PRINT May 1988


M. Beato, a Corfiote, made [excellent photographs] . . . in Lucknow. . . . The moment they were taken I sent a set of them to my father, in London, who showed them to her Majesty the Queen-Empress. That lady was graciously pleased to express her interest in them, they having been the first she had seen.

—Francis Cornwallis Maude, Memories of the Mutiny, 1894

The Siege of Lucknow

The Sepoy Rebellion; called by Europeans the Indian Mutiny and by Indians the first battles in the struggle for independence, began in May 1857, when sepoys, Indian enlisted men in the British Indian Army, rose up and took Meerut and Delhi. Lucknow, capital of the northern Kingdom of Oudh, whose annexation by the British was a cause of the rebellion, fell in June. A large group of administrators, soldiers under General Sir Henry Lawrence, their wives, children, servants, and camp followers—over 3,200 Indians and Europeans—retreated to the British Residency, where they were besieged by more than 8,000 insurgents whose numbers increased with the summer. In the ensuing months, rebel sharpshooters and cannoneers fired steadily into the compound from the dense blocks of buildings just beyond its walls, killing between ten and twenty people each day. Altogether about 2,000 died.

In September, troops under General Sir Henry Havelock reached the besieged, but, outnumbered, were trapped with those they came to rescue. In late November a second relief force under General Sir Colin Campbell broke through, evacuated the Residency, and abandoned Lucknow to the insurgents and a garrison positioned in one of the outlying palaces. Campbell returned with a large army in March of 1858 and retook the city.

The early-17th-century traveler De Laet called Lucknow a “magnum emporium,” a great market.1 The anonymous writer of a guidebook from 1874 sketches the city as it was before the rebellion: “strong masonry-built houses . . . two or three stories high, forming narrow, but picturesque streets,” “bazaars . . . abundantly stocked,” “population . . . ‘teeming—’ . . . it was impossible to ride, or drive, in the streets, save at a walk.”2 After the insurgency, and like Baron Haussmann in Paris, in at least a third of the city General Campbell leveled all this, destroying the houses and the narrow streets between them and razing most of the industrial and commercial areas. He left standing only palaces, monuments, and other public buildings surrounded by wasteland. As a soldier, Campbell was protecting Lucknow against renewed infiltration, surprise attack, and costly street-to-street and building-to-building fighting. He also effectively destroyed its infrastructure. A vanguard Modernist, he erased the city’s material culture, organization, and memory of itself, preparing it for the new. Then he left it to be rebuilt, garrisoned by 10,000 troops.

Felice Beato, a naturalized Englishman from Corfu, arrived in March 1858. (It is not known whether he accompanied Campbell and his army or arrived independently.) No photographer had been given such a subject. Here was a city of scant daily life and few ordinary buildings, despoiled of a readable past and, since no reconstruction had begun, apparently without a future. Lucknow was a ruin, but unlike traditional European ruins, it was the cradle of no civilization. It was the seat of a Muslim dynasty established by the British in the 18th century, and most of the gaudy architecture that remained to it was seventy years old or so at most, the work of an Indian ruling class made powerful by England, and of European rebels grown rich in colonialism. “In the usual fantastic mixture of Italian and Mahomedan” styles, the 1874 guidebook says, the buildings were uninspired—“incompetent,” says the 20th-century Murray’s Handbook.3 Neither aged nor venerable, these ruins looked forward as much as back. They were an architecture of modern power, an omen of future cities subjected to modern war, and of a future picturesque: of a photography forced to make pictorial sense out of the cultural, political, and architectural present.

The Album and Its Makers

Seventy of Beato’s pictures of Lucknow are set in an album currently in the collection of the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal. The prints have a velvet mat touch, and everywhere there is a golden-brown softness, as if the buildings and ground had been covered, and the air filled, with fine golden dust. Intermingled with them in the book are 26 pictures by later photographers—journeymen and amateurs—depicting British officers, military camps, the rebuilt city, monuments to the dead, and even a reproduction of a painting depicting Sir Colin’s advance. Captions in brown ink, written in a fine secretary hand, identify many buildings and name events in which they figured. Presented thus, Lucknow is layered, seen through many eyes, reinvented by several imaginations, held in several minds at once. Narratives begin and trail off, sensibilities gather and are dispersed, a city gains and loses shape. In its indeterminacy and half power the book epitomizes the 19th-century album made by many hands.

Two presences stand out: Beato’s, and that of the unknown person, or persons, who constructed the album. The other photographers were competent — one was elegant—but they worked later, mindful of other things. To them, Lucknow was a point of interest, a collection of buildings, a set of views, a challenge, a commercial opportunity. It was these things to Beato too, but he also saw it as a collection of the demonic works of imperialist war—variations on a motif he had already uncovered as a photographer of the Crimean War, a few years earlier. And to the album’s compilers, who took Beato’s pictures to preserve a memory of Lucknow, the place probably represented an ordeal survived. Perhaps they took part in some of the battles for the city, if not in the siege itself. At the least, the album is evidence of the vividness of the conflict in their imaginations. We don’t know for certain who they were, or when the pictures were bought and the album assembled; my reading, based on internal evidence, nominates General Sir William Mansfield, chief of staff in India during the rebellion, or his wife, Lady Mansfield, as the album’s collector and author. It’s equally possible that they compiled it together, and in the absence of firm evidence either way, I like to think of them as joint creators. The pictures were probably acquired in 1858 or shortly after, and pasted into the album in 1860.4

As a work of art inspired by another is said to be “after” its model, so the album’s structure is after an image of Lucknow in its creators’ minds. Much about, the Mansfields’ work suggests a literary intelligence; they are editors, imposing shape and narrative onto the imagery of the city. To Sir William, as a soldier, Lucknow was a twice-stormed stronghold whose fall, building by building, differed each time. To Sir William and Lady Mansfield, for months it was also home. Their picture of it stems from these two experiences, one cataclysmic, the other routine.

There were four battles for Lucknow—its first capture by the sepoys, Havelock’s incursion, followed by Campbell’s, and then Campbell’s final reconquest. Had the Mansfields thought of themselves as historians, they had enough of Beato’s photographs to devote a section in the album to each battle. Instead, their arrangement gradually comes to echo a progress through the city. At first, the album now follows the generals’ routes, now resembles a locally written guidebook. Here the city grows as it forms in the minds of men who learn it as they take it; here it is presented as it lives in the mind of a resident. In the end, however, the guidebook structure prevails. Once a building appears, it is not seen again as a military object. We enter Lucknow from the south and leave to the northwest—the peacetime route. As a battle log, then, the album is interrupted and confused. The sequence is chronologically incorrect, moving randomly from month to month. Palaces fall too soon, and positions taken early in the conflict are come upon late in the book.

Beato’s pictures leave Lucknow a ruin. The Mansfields, who saw reconstruction begin, also pasted photographs of Lucknow rebuilt into the album. Interestingly, their literary mind falters with these less-inspired pictures. They don’t quite know what to do with them. Had they gathered them at the end of the album, it would have had an epilogue in a plain style. Instead, they mingled the later pictures with Beato’s. For a while, their taste and Beato’s—taste in ruins, in bodies, in photographs, in ways of telling—seem the same; it is as if they begin by introducing a character, “M. Beato, a Corfiote,” who has reached Lucknow first, met them there, and guided them through, talking the while. They quote him straight off and have the good sense to quote him at length, for he tells grandly. But then they interrupt him with lesser voices—lesser photographs—that break our concentration and dilute the album’s taste. Memory is detached from sensibility, telling from voice.

Perhaps the Mansfields hesitated before pasting other pictures in with his. But include them they did, yielding to thoroughness or to touching anxiety lest any piece of their experience in Lucknow slip through the album’s net of memory. Thus, as one leafs through the book, a new city emerges from the ruins and is ruined again. We feel the Mansfields associating Beato’s pictures of buildings with memories of the same buildings at a later date, dwelling on them, finding later pictures of them, pasting them in the album, then returning to Beato. Errant association rules, breaking the narrative thread. Eventually even the captions cease, as if the job of locating the buildings in history had become too much. Images become objects, pictures data, the album a file. The Lucknow of the mind dissolves, and we feel ourselves in a drawing room in British India with two colonialists assembling their photograph collection.

The album includes two sets of portraits: six of Sir William’s brother officers, not by Beato, and Beato’s pictures of Indian troops loyal to the British, troops who bore the brunt of the fighting. Beato’s subjects are the stronger characters—fierce, exhausted, proud—and his portraits, which place the men against Lucknow’s buildings like figures in a frieze, are the stronger pictures. But the officers’ portraits are placed prominently near the front of the album, like a dramatis personae, and Beato’s sepoys are clumped together at the end of his pictures, more afterthought than chorus.

Beato at Work

As European frustration mounted throughout India during the rebellion, racial hatred intensified. A dark skin was enough to move a European to rage. Often without warning or provocation, civilians beat their servants, and officers fired on loyal Indian troops. During the November relief of Lucknow Campbell’s men searched the Secundrabagh Palace room by room after it surrendered, bayoneted 1,800 sepoy defenders, threw their bodies into the courtyard, and buried them in wells and ditches. By March, dogs had dug the bodies up. In Beato’s widely published photograph the bones are strewn in the courtyard of the battered palace. Only one skeleton is complete; the rest are in pieces, seen in low relief against hard and flat earth, a frieze in the making, echoed by the Secundrabagh’s battered frieze above them. In another photograph, at the Martinière Palace, Beato placed a number of Indians along the many tiers of the broken facade, as high as the cupola. Thus he reconstructed, reinvented, the shattered frieze with living figures. In one way or another, the structure of the frieze preoccupied him throughout Lucknow.

Beato’s photographs are flat; skies descend like backdrop curtains. And he hugged the ground. The strategic demolition of the town had left him few high places to look out from, and only wasteland to look onto from the palaces that were spared. And so he exploited the limited and fragmented eye-level view of earthbound man. How much ground the eye must cross before reaching the buildings! Still, they rise up like walls and seal off the view. When he does climb, Beato won’t take his bearings. Only once can we recognize a building from an earlier picture, and thus locate ourselves imaginatively in the city without the aid of the captions and a map. The city is an outline begun and interrupted, like a dismembered and scattered corpse.

How much of this is Beato’s willful enhancement of the sense of destruction? Two years earlier, in the Crimea, the Scots photographer James Robertson, then Beato’s partner (their studio was in Constantinople), took advantage of every rise in the terrain, however slight, to discover the view in even the flattest plain. Beato’s own work before and after Lucknow tells us that he too could discover a view when he chose. Yet here he chose not, and without an overview, Beato’s Lucknow is confusion. The photographer’s progress is by fits and starts: we feel him pick his way from site to site, like a stunned survivor, or like an explorer overwhelmed, surprised, and disoriented by ruins so vast and so unlike a city that they can’t be depicted as such. He gazes and moves on. Captivated by each successive ruin, he forgets to look for a tower or balcony from which to take his bearings, or to tally the devastation, or to grasp the ruin’s extent, or to imagine the former city whole—to begin the rehumanizing and recivilizing act of attributing order, of giving form.

Lucknow Reinvented

There are only two streets and no shops. Not a woman in sight, European or Indian. Vendors with empty baskets and no customers lean against walls. Where are the workmen? The few whites are soldiers; either civilians have not returned to the city or Beato has rigorously kept them out of his photographs.

We have to assume that everyone in the photographs was placed and posed by Beato. It was 1858, the era of wet-collodion negatives, and the city looks hot, dusty, and dry. Beato had to compose his pictures before he coated his plates and had to expose the plates before they dried; the men he photographed, therefore, had to hold their poses for the ten minutes or so while the plates were coated, put into the camera, and exposed. Work, street life, and military drill alike stopped at Beato’s command, recomposed and clarified themselves to serve his compositions. The garrison probably cooperated gladly: generals Campbell and Mansfield and half their troops were Crimean veterans, so Beato’s arrival in Lucknow may have been something of a reunion. Everyone, even men hundreds of feet away, held still for Beato’s tableaux, and must have gotten out of the way when he wanted empty vistas. Standing at the foot of the Martinière, for example, Beato must have called out orders, and 29 men struck poses from the courtyard to the cupola. His invention equalled his authority.

Lucknow was Beato’s studio and canvas, its stones and men his materials. And he could not have arranged his characters more according to the conventions of painting had they been models posing for a life drawing class. Each figure group is a variation on at least one standard pose—walking, standing, sitting, crouching; each large group gives us the figure in full portrait, in three-quarter portrait, in profile, and from behind. Thus the models are made visible to eyes trained on European pictures; thus the exotic is familiarized and differences blurred.

The figures give the buildings scale. By 1858, this pictorial device was already familiar in photography; but Beato’s figures have a power beyond their functional role. Earlier photographers in the Orient do not prepare us for Beato’s lower-class Indians in Lucknow, his citizenry of ruins. Nor does Beato help us know them. He keeps them in the middle distance, vivid but unreadable. He has them face the hard noon sun—he only photographed in the hours around noon—and seems to have asked them to tilt their turbaned heads forward: almost to a man, their faces are in dark shadow, featureless and blank. Beato could make a portrait when he wanted to—his single and group portraits of Indian troops are full of detail. But he made the men he photographed around town into ciphers, as they were to their British masters.

At the same time, Beato’s poses and arrangements seem to intimate a life and culture of ruins. The content of that life, and the photographer’s sentiments concerning it, are unclear, but his directing can be described. He posed men in ditches, and had them drape themselves over the low walls of roofless, boat-shaped houses, as though they were resting on ornamental sculpture. As if at his bidding, they mimed the pouring of water, crouched in threes or fours as if engaged in some domestic chore, and posed as if in mid stride in empty fields. Are they rehearsing everyday life? Their dance is strange and enervated, indefinite, as if they have just arrived in the place where they are, and must improvise their steps from moment to moment. Their art-historical poses are uncertain, as though they are new to the beaux arts trade. If we take Beato’s fictions literally, what does he appear to document? Men trying to remember the routines of everyday life, down to its movements and gestures, in a city whose memory of itself has been destroyed.

These men respond to Beato as though to an intruder whose disposition toward them has not been made clear. They keep their distance, stop what they are doing as if to keep it hidden, and stare, their shadowy faces revealing nothing. They flock to the Martinière’s balconies and climb to its cupola to stare, heads cradled in hands. They flank buildings, patrol wastelands, bar the way to rivers and stare, guard bridges and stare. Their gaze repels the photographer. They’ve got there first; he can’t get in.

A conquered people, decivilized, and a representative of the conqueror halt and scrutinize each other. In the aftermath of war, the issue of his presence has been clarified but not decided. The city is neither entirely ruined nor rebuilt, neither abandoned nor repopulated; its culture is suspended. But if Lucknow no longer reminds Beato’s population of how they traversed it during the rebellion, or long ago, before the British arrived—if they have forgotten their steps—still, they don’t walk through it as their conquerors would like.

Beato Meditates on the Architecture of War

In a way this place is almost too easy, a tautology: the bespoke picturesque. It’s a good thing that I can document my journey here day by day. Otherwise I might stand accused of supervising the demolition: blast a little more of the east wing. A trench there will complete the view. . . .

I love architecture for the order and the picture that it brings to the earth, the clarity it brings to the mind. But here I glimpse an architecture so unforeseen, the mind grows confused—not where buildings are wholly down, or where they are scarcely touched, but where they are half ruined, recalling their beginnings, remembering their shape, crumbling before my eyes, becoming their own sepulchers. This is architecture at its most provisional. Walls reverting to masonry, beams to timber, windows to gaps and emptinesses. Architecture is cut loose and remanded to the imagination’s custody to lay down principles of a new picturesque. In places it is almost like some tuneless passages in Berlioz or Liszt—almost abstract. Its elements and materials are at my disposal, its halting rhythms and half-formed pictures mine to delineate.

To whom is it given to sketch with stone? Perhaps the Frenchmen Le Secq and Nègre––Fenton talked about them in the Crimea, and their pictures finally reached us in Constantinople—and suave Marville among the Paris restorations. Scaffolding and stones and boards make architecture gestural and indeterminate, anchoring it to a moment. Photograph a building then and you’ve made its portrait, located it within its lifetime. But these British have given me better materials. What can sketch like gunpowder, and propose such architecture to the imagination? This is titanic building. It shames the follies Europeans build at home: garden ruins, garden poetry, sheer hypocrisy.

As a boy on Corfu I watched architects and painters and gentlemen on tour sketch our ruins. They wouldn’t sketch here. Here is yet no ivy. And what white man would walk Lucknow at night as Byron paced the Roman Forum? What Goethe sit in monumental melancholy here? Am I—an Adriatic Greek, of Venetian stock, with English protectors—to be the poet of this century’s ruins, singing power, engendering monuments to national savagery? Who better? I grew up with ruins. Most contenders for the Mediterranean overran Corfu at one time or another: Venice, the Normans, Byzantium, Corinth, and in my lifetime these English. Most left ruins there. Thucydides tells us how first the Spartan, then the Athenian party leveled my city and laid the countryside waste, how the aristocrats tore the roof off the temple to shoot arrows and fling javelins down on the democrats who were taking sanctuary there, then dragged them out into the town square and made them run a gantlet a hundred meters long. So why weep here, biting the hand that feeds me. Absorbing my island’s history, I knew Lucknow. I have no tears for it now. Better to exult in form.

After Lucknow

Beato left India in 1860 to photograph the combined British, French, and German invasion of China, the opening of Japan, and the Sudanese wars. His last known work is a catalogue for a furniture company in Rangoon, made sometime in the 1880s. There is a copy of it in the collection of the Canadian Centre for Architecture.

Ben Lifson is a writer who lives in New York.


1. Quoted in A Handbook for Travellers in India and Pakistan, Burma and Ceylon, 16th ed., London: John Murray, 1949, p. 441.

2. A Lucknow Album, 1874.

3. A Handbook for Travellers in India, p. 441.

4. The album contains two portraits of General Mansfield––one quite good, perhaps made soon after the rebellion, perhaps by Beato— and one of Lady Mansfield. Her portrait and the second of Sir William are weak and amateurish, suggesting that they originated with a family member or a friend, and that personal concerns urged their inclusion. The latest date given for a photograph in the handwritten captions is 1860, the year that Sir William left India to head the combined English, French, and German North China Expeditionary Force.