by Pat Ellingham, Archives volunteer
I’ve been travelling to India for over 20 years and love the culture and landscape of this astonishing country.
It’s one of the reasons why my role as a volunteer on the British Empire & Commonwealth Collection at Bristol Archives gives me great pleasure. In cataloguing films and photographs of the British experience in India it’s as if I’ve travelled back in time too.
A recent task was particularly exciting – when a collection of three battered portfolio cases was handed to me earlier this year. They were dusty enough to make me sneeze, and contained photographs of varying sizes, from large A1 format to small postcard. They came with an email correspondence that showed that they were donated by the family of an admired grandfather, Victor Veevers, who was born in Bombay in 1885.
Victor spent most of his life working as a professional photographer in India, as well as a poster artist for the Indian Railway.
How to start, I thought, looking at the dozens of prints, many in poor condition, that slipped out of the folders, in no particular order at all. My first task was to re-package each photograph into archival pockets to protect them against over-handling.
One image caught my eye – a large photo of a village woman at a spinning wheel, seated outside a simple hut. It was part of a collection of images of village India in early 1930s and made me think of Ghandi‘s movement to boycott foreign cloth for homespun, or khadi, which was growing in momentum at that time. Later the image of a spinning wheel would feature on the flag of independent India.
Assembling the sequence of village India prints brought a vivid sense of the community in which Ghandi inspired so much commitment. A little later I came across a large print of a place that I recognised as the Rajpath in New Delhi, designed by Lutyens, but from a time before the thronging crowds and traffic of today.
There were more prints of the new Viceregal residence and the ceremonies surrounding the inauguration of New Delhi in 1932, including cellophane envelopes of some that had been published in Illustrated London News that year.
My excitement rose, as I carefully sorted the collection into what became clear categories, from images of daily life in India to colonial grandeur, and a sweeping record of landscape and buildings across the country.
There was even a collection of photos of film sets, which included bejewelled women alone in the Zenana, and a highly improbable illicit meeting in sumptuous surroundings, which I recognised the Shish Mahal (the mirrored palace) in Agra Fort.
Victor Veever’s work for the Indian Railways as a poster artist in the 1930s is evocative of the transport poster style that was so popular in that era. It’s no surprise to find that they are now highly collectable as you can tell from a search on the internet.
But what became most rewarding for me was matching up the photographs that had been used in the preparation of his artwork, and showed a range of techniques directly applied to the photograph or its reverse. A real masterclass for any future student of the history of transport posters in the sub-continent.
I enjoyed working as a volunteer with this collection enormously – and felt a particular delight in being able to bring my own knowledge of India to help with its organisation!
- Original folders in which Veevers stored his work (ref. 2018/007 Folders)
- Photograph of Peshawar street scene used for poster design, 1930s (ref. 2018/007/1/1)
- Buddhist monks blowing horns in Bhutan, 1930s (ref. 2018/007/1/20)