Photographic Views of Japan

Almost 150 years ago, on 12 September 1863, a portrait of three Japanese officials in the Illustrated London News was noted as being “from a photograph”.

That might not sound like much to get excited about, but it was a landmark in the history of Japanese news coverage in Britain. Previously, illustrations in the ILN had been based mainly on sketches because photography was still a new technology, but it was gaining ground fast. In 1855 the paper printed engravings from Roger Fenton’s pioneering photos from the Crimean War, which contributed to a huge jump in sales.

The Japanese report was based on a despatch filed by ‘our special artist and correspondent’ Charles Wirgman on 28 June 1863. Wirgman, a talented artist, had been in Japan since 1861, illustrating previous despatches with his own sketches. He may have bought the photograph from William Saunders, one of the photographers who had come to Yokohama in search of exotic new subjects after Japan opened its borders. Saunders spent only three months in Japan, but photography was already capturing images that would otherwise be lost forever as Japan changed under foreign influence.

Partnership with a photographer was a sound business arrangement, especially when the photographer was already a friend. Wirgman and Felice Beato had met in Peking (now Beijing) in 1860. Beato was a photographer from Corfu who worked regularly for the British military authorities. On earlier assignments from the British in India and the Crimea, he had boosted his government earnings with sales of albums and portraits to servicemen of all ranks who wanted a record of their travels to take home.

As Western interest in all things Japanese grew, the friends were well placed to make money from it. In 1863, Beato came to Japan and they set up in partnership as ‘Beato and Wirgman, Artists and Photographers’. Wirgman recorded their partnership in a despatch to the Illustrated London News. The partnership was fruitful, but ended by 1869.

Both had other interests. By 1868 Beato had started to compile his acclaimed album series Photographic Views of Japan, collections of annotated prints which are still a vital resource for researchers. He set up his own photographic studio, travelled to Korea and China with American forces, and dealt in land and commodities, gradually becoming more involved in the business community. He even became Consul-General for Greece. Wirgman continued to work as a news correspondent, remaining on the Illustrated London News team for twenty years. He taught Western painting and drawing styles to Japanese artists, and did cartoons, poking fun at Beato in some of them. He had also started a satirical periodical, the Japan Punch, in 1862. The two remained friends, but their paths diverged.

In 1877 Beato sold up his studio and retired from photography to pursue his other interests. These didn’t work out well and he left Japan as a bankrupt in 1884, with a local newspaper reporting that he had lost his fortune on the Yokohama silver exchange. He visited London, then went back to war photography with British forces in Egypt and Sudan. He ended up in Burma, selling photographs and furniture, but his company went into liquidation in 1907, and he died sometime before the end of 1909. Much of his work has sadly been lost, but he was prolific, and much remains.

Wirgman, who had married a Japanese woman, Kane Ozawa, continued publishing Japan Punch until 1887. The magazine was a significant influence on the development of what we now know as the manga industry. Apart from a short visit to his family in Britain the year it ceased publication, its creator remained in Japan until his death at the age of 59 in 1891. He is buried in Yokohama.

A short ceremony is held at the grave every year on 8 February, the anniversary of his death, to commemorate his contribution to Japanese art. Maybe press photographers should pay their own tribute to Wirgman and Beato, who did so much to promote photographic views of Japan.


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