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 a collaborative doctoral award between the University of Sussex (Art History) and Hastings Museum & Art Gallery, East Sussex, UK.
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 Sunbeam (RYS). Brassey’s bestselling books describe the places she visited and the people she encountered from a perspective of assumed Western superiority. She often commented on the British colonial mission and the Sunbeam has been described by historian James Ryan as ‘without doubt a vehicle of empire’.
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 produced her own, with the assistance of her family and the crew. When her intended museum opened posthumously in London, as the Lady Brassey Museum, in about 1888, these photograph albums accompanied the objects on display. The objects were mostly categorised as ‘Ethnological’, a term we refrain from using today.
The museum and the photographic material have now been separated for over 100 years. The core displays, including the Indian-themed interior they were situated within (the Durbar Hall), 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. However, the photographs were sold at auction. Seventy of these volumes are now kept at The Huntington Library, California, USA.
As a female traveller, who maintained her identity as a wife and mother foremost, Brassey’s life and legacy as a collector has been largely overlooked. Along with Ryan, the most significant scholarship on Brassey has been published by Nancy Micklewright (2003) and Julian Porter. This project expands understandings of Brassey’s collection, with a focus on the objects at Hastings Museum. This includes her participation in learned societies, like the Royal Photographic Society, and her contribution to exhibition culture in the nineteenth century, which constructed knowledge about the world for a broad audience.
This literary, photographic, and ethnographic material comprising the Brassey Collections offers great potential for exploring the colonial contexts within museums. This project aims to further the interpretation of Brassey’s collections for contemporary audiences, by forming tangible connections between the dispersed collections, and the people involved in their creation, circulation and acquisition. Can reintroducing photography to the ethnographic collection help to broaden the narratives of the collection?
This PhD research began in October 2018 as part of a 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.
 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.
 A Victorian Traveller in the Middle East: The Photography and Travel Writing of Annie Lady Brassey (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003). See Porter, et. al, ‘More than Souvenirs’, Journeys, 19.2 (2018), 82-105.