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Picturing China Picturing China
Images from the Historical Photographs of China project
Since 2006 the ‘Historical Photographs of China’ project has been seeking out families who have historic links with China, borrowing their sometimes extensive family photograph collections, digitizing them, and placing them on an open access website
http://hpc.vcea.net/ (opens in new window). With funding from the AHRC (through the British Inter-university China Centre), the British Academy, Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation and private sponsors, we have so far placed online over 8,300 images, dating from as early as the 1860s. They come from bankers, missionaries, customs staff, policemen and diplomats, amongst many others, and most recently we acquired two large albums containing almost one thousand prints, mostly taken between 1929-34 by John William Ephgrave (1914-79), a selection from which is displayed here.
Ephgrave, always known as Jack, was born in Shanghai in October 1914, two years after his father joined the staff of a department store there. He started work aged 15 as an apprentice in the printing department of British American Tobacco’s China operation, the British Cigarette Company (BCC), and later its subsidiary Capital Lithographers Ltd. From about the same time Jack started taking the photographs that fill the albums. They show the world in which he lived and worked, and played. The Ephgraves were not well off, and the father was unemployed for at least two years in the 1930s, but their quality of life was undoubtedly far better than it would have been back in Britain. Most intriguingly, the photographs show Jack as a self-conscious and sensitive photographer, experimenting with the form, and alive to the visual possibilities of the Chinese world he lived within.
Biplane near Shanghai, 1927.
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EP01-013. ©2013 Adrienne Livesey, Elaine Ryder and Irene BrienThe first prints in the albums were not taken by Ephgrave, but date from 1927, and were given to him by British military pilots serving with the 10,000-strong Shanghai Defence Force, sent to head off a feared Chinese nationalist assault on the foreign-controlled (and British dominated) International Settlement. A biplane flies over the countryside outside the city. The print has been damaged by the glue used to fix it in the album, but the romance of flight, and of Shanghai re-imagined, still comes through, and surely impelled the then 11-year old to collect the images.
Aerial view of the Bund, 1927
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Ep01-004. © 2013 Adrienne Livesey, Elaine Ryder and Irene Brien.The same year and source: the riverside ‘Bund’, and wide Avenue Edward VII which marked the boundary of the International Settlement, top and the French concession, to the left. The crowded river and the meteorological signal tower remind us that Shanghai was a city on and of the water, a key point in global maritime networks; the imported cars on the streets exemplify its ostentatious modernity. The War Memorial, facing the end of Ave Edward VII locates foreign Shanghai in the European world, but the Shanghai Club, the second building north along the Bund places it in the British orbit, for this was the informal headquarters of the British presence.
Hunjao Aerodrome after being bombed by the Japanese Air Force, 1932
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EP01-394 ©2013 Adrienne Livesey, Elaine Ryder and Irene Brien.1932: The beauty of the flight turned ugly: the wreckage of a military aircraft amongst the ruins of Hongqiao airfield, west of the International Settlement, part of the area that bore the brunt of the February 1932 war between Chinese and Japanese forces. Most Europeans supported the Japanese at this point, thinking that Chinese nationalism needed a check. Ephgrave took a camera into these blasted suburbs, recording the harrying of his city's surrounds.
Self-portrait of Jack Ephgrave, 1931.
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EP01-201 ©2013 Adrienne Livesey, Elaine Ryder and Irene Brien.1931: An early ‘selfie’: Jack was at work in the BCC Printing Department when he took this photograph in a mirror, one of several self portraits which show how far he thought of himself as a photographer, not simply a snapshotter.
Mr Pulman in the Artists' Department, British Cigarette Company, 1931
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EP02-124. © 2013 Adrienne Livesey, Elaine Ryder and Irene Brien.BCC’s designers at work. On the wall at the rear is a poster advertising ‘Jinbu’ – ‘Progress’ – cigarettes: two modern young women, smoking, ride a wheelbarrow. Just above them an aircraft can be glimpsed, climbing skywards. Tobacco advertising proved a powerful driving force in the development of a new urban Chinese visual culture. Ephgrave systematically photographed these talented, and now well-known, artists at work, and also documented the company’s modern printing and photographic machinery.
The BCC and Pudong, looking towards river from the Artists's Department, 1929.
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Ep02-123. © 2013 Adrienne Livesey, Elaine Ryder and Irene Brien.1929: Framed by two of the BCC plant’s buildings, this shot shows an ocean liner, being passed by the Libia, an Italian warship. Ephgrave took care to catch the angles of the staircases and of the plant’s sheds, composing an almost abstract study out of the technologies of power, coercion and capital.
Workers at the B.C.C. factory, Pudong, c.1932.
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Ep01-630. © 2013 Adrienne Livesey, Elaine Ryder and Irene Brien.Another nicely-composed shot, of factory hands gathered outside a plant office, probably taken from inside the printing department. British American Tobacco was the republican Chinese state’s single biggest taxpayer. It faced stiff competition in the cigarette market from Chinese-owned firms, which marketed their wares as ‘National Products’, and labelled buyers of British or other foreign goods as unpatriotic. Labour relations in Pudong could be difficult too because the area – and the unions – were largely controlled by very powerful gangsters.
B.C.C. factory, union strike poster, 1933
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Ep01-736. © 2013 Adrienne Livesey, Elaine Ryder and Irene Brien.Shanghai industry was often a site of strife, of anti-imperialist activism, and violent responses, as well as struggles over economic issues. BCC was a particular site of unrest. ‘Down with all imperialist running dogs’ starts the hand-written poster on the left, posted during one of a series of strikes in 1933: ‘We demand that the plant implements the Factory Law’ demand the larger characters. The sequence of photographed wall posters of which this was a part, suggests that Ephgrave was probably drawn to the striking visual impression these posters make.
Shanghai Volunteer Corps Armoured Car Company, 1932
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Ep01-279. © 2013 Adrienne Livesey, Elaine Ryder and Irene Brien.Along with the International Settlement policy, the first line of foreign Shanghai's defence was the Shanghai Volunteer Corps. Ephgrave joined the Armoured Car Company, shown here at the Shanghai Race Club in 1932 preparing to have an official photograph taken. A significant proportion of young British men in particular joined the Corps, regularly parading through the streets, showing the strength of foreign power, and intent, then heading off to the their offices to trade. The irony was not lost on many of them; it was hardly lost on Shanghai Chinese.
An eight at 'Henli' (and a canoeist), c.1932
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Ep01-699. © 2013 Adrienne Livesey, Elaine Ryder and Irene Brien.Sport – in Ephgrave’s case soccer, golf, and rowing – was embedded in foreign settler culture. Young Jack took many shots of the Shanghai Rowing Club’s activities outside Shanghai at a place dubbed ‘Henli’. The double-exposure may well be accidental, but Ephgrave’s decision to keep the print from it and add it to the albums suggests that he liked the effect.
At the annual basket fair in Shanghai, looking towards the Bubbling Well, 1930.
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Ep01-124 © 2013 Adrienne Livesey, Elaine Ryder and Irene Brien.1930: A crowded Shanghai street during the annual ‘Basket Fair’ which centred on the Jing’an -- ‘Bubbling Well’ – Temple, and which was held on the Buddha’s birthday. Far away from the Bund in feel, but barely a quarter of a mile west, tens of thousands of people thronged the streets and the hundreds of temporary stalls.
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EP01-763 © 2013 Adrienne Livesey, Elaine Ryder and Irene Brien.Street photographer: Three men examine something in front of a shop in one of a series of shots of a busy market district. Ephgrave’s attention seems to have been caught by the silk clothing of the man whose back is to his camera, but he has also caught a lively grin from a smoking passer-by.
Riverside scene, Shanghai, c.1933
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Ep01-754. © 2013 Adrienne Livesey, Elaine Ryder and Irene Brien.What seems to be a river-side embarkation point for people getting to a ferry, or on the sampans on the right. Peddlers are selling snacks to the waiting crowd. The shot suggests the ubiquity of Ephgrave’s day-job’s craft: there is a poster for BCC’s ‘Hatamen’ cigarettes on the wall top left.
Portrait of a woman, near Shanghai, c.1933
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Ep01-770. © 2013 Adrienne Livesey, Elaine Ryder and Irene Brien.There are photographs of friends and family, the oarsmen and the well-turned-out volunteers, but this portrait of a pensive woman haunts us. It is one of a number of such finds in this collection, one family’s private archive, but a distinctive and now uncovered vision of a city’s tangled history.