, such as another Cornelius and Theophilus. That two of Linnaeus’s brothers were called Septimus and Octavius does however suggest a certain desperation in thinking as the family grew.

Linnaeus was probably named after the great eighteenth century Swedish scientist, Karl von Linne, better known by the Latinised name of Linnaeus (1707-1778), who first developed the modern hierarchical system of plant and animal classification.

Tripe in India

Tripe apparently first left for India in 1839 when he was only seventeen, but by the 1850s he was Captain Linnaeus Tripe, officer in charge of one of the battalions of the 12th Madras Native Infantry, a regiment founded in 1824 and stationed in Madras.

In 1854, the East India Company had suggested to the Bombay government that photography could help in the work of recording and cataloguing cave paintings and other antiquities, and offered to supply materials and equipment. Possibly at the request of the Governor General, Lord Canning, the British Army made available some of its officers in India. It is unclear if Tripe was selected because he had earlier learnt photography during one of his periods of extended leave in Britain in 1851-4, or if he was ‘volunteered’ in true army tradition and sent on a crash course. Certainly by the time he began work as an official photographer in 1855 he had gained an excellent command of the calotype process and the making of prints.

It was perhaps coincidence that the decision to appoint government photographers coincided with the setting up of the first photographic course in India by Dr. Alexander Hunter at the Madras Government School of Industrial Arts in 1855. Tripe’s later links with the school are well known, since C Iyahswamy, a photography instructor there, acted as his assistant, as is noted in the Frontline feature on Tripe.

First Photography in Burma

Tripe’s first assignment for the government was as official photographer to the British mission in the court at the city of Ava, where the Irrawaddy and the Myitnge rivers meet in upper Burma. In several months there he managed to take hundreds of large calotypes, roughly 14×10″ paper negatives, which were apparently the first photographs to be taken in Burma. They were mainly of temples, monasteries and views of city buildings. Two years later, in 1857, around three hundred of them were shown and published at the Madras Photographic Society, his first publication.

Work in India

Back in Madras later in 1855, Tripe was commissioned to take further photographs for the British East India Company and the Madras Presidency over the next few years, resulting in the publication of 6 albums of pictures entitled ‘Photographic Views of Indian Scenery: Madura, Tanjore and Trivady, Ryakotta, Seringham, Poodoocottah and Trichinopoly.’ Each contained around 50-70 pictures, together with a suitably scholarly introduction by a British expert on the area.

The scenes that he showed in the over 400 pictures he took were largely of temples, forts and other buildings, as well as images of sculptures and engravings, including a 21 print panorama of the engravings around the base of the 11th century Rajarajesvara temple in Thanjavur.

Later Life

Tripe, along with the other official photographers, was soon recalled to more military duties, taking his last official photographs in 1857 or 8. Possibly the end of the government project was connected with the Indian Mutiny of 1857-8, or simply reflected a desire to save money, perhaps because of the the short-term financial problems of the revolt. He continued a military career, taking photographs as an amateur, retiring to his home town of Devonport in 1875 having reached the rank of Major-General.

Part 2: Tripe’s Pictures


Tripe had a very good eye for architectural form, and his pictures show a very careful choice of viewpoint so as to bring out the qualities of the buildings. He was careful to choose the time of day to give good, sometimes quite dramatic, lighting on them. Many of his pictures would serve as textbook examples of good architectural photography.


Photography at that time involved a great deal of organisation. Tripe travelled with his assistant on horseback, with 4 bullock carts to carry the equipment needed, including tents and camping equipment so they could make themselves at home near to the monuments they were to photograph.

As well as the large 15×12″ camera he used for the main photographs, Tripe also made use of a smaller twin lens camera to take stereoscopic views. This produced two small images roughly the same distance apart as the human eyes on a single sheet of calotype paper. When viewed with the appropriate viewer it gave the impression of a three-dimensional view.

Invented just before the invention of photography, the stereoscope was a sensation in Victorian parlours once it was possible to publish relatively cheap stereo views on paper rather than the expensive daguerreotypes of early years.

Entrance to Temple of Minakshi in the Great Pagoda

In this picture, Tripe has taken the entrance from a rather more oblique viewpoint than normal. The reason for this is clear, enabling us to see past the imposing temple entrance to the giant structure in the background. The lighting is carefully chosen to bring out the details in the front of the gateway while obscuring as little as possible in the delicately handled shadows.

Madura. The Great Pagoda, Mootoo Alaghur and East Gopurum from Tank

This view across the water has been framed so as to make the most of the reflection of the arcade in the water, blurred perhaps by a little breeze to produce a simplified result. The angle of view is carefully chosen so that the effect of the angle of the two sides opposite is reduced.

The picture appears to have been taken from the same level as the bottom of the arcade, keeping the camera back level and using a rising front (or a cropped negative) to retain verticality in the towering structures in the background. The picture hints at symmetry, with the two rows of arches, the two towers and the two groups of trees, but avoids it.

Aisle on the South side of the Puthu Mundapum, Madura

This dramatic view along the aisle is dominated by what are apparently deep shadows of the row of pillars falling from the right across the stone flags of the floor. At the right are the pillars themselves, half burnt out by the strong light. It is a powerful effect, but also one that I find it impossible to understand.

Why are the top halves of the pillars and the wall at the left of the aisle apparently in shadow? Why do the shadows stop at they do, more or less at the base of the left-hand wall? Are the row of pillars to the right of the picture simply free-standing columns, with their tops disappearing in the darkness at the top of the picture? Why are the lower parts of the pillars on the right, so clearly in the shade from the direction of the shadows, so bright on the image? I keep looking at this picture and failing to understand how it could be produced.

Some of the effect might be explained by the use of two exposures, at different times of day or using different lighting, perhaps one during a period of cloud and the other in bright sun. Its also possible that some of the apparent exposure differences shown could be due to parts of the structure being painted in darker colour than the light stone. At this point I begin to wonder if the ‘shadows’ are really shadows at all.

Great Pagoda, Great Bull, Front View, Tanjore, India

Even in this small reproduction we get an powerful impression of the scale of this temple, bursting out of the very frame before our eyes. Taken from a low viewpoint, the camera kept vertical to keep the pillars upright, the roof is cut off by the edge of the frame at the top right, and we see clearly a view with the camera straining, looking up towards the ceiling. At the left, one of the pillars is mainly cropped away by the edge of the frame, and to its right another reaches up and beyond the top.

Careful camera placing gives a procession of vertical elements clearly separated across the frame, clear areas of sky between them. Again we can see how a careful choice of the time of day has created powerfully effective lighting.

Part 3: Tripe’s Techniques

Calotype or collodion?

There are differing reports of the technical basis of Tripe’s photography. Although his pictures are generally described as being made from waxed paper calotype negatives, there are some sources that suggest Tripe claimed to have used a dry collodion. Some of his negatives are in the collection of the Royal Photographic Society, and are definitely waxed paper, but later work, particularly as an amateur, could have used a dry collodion plate.

However a more likely explanation is simply that Tripe when asked if he used a wet plate stated that he used a dry process, and that this has been misunderstood. Although technically it is just possible, Tripe was recalled from his photographic duties to more military exploits around 1858, before dry collodion processes became widely established.

Taupenot Process

The earliest successful dry collodion process was the Taupenot process, details of which were first reported by Dr J M Taupenot in September 1855. This used a collodio-albumen plate.

The glass was first carefully cleaned, then coated with an iodised collodion solution thinned by the addition of more than the normal amount of ether, sensitised in the normal silver bath as soon as it has congealed sufficiently on the surface. After several minutes in the silver bath, it was washed with distilled water, and while still wet, treated with an iodised albumen solution containing sugar. This was made to flow across the surface in all directions before the plate was drained off and left to dry.

The plates were not very light sensitive following this treatment, but required a second immersion in a weak silver bath containing acetic acid. After this they could be dried and kept for weeks or even months before use, although they lost sensitivity on extended storage. Exposures needed to be several times those on normal wet plates, typically requiring perhaps 10-60 seconds in good light with a reasonably fast lens for the time with an aperture around f11. Processing after exposure was as normal.

Such collodio-albumen plates could give results with greater detail than a calotype negative, and greater delicacy of tone. There were later improvements of the basic Taupenot process – such as the Fothergill process – which made the preparation of plates easier, but did not alter the results obtained.

The results in a contact print from any of these dry processes would not be greatly different to those from the best waxed paper calotypes. Without access to Tripe’s negatives or a very detailed analysis of his prints, probably with a magnifier to look for the presence of residual paper texture, it would be difficult or impossible to decide.

His earliest pictures, dating from the middle of 1855 could not have made use the Taupenot process, but certainly the details would have reached India in time for some of his later work.

Albumen or Salt Prints?

Similarly, Tripe’s prints are sometimes stated to be albumen prints, sometimes salted paper prints, while some hedge their bets with statements such as ‘lightly albumenised salt prints’. The pictures are clearly not the high gloss double coated albumen prints that dominated photography in later years of the nineteenth century. They have the matt surface of a typical salt print, although some have a tonal richness that might suggest the presence of albumen.

Few people – curators, gallerists or photographers – have seen good modern salt prints, let alone made their own. There are many more examples, both contemporary and vintage, of poor quality salt prints, often flat and low density. Making good salt prints needs negatives with a full tonal range, high contrast and low fog levels; this combination, together with a well coated paper can give prints similar to those of Tripe.

From the early 1850s, photographers often added albumen to the salting solution used in making printing paper, giving what are sometimes known as matt albumen papers. Although we tend to think in terms of separate categories – salt prints and albumen prints – in reality there are a whole range of possibilities, and without detailed process notes from the photographer it is difficult or impossible to distinguish one from the other.

It’s a difference that is largely academic, although the presence of albumen results in a less stable print. James M Reilly in his classic work ‘The Albumen and Salted Paper Book’ (available on line) states “it is probably safe to say that not a single albumen print survives from the 19th century without some degree of staining in non-image areas.” The absence of this yellowing is probably the best simple test to distinguish albumen from salt prints.

Later Photography

Although Tripe’s work as a government photographer probably ended in 1857, he was still making portraits in 1858, including one of Sir Alexander Arbuthnot, founder of the Madras Cricket Club – as well as its university.

He continued to photograph as an amateur in later life, taking pictures around Devonport, possibly while on extended leave, as well as after his final return there on retirement in 1875.

Back in Devonport, Major-General Tripe, who was unmarried, took an active interest in local affairs, serving for example as secretary to the committee of management of Stoke Public School there, and living in the town until his death in 1902.

A ‘Catalogue Raisonné’ containing illustrations of all of Tripe’s work in India and Burma was published by the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2003.

 Peter Marshall 2003

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