Round the world travel in the 19th century was something only a handful of people could do. One of those who did was Annie Brassey and there’s a major project underway to look again at her works as a photographer, a writer and a prolific collector.
Hastings Museum and Art Gallery is partnering with the University of Sussex for an Arts and Humanities Research Council project to map the collections and photography of Annie, later Lady Brassey.
Her husband was local MP Thomas Brassey who was knighted in 1881 and became Earl Brassey in 1886 and during his lifetime funded the creation of The Brassey Institute which is now home to Hastings library.
The couple had five children together before they began their travels aboard their luxury yacht R.Y.S Sunbeam. The yacht was said to have been named after their daughter – Constance Alberta – who was nicknamed Sunbeam; she died of scarlet fever aged four, in January 1873. The golden figurehead of the yacht depicting her is at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, UK.
Kim Forward, deputy leader of Hastings Borough Council and lead councillor for culture said of the joint project with UNiversity of Sussex: “This project will re-evaluate Annie Brassey’s role as a photographer in relation to her travels around the world. It will use the photographs to develop our appreciation of the objects she collected while travelling.
“The role and work of female photographers in the history of early photography has been largely overlooked and this project will give a broader understanding of women photographers in Victorian Britain. Annie’s albums will help to map the Brassey collections in Hastings and Bexhill.”
Annie was born in 1839 and became famous for her travels, her writing and as a collector. She published her diaries, A Voyage in the Sunbeam: Our Home on the Ocean for 11 Months, she recorded her family and crew’s travels around the world in their steam-powered yacht. There were 43 people on board, including family, friends and crew.
Her collection of ethnographic and natural history material was shown in a museum at her husband’s London house until it was moved to Hastings Museum in 1919. There are also several photograph albums and other ephemera held in Hasting Library. However, the vast majority of her photograph albums are now housed in the Huntington Library, San Marino, California. The collection of 70 albums, each containing up to 80 thick board pages, is said to be a pre-eminent example of a historical travel album.
Through exchanging, purchasing and receiving gifts, Annie Brassey obtained remarkable objects from the many countries she visited: sculpture, fabrics, weapons, paintings and works on paper. She also collected numerous plant and animal specimens.
She considered the R. Y. S Sunbeam and her homes at Normanhurst Court, Sussex, and at 24 Park Lane, London, as living museums and she invited both friends and the general public to view her collections.
Annie Brassey died in 1887, she was only 47. In The Last Voyage, her husband recalled that she suffered from an inherited “weakness of the chest” and had a form of chronic bronchitis. She died at sea, her last voyage on the Sunbeam was to India and Australia. The yacht sailed in November 1886 and it was hoped the trip would improve her health. However on the way to Mauritius she died of malaria on September 14th 1887, and was buried at sea.