gb fr

Before the Wall - the first photographed war

In the third of a series of blog posts, Before the Wall writer Chris Ruffle looks at photographs from the Opium War of 1860, one of the first conflicts captured using the new technology of photography.

The second Opium War has a good claim to be the first war to be photographed from start to finish. The young Italian-British photographer Felice Beato (“Felix” as he preferred to be called) was 28 when he joined the Anglo-French expeditionary force to China. He came via the Crimea, where he took some photographs of the concluding siege of Sevastopol, and arrived in India in 1858 to capture the aftermath of the Indian Mutiny. But for the invasion of China, he was able to record the full campaign from the gathering of the fleet to the signing of the Convention of Beijing.


The long exposure time required by cameras of this period means inevitably that the photographs are posed – of individuals or static scenes. In the photograph below, taken after the capture of the Dagu forts, the flapping of the Union Jack shows the problem that movement represented. Please also note the turbaned representative of the Sikh forces, which made up such a large part of the British army on this campaign.


There is an interesting contrast with the illustrations drawn by Charles Wirgman, an artist who accompanied the campaign for the Illustrated London News. Whereas Wirgman’s illustrations often capture heroic actions, such as the charge of the Dragoon Guards at the Battle of Baliqiao shown below, Beato’s static pictures taken in the wake of the battle emphasise the horror and waste of war. Roger Fenton, a photographer of part of the Crimean War, had studiously avoided including any corpses in his battle pictures. Beato has no such reticence; his photographs are a foretaste of those sad photographs from the battlefields of the American Civil War which were to follow shortly thereafter. This photograph is taken in the immediate aftermath of the taking of the Dagu forts.


He captured photographs of the leaders of the expedition, and most of characters in our play. Selling these photographs to those featured was one of Beato’s main money-spinners. In a number of cases it is interesting to contrast the rather tired figures on campaign with the grand portraits they had painted well away from the battlefield. It is difficult to reconcile these two images of General Sir James Hope Grant, leader of the British expeditionary forces.


Beato’s pictures are amongst the first ever taken in China. Here he captures an obviously suspicious Duke Gong, the emperor’s brother, in charge of negotiations with the Westerners.


Beato was also able to take photographs of some of the buildings in the Yuanmingyuan, the Summer Palace, both before and after it was burned by the Western forces in retribution for the torture of individuals captured whilst advancing under a flag of truce. We also have his photographs of the walls of Beijing, faced by the invading army, which were mostly torn down in the 1960’s to make way for a ring road.



Before the Wall, premiering at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe
17th-26th August, every day at 13:30
Gilded Balloon at the Museum

Posted on:Saturday 27th July, 2019