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#History: Mystery photographer’s British Raj pictures found…in a shoe box

One of Scotland’s national collections is searching for clues to the identity of a mystery photographer, after finding a collection of exquisite plate glass negatives in a shoe box.

The 178 plate glass negatives – some exactly a century old – were taken in India at the time of the Raj.

They were discovered in the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) archives in a size 9 Peter Lord shoe box.

It is most likely that the negatives had been left untouched for almost 100 years. 

Archivists at RCAHMS have already confirmed that some of the images were definitely taken in 1912, when King George V and Queen Mary visited Calcutta (now Kolkata), the only visit by a British monarch to India as Emperor of the subcontinent.

Some of the photographs show the city’s buildings lit up at night in tribute to the Royal visit.

RCAHMS hope that members of the public and photography enthusiasts might be able to shed more light on this discovery.

They’ve also approached John Falconer, Curator of Photographs at The British Library, who correctly identified some of the locations and remarked on the high quality and beauty of the images, though so far the identity of the photographer remains a mystery.

Among the theories are that the photographer was a British civil servant headquartered in Calcutta, or was connected to the jute trade, as many Scots were at the time.

There is even a Scottish Cemetery in the city that dates back to the time of the British Raj, which has recently been cleaned up and recorded. 

Arriving in India for any Brit at the time must have been a startlingly exotic experience to say the least.  The sights, sounds and smells must have been extraordinary.

Some highlights from the collection include: Ships arriving at the Chandpal Ghat, the main landing place for visitors to Calcutta along the Hooghly river; Pilgrims gathering for a religious festival on the Maidan, the large urban park at the centre of Calcutta which was also where polo games would have been played; and Merchants selling their wares outside the eleventh century Jagganath Hindu temple in Orissa.

Many of the powerful images feature Indian citizens alongside British ex-pats, highlighting the stark contrasts in their day-to-day lives in India in the early 20th Century.

Speaking about the images, RCAHMS architectural historian Clare Sorensen said: “We don’t know for sure how they came to be in our collection because we receive archive material from countless different sources, ranging from the archives kept by architectural practices to generous public donations. Sometimes we take in large amounts of material at once, and often documentation for historical deposits does not exist.

“Over time all this new material will be inspected and catalogued as part of our collection – undergoing conservation work where necessary – and then made available to the public. “It’s fantastic that a small shoe-box contained such a treasure-trove of photographic imagery, but in some ways it’s not unusual.

“Our experience as an archive has shown us that some of the most interesting discoveries can be made in the most unlikely of places.”

All of the negatives have now been digitised and some of the highlights are available to browse in an online gallery on the RCAHMS website.

Anyone who has any information on the collection can contact: clare.sorensen@rcahms.gov.uk

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