A British Life in a Mountain Kingdom: Early Photographs of Sikkim and Bhutan is the first exhibition of photographs by John Claude White, presented in original prints and large-scale reproductions from two important albums on view. White, a British government officer and civil engineer, spent much of his career stationed in places that one hundred years ago were, and to an extent still remain, shrouded in a certain veil of mystery: India, Nepal, Sikkim, Tibet and Bhutan.
Though he was born in Calcutta, White spent his teenage years studying in Bonn, Germany in the 1880s, where he was undoubtedly intrigued by the recent “golden age” of mountaineering of the mid-19th century that saw the first ascents of many Alpine peaks. White was given the chance to live amongst some of the world’s most formidable mountains himself in 1888 when he was assigned to the Sikkim-Tibet Boundary Commission, tasked with mapping and surveying the regions’ borders. Unlike his counterparts who owned large homes in India and traveled occasionally to their posts in the outlying Himalayas, White settled with his family in Sikkim, where they remained for over two decades.
White’s personal knowledge of the landscape and peoples of the regions through which he traveled sets him apart from most of his contemporaries. His images have an intimate quality and beautifully represent the mountains and architecture he loved, and those whom he came to consider companions and friends. Particularly unique was his friendship with King Ugyen Wangchuk of Bhutan, whose country he traversed and photographed widely. White and his party were also the only Westerners to attend and document the King’s coronation in 1907.
White was a pioneer of mountain photography, spending weeks at a time visiting every corner, trekking every valley, and climbing every mountain pass in Sikkim, all the while photographing his official and personal explorations there and in Bhutan. The cumbersome photographic equipment with which he traveled-including a large format camera and glass plate negatives-is a testament to his dedication to photography. White’s images offered the world rare glimpses into these isolated Himalayan lands, illustrating his articles on Tibet, Bhutan and Nepal for National Geographic Magazine.
Curated by Becky Bloom
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