Heard of Albert?

Ooty landscape with St. Stephen's church in background (circa 1870).

Ooty landscape with St. Stephen's church in background (circa 1870).  

An accidental discovery led Christopher Penn to research his great grandfather, Ooty-based Albert Thomas Watson Penn (1849-1926), one of the leading photographers of his time

IT WAS the accidental discovery of a letter that led Christopher Penn to reclaim his fascinating ancestral past. Rummaging in the back of a writing bureau in his Surrey home three years ago, he discovered a letter that had got wedged in the shelving. It was written to his father, who had died 12 years earlier, by a Patricia Manders. The letter identified her as his father's cousin.

Christopher had never heard of the lady, but that wasn't surprising. His father never spoke about his side of the family to his children. "It's almost as if they never existed," says Christopher. "I suspect this was because my grandfather, Harold Penn, had...ummm... a somewhat colourful life."

The letter launched him on a voyage of discovery. He wrote to Manders and, a few days later, received a phone call from her with the invitation: "Why don't you come and visit me in Weston-Super-Mare?" It was when he met Manders that he discovered that his great grandfather — Albert Thomas Watson Penn (1849-1924) — was a leading and extremely accomplished photographer based in Ootacumund.

A second meeting with Manders, and two other cousins, produced an obituary of Albert Penn that was published in the South India Observer.

The information came in trickles. A visit to a London antiquarian turned up a first edition of Edgar Thurston's Castes and Tribes of South India, which carried Penn's pictures on the Todas, Badagas and Kurumbas. More pictures emerged when Christopher located another first edition of Frederick Price's Ootacumund: A History. Christopher paid "obscene" sums for the books, but Albert Penn was beginning to acquire a certain form and character.

"By then, I was bitten by the bug. I simply had to know more," says Christopher, a retired high-ranking executive with Pearson Plc., the publishing group that owns Penguin among other interests.

In 2002, Christopher set out from England to Ooty with his wife Mary and two relatives. He knew that Albert Penn was buried at Coonoor's Tiger Hill cemetery, but it was shuffling through the church records at Ooty's St. Stephen's which revealed he was married there in 1870 to a woman from the Eagan family, which owned an emporium and a hotel. Albert had come to India about five or six years earlier as a young lad of 16 and set up his business as a photographer in Ooty. In the early years, he would move to Madras during the winter months ("where work was more plentiful," reckons Christopher), but it was in Ooty where he established his reputation as a leading photographer shooting people, landscapes and events such as weddings or the annual meet of the Ootacumund Hunt.

Ooty lake (circa 1875).

Ooty lake (circa 1875).  

He left a record of the local tribes, particularly the Todas. "What distinguishes his portraits from others is the sympathy and respect with which he appears to hold the sitter. They are careful compositions and not simply ethnographic studies," observes Christopher.

An extraordinary collection of pictures of children was published by the missionary Amy Carmichael in her book Lotus Buds in 1909. Albert travelled from Ooty to Tirunelveli for the project commissioned by Carmichael, who noted that the pictures are "much better than we dared to expect" even though the "photographer was more accustomed to the dignified ways of mountains than to the extremely restless habit of children; and he never could understand why they would not sit for him as the mountains sat, and let him focus on them comfortably."

Christopher Penn with a portrait of his great grandfather.

Christopher Penn with a portrait of his great grandfather.  

Christopher is interested when told that Amy Carmichael was a passionate environmentalist even before the term was invented and that the records of wildlife sighting kept by her Dohnavur Trust formed the body of material that helped convert the forests at Kalakkad into a sanctuary to preserve the lion-tailed macaque. "Is there a picture of her," he asks. "I wonder why he travelled so many miles, taking with him the bulky photographic equipment of the time, for this assignment."

Back in India to visit Ooty and Chennai for a third time, Christopher is aware that information related to his project can turn up most unexpectedly. For instance, he found that great grandfather's Cranley cottage and the adjacent building which housed his "Photographic Gallery" still exist and are now used as the office of a business family. The Ootacumund Club, of which Albert was the "court photographer" hadn't heard of him. But Christopher found two signed photographs up on the walls after he was allowed to walk around and have a dekko.

Inevitably, researching great grandfather threw up facts about grandfather Harold — the man who Christopher's father was too embarrassed to speak about. A flamboyant character, Harold was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for the cavalry charge at Omdurman in Sudan and served in the 21th Hussars (renamed the Lancers) in India. He won a small fortune in the Calcutta Derby, but died in penury after a messy divorce and a troubled life.

Officers of the Nilgiris Volunteers Rifles with Albert Penn on extreme right (circa 1883).

Officers of the Nilgiris Volunteers Rifles with Albert Penn on extreme right (circa 1883).  

The information Christopher has collected led him to build a family tree. One hundred and twenty one direct descendants of Albert Penn survive and Christopher invited them all to his Surrey home for a party. "Only fifty eight were able to come. But it was fun," he says.

His aim is to research his great grandfather's life and create a comprehensive catalogue of his work. Does he plan to spin this out into a book? "Well, I am not sure I have enough material on it yet," he says. "But I am not ruling it out."


Recommended for you