About: the Project

Doings of the Sunbeam: Reintroducing Photographs with the ‘Ethnological’ Collections of Lady Annie Brassey (1839-1887)

Doings of the Sunbeam… is an ongoing PhD thesis & research project by Sarah French. This is part of a collaborative doctoral award between the University of Sussex (Art History) and Hastings Museum & Art Gallery, East Sussex, UK.

Brasseys with Abu Bakar of Johore on board the Sunbeam 1877
The Brassey Family with Abu Bakar, Sultan of Johore (Johor), on board the Sunbeam, 1887. Collection: Hastings Museum and Art Gallery.

Annie Brassey
(1839-1887) was a wealthy Victorian travel writer and collector, famed for her family’s eleven-month voyage around the world (1876-77) in their luxury yacht named the Sunbeam R.Y.S. Brassey’s travel notes, that were later turned into bestselling books, describe the places she visited and the people she encountered from a perspective of assumed Western superiority, often commenting on the British colonial mission; the Sunbeam has since been described by scholar James Ryan as ‘without doubt a vehicle of empire’.[1]

Brassey acquired natural specimens, handcrafted and manufactured objects, both ancient and modern, that would be shown to the public at home as well as being loaned to major Victorian exhibitions. As part of her collecting activities she purchased commercial photographs and created her own with the assistance of her family and crew. When Lady Brassey’s intended museum opened posthumously in London in 1888, these photographs, in over 70 volumes, accompanied the material culture on display, then categorised as her ‘Ethnological’ collections.

The ‘ethnological’ and the photographic material have now been separated for 100 years. The core displays, including the Indian-themed interior they were situated within, were donated to the town of Hastings, East Sussex in 1919. Today they form the basis of the World Cultures collection at Hastings Museum & Art Gallery. The library collections, however, were sold at auction. Most of the photographic volumes are now kept at The Huntington Library, California, USA.

As a female traveller, who maintained her identity as wife and mother foremost, Brassey’s life and legacy as a collector has been largely overlooked. This has begun to change with recent scholarship, most significantly by Nancy Micklewright, though her existing collections maintain a huge scope for research.[2] Brassey is a significant subject for exploring women’s participation with both photography and the formation of museums in the nineteenth century, including photography’s own role within the museum. The wealth of literary, photographic and ethnographic material comprising the Brassey Collections offer huge potential for exploring methods of decolonising the museum.

Now in a post-colonial era, can reintroducing photography to the ethnographic collection help to broaden the perspectives of the Brassey’s voyages? This project aims to further the interpretation of Brassey’s collections for audiences today, by forming tangible connections between the existing material, literary and visual culture. By thinking not just about artefacts as isolated objects, but in dialogue with other collection material and as part of an imbalanced network of exchange between people, communities and culture, the PhD research looks to open up discussions about representations between Britain and the wider world in the nineteenth century.

This PhD research began in October 2018 as part of a 3 year collaborative doctoral award, funded by CHASE, the Consortium for the Humanities and the Arts South-East England. This website aims to give a broad overview of the project. To find out more, please contact Sarah French, sf313[at]sussex.ac.uk.

[1] Ryan, James R., ‘’Our home on the ocean’: Lady Brassey and the Voyages of the Sunbeam, 1864-1887’, Journal of Historical Geography, 32, 2006, pp. 579-604.

[2] A Victorian Traveller in the Middle East: The Photography and Travel Writing of Annie Lady Brassey (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002).

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