Doings of the Sunbeam: Photographs of a Victorian Voyage, Annie Brassey

Curated by Sarah French

Annie Brassey (1839-1887) was a Victorian travel writer and collector, famed for her family's adventures around the world in their yacht, R.Y.S. Sunbeam. Like many middle and upper-class women of her era, she was also a keen collector and practitioner of photography. Normally tucked away in albums that are now carefully stored in archives, this online exhibition presents some of the amateur photographs taken during Annie Brassey's voyages in the 1870's and 1880's.

Artist biography

This exhibition has been produced by Sarah French, a CHASE-funded PhD Researcher at the University of Sussex and Hastings Museum & Art Gallery. Her thesis reintroduces Annie Brassey's photograph collections with her museum artefacts, re-contextualising the collections that are ingrained within the histories of British Empire.


Doings of the Sunbeam: Photographs of a Victorian Voyage, Annie Brassey, Curated by Sarah French

On board the Sunbeam R.Y.S., 1887 [Annie Brassey on far right]. Annie Brassey was a popular Victorian traveller and writer whose book, 'A Voyage in the Sunbeam: Our Home on the Ocean for Eleven Months (1878)',became an international bestseller. This gave an account of just one of her adventures on her yacht with her husband, children, crew, and the family’s pets. ⁣

Thomas Brassey, Annie’s husband, was a Liberal politician and MP for Hastings, with interests in naval affairs and the governance of overseas territories of the British Empire. He was the son of a railway contractor who had amassed an enormous fortune, making their voyages possible. Annie was often in ill health so was encouraged to travel often. She made the voyages her own through her pursuits of writing, collecting, and photographing. Each of these should be considered today within a context of colonialism and empire. The family saw themselves from a position of Western superiority. ⁣

Brassey was born in 1839, the year that the medium of photography was first announced to the world. Therefore, she was fully aware of the potential for this new medium to document her voyages, as travellers before her had only imagined possible.

[Image: The Lady Brassey Photograph Collection, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.]

‘Felise and Midge, My First Photograph’, 1872. Brassey began her writing career by privately circulating her travel diaries for friends and acquaintances. A few copies of ‘A Cruise in the “Eothen” (1872)’, detailing her trip around North America, include photographic illustrations. This image of Felise and Midge, Brassey’s pug and English toy terrier skilfully posed on a Captain's chair, is captioned ‘My First Photograph’. Details of her introduction to the medium remain unknown.

Brassey became a member of the Photographic Society of Great Britain (now the Royal Photographic Society) in 1873. The society was open to both men and women from its inception in the early 1850s.

[Image: Brassey, ‘A Cruise in the "Eothen" (1872)’, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.]

‘Curio Shop, Kyoto, Japan’, about 1877. Brassey was interested in collecting commercial photographic prints as well as taking her own photographs. She would buy these from souvenir shops, booksellers, and photographers’ studios. Dealers would also bring their photographs to hotels for travellers to choose from.

She visited Japan in 1877, not long after the country had re-opened to Europeans. This photograph shows a ‘curio shop’ with examples of the types of objects Brassey purchased for her own collection, such as armour, fans and lacquerware. This print demonstrates how both the objects and the people were cause for fascination; as photographic subjects, they are treated the same.

[Image: Baron Raimund von Stillfried. The Lady Brassey Photograph Collection, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.]

‘Some of Our Crew’, 1874. Thomas and Annie Brassey employed sketch artists to accompany them on the Sunbeam’s journeys. These form the basis of the illustrations for Annie’s published books. However, her own photographs were also used. Here, the crew have been posed at the helm whilst sailing the Mediterranean in 1874. This was copied as a woodcut engraving to be printed in Brassey’s second major publication, ‘Sunshine and Storm in the East (1878)’.

[Image: Brassey, ‘Sunshine and Storm in the East, or, Cruises to Cyprus and Constantinople (1880)’, Hastings Library, East Sussex County Council.]

Interior of the Sunbeam R.Y.S., 1880s. Photography was made possible on the Sunbeam because Annie Brassey ordered a custom-made darkroom to be fitted into its design, ready for its maiden voyage in 1874. Brassey was an early adopter of the gelatin dry plate process, using glass negatives. Unlike older processes, chemicals did not have to be applied to the glass plate just before the exposure, nor did it have to be immediately developed. This made photography, especially when travelling, much more efficient.

[Image: The Lady Brassey Photograph Collection, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.]

Volcanoes, Italy, 1880’s. News of Brassey’s darkroom and her intention to photograph her travels was met with excitement amongst the photographic community. As the Photographic News reported at the end of her round-the-world trip: 'If Mrs. Brassey has made good use of her camera during the chequered journey, the yacht should have brought home a fine collection of pictures from all parts of the world.'

Some of these were later shown at the annual exhibitions of the Photographic Society in Pall Mall, London. The ‘Mouth of the Crater of Volcano, Lipari’ was exhibited in 1886 and may be identified as, or similar to, the above right image, though only paper records remain.

[Image: The Lady Brassey Photograph Collection, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.]

Group Portrait, Burma [now Myanmar], probably 1886. Many of Brassey’s images demonstrate more motion blur and less rigid compositions than those of professional photographers, who would be selling hundreds or thousands of reproductions. However, the Photographic News wrote: ‘from the fact that they were secured by the travellers themselves, they will be valuable, no matter whether perfect or not.’

Brassey would take her camera on land to record the places and people that she would meet, including indigenous people and colonial officers. This photograph, captioned only as ‘Group of Burmese’, was probably taken at a school as many of the children are holding books. Brassey was a firm believer that the British Empire was a force for good and that introducing a European model of education was of benefit to these local communities. Her photographs could demonstrate this perceived success to audiences at home.

[Image: Reference Collection, Hastings Library, East Sussex County Council.]

Family and Crew on board the Sunbeam R.Y.S., 1887. The Brassey’s were accompanied by over thirty crew members on their various journeys, with some joining temporarily for a rite of passage. These included not just able seamen, but cooks, stewardesses and a governess for the children. All were invited to stand before Brassey’s camera. Both photographs show a subject steadying themselves on the rigging to remain as still as possible.

[Image: Reference Collection, Hastings Library, East Sussex County Council.]

‘A Group of Wild Animals’, Ceylon [now Sri Lanka], about 1877. Whilst it is typical in photographs from this time for indigenous subjects to be posed to demonstrate differences in dress, ethnicity or only as a measure for scale within an exoticized landscape, colonialists were often positioned to appear to be dominating their surroundings. This hunter in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) makes eye contact with the viewer as he stands proudly over his taxidermy scene. It was captioned in its album as ‘A Group of Wild Animals’.

[Image: Reference Collection, Hastings Library, East Sussex County Council.]

Muriel Brassey with pets on board the Sunbeam R.Y.S., 1887. Annie Brassey’s many pets were joined on board the Sunbeam by monkeys, birds, and other fauna along the way. These were often collected with the misguided intention of preserving living zoological specimens, though many would become taxidermy, lost overboard, or – as in the fate of the Tahitian pigs – the main course for supper.

The animals were particularly difficult to keep still enough to photograph, especially at sea. She wrote: "Sundry unsuccessful attempts were made to photograph the animals, but they seemed to be suffering from a severe attack of the fidgets." The photograph of Jenny Jenkins, a monkey, and Mr. Short, a terrier, was ruined.

[Image: The Lady Brassey Photograph Collection, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.]

Crossing the Line, Sunbeam R.Y.S., 1887. Photography became a part of everyday life on the Sunbeam and was used as a form of entertainment. Here, a party perform for the camera as they cross the equator, also referred to as ‘the line’.

‘Crossing the line’ ceremonies were, and remain, a maritime tradition, often taking the form of an initiation challenge for all those crossing for the first time. In this tableau Neptune and Mrs. Trident are seated centre stage. This event coincided with Muriel Brassey’s birthday, making the event a cause for double celebration.

[Image: Reference Collection, Hastings Library, East Sussex County Council.]

H.M.S Iron Duke, 1880’s. Brassey experimented with different methods of printing, including the cyanotype process, or blueprint, first introduced in 1842. Brassey exhibited a similar photograph of this ship, the Iron Duke, at the 1886 exhibition of the Photographic Society.

The Photographic News wrote: ‘scarcely an exhibition at Pall Mall passes that does not contain the work of lady photographers : Mrs. Roscoe, Mrs. Huggins, Mrs. Brassey, are well-known workers with the camera, and there are others not less ardent and efficient.’

[Image: The Lady Brassey Photograph Collection, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.]

Arriving at Patiala, India, 1887. After the success of ‘A Voyage in the Sunbeam’, the Brassey family arriving both in port and overland was often a revered occasion. By the 1880s, Thomas Brassey had been knighted, meaning Annie Brassey was now a Lady. Their status had risen considerably. During their tour of India, the Maharajah of Patiala, south-eastern Punjab, sent dozens of elephants and about thirty horsemen to greet the family. The Brassey’s showed their appreciation by recording the scene.

[Image: Reference Collection, Hastings Library, East Sussex County Council.]

The Brassey family with Abu Bakar [second left], Sultan of Johor, 1887. The family would host guests on board, hosting dinner parties and opening up the yacht for tours of the domestic interiors, artworks and ‘curiosities’ that formed a floating museum. Visitors would often bring their own gifts.

Above shows the Brassey family with Abu Bakar, Sultan of Johor, whom they had spent time with on a previous voyage, alongside the plants that he presented to them. Bakar was the first Malay ruler to travel to Europe and maintained a strong relationship with Queen Victoria. He was known as the ‘Father of Modern Johor’. Both parties may have felt a group portrait would strengthen their status in Society. Variant prints show there were several attempts at getting this shot and Marie Brassey’s expression shows her losing patience at this ordeal (far right). This is one of just thirty of Brassey’s original glass plate negatives known to exist today.

[Image: Hastings Museum & Art Gallery, East Sussex. Reference Collection, Hastings Library, East Sussex County Council.]

Marie Brassey walks the main deck, Sunbeam R.Y.S., 1887. Brassey's voyage to Australia from India would be her final one. It is believed she contracted Malaria whilst visiting Borneo. She died at sea on the way to Mauritius on 14 September, 1887, surrounded by her family.

Her final diary was published as 'The Last Voyage (1889)'.

A year later, Brassey’s ambition for a museum was realised when the Lady Brassey Museum opened in her London home, in her honour. This also housed her collection of nearly 6,000 photographs, now mounted in 70 albums. In the same year the first Kodak camera was placed on the market. Annie Brassey's life, therefore, offers a perfect snapshot of this earlier era of travel and photography.

[Image: The Lady Brassey Photograph Collection, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.]
With special thanks to Hastings Museum & Art Gallery, East Sussex (UK), Hastings Library, East Sussex (UK), and The Huntington Library, California (USA), where the albums are now cared for.