The Discovery of the Earliest Photograph Album of Imperial Beijing

BROOKLYN, N.Y., March 30, 2015 /PRNewswire/ — It appears the earliest known photograph album of imperial Beijing has been discovered. Created in 1860, this rare and remarkable album was acquired by Stephan Loewentheil of the 19th Century Rare Book and Photograph Shop.

Felice Beato, The Great Imperial Palace Yuen Ming Yuen
Felice Beato, The Great Imperial Palace Yuen Ming Yuen

Exhaustive research has confirmed that this album is the earliest known surviving photograph album of Beijing. It contains the first photographs ever taken of the Forbidden City and its monumental architecture. The heart of the photographic album is its spectacular series of photographs showing the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace as they appeared in imperial times.

The photographs in the album were created, assembled and captioned by the renowned 19th-century photographer Felice Beato. Beato’s handwritten dated captions are invaluable as they chronicle the artist’s visual record of China’s history at a critical moment in the empire’s engagement with the West. Beato accompanied Anglo-French forces during the Second Opium War. His images are the earliest extant photographs of Beijing. This newly discovered album survives exactly as created by the photographer. The intact survival of this album allows the modern viewer to see the most historically important photographs of Beijing exactly as the photographer intended.

According to L.A. Times art critic Christopher Knight, “Beato’s 1860s pictures of China are the first photographs to chronicle the progress of an actual military campaign. They show … the majestic grandeur of the Forbidden City, the elaborate imperial summer palace before it was burned–and after. Journalistic and cinematic, the collective photographs possess an epic sweep.” March 11, 2000

Beato is famous for stunning panoramic views. This album contains a collection of 15 dramatic multi-panel panoramas. The highlight of these is the panorama of Beijing composed of six photographs capturing the scope and beauty of the Forbidden City as it was over 150 years ago. This monumental panoramic view is one of the most important 19th century photographs of China.