Felice Beato – photographer and adventurer.
When I wrote the historical introduction of the book ‘Five Hundred Years of Italians in Hong Kong and Macau’ [[http://www.angeloparatico.com/books.html#ad-image-8]] I missed an important figure: Felice (Felix) Beato. A great photographer and a great adventurer in Asia. Mine was a serious mistake, considering that on my library was sitting Anna Lacoste’s wonderful photographic biography Felice Beato. A Photographer on the Easter Road Getty Publications, 2010, but I don’t know why I never thought of putting him my book. Perhaps it was because I had mentally classified Beato as a Anglo-Italian not Italian. I will try now with this blog to make amendments, using the few sketchy notes available.
Felice Beato was born in Venice, Italy in 1832. Two years later his father moved his family to the Island of Corfu, which was then a British protectorate and then they became British citizens. In 1844 they all moved to Istanbul. Felice’s sister, Leonilda Maria, will marry there the Scottish photographer and engraver James Robertson who opened a shop in the Pera district and he subsequently took Felice and his brother Antonio as his partners. After a trip to Paris, Felice Beato became interested in the new art of photography and when the Crimean war was declared, between 1853 and 1854 by the allied powers of Britain, France and Piedmont against Russia, he went there to shoot photographs at Sebastopol and Balaklava.
In 1856 Felice Beato, Antonio and Roberson are in Malta and then in London.
In 1857 the trio departs to the Holy Land to shoot pictures and then moved to cover the end of the Indian Mutiny, shooting the bloody theaters of war in Lucknow, Cawnpore and Delhi. Their pictures were then published on British magazines and books.
In 1860 Felice Beato is in Hong Kong and then follows Sir James Hope Grant who is leading an attack to Beijing. There is a legend saying that Beato missed the most important picture of his life, showing the British forces commander Lord Elgin and his French counterpart standing in front of the conquered Forbidden City. The picture, because of not enough light, did not turn out.
In 1862 he is Yokohama where he starts business with Charles Wirgman. In 1864 he narrowly escapes death; he had a breakfast with two British officers who then invited him to follow them on an excursion. Beato, out of laziness, declined and the two men ended up cut to piece by two anti-foreign ronin who were later captured and executed. Beato made a fortune with his pictures but then he loses everything speculating in real estate. In 1871 he visited Korea and when he returns back in Japan he is involved in several controversies: he is accused of stealing furniture from a hotel, then three Europeans vandalize his shop for unknown reasons and again he loses all his money in the silver exchange market and goes bankrupt. While he is often satirized by the Punch magazine, Japanese section, for he must have been a colorful character. In 1884 he leaves Yokohama, penniless and moves to Sudan where he covers the Anglo-Sudanese war.
In 1886 he is back in London where he gives a talk at the Geographic Society about his photographic techniques. In 1887 he set up a photographic shop in Rangoon, Burma and in 1889 he is in Mandalay, where again set up a new photographic studio. In 1898 he starts to sell also antiques to visiting Europeans and he appears in travelogues of European travellers. In 1902 he leaves Burma and travels back to Europe. His brother Antonio dies in 1906 in Luxor where he was running a photographic studio. It was thought that Felice Beato had died in Burma but his death certificate was discovered in 2009 in Florence and since then we know that he had died there, on January 29, 1909, aged 77.
An original albumen silver print by Felice Beato today will cost from 5,000 to 10,000 USD if it is already know variant but much much more if it is an unpublished images. We can say that to own one of such pictures by Beato is the dream of each antique pictures collector keen on the Far East.
Beato’s specialty were panoramic views made with several shots lined up one after the other and pictures of war, with dead bodies still warm – even if it has been noted that he never took picture of dead European troopers, but only of natives; a mark of the Darwinian colonialist mentality – and then reached great artistic level employing Japanese artisans to hand-color his black and white shots.