How the Bonfils brought the Middle East to 19th century Europe

Photograph from the Sebah and Bonfils album
A taste of the exotic: the Bonfils and Sebah's photographs gave 19th-century Europeans their first glimpse of the Middle East Credit: Ewbank Auctions

The Bonfils family captured the Middle East on camera in the 19th century. Now, some of their finest photographs are up for auction at Ewbank’s in Surrey, alongside works by their companion, Pascal Sébah

In 1847, Louis Désiré Blanquart-Evrard created the first commercial method of producing photographic print using none other than egg whites.

Extracting albumen, the protein found in egg whites, to bind chemicals to paper, was the most used method to create photographic positives from the mid-1850s to the beginning of the 20th century.

During this period, many Europeans, especially French explorers, travelled to the Middle East to delve into the souqs and uncover the history of places such as Lebanon, Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Constantinople (now Istanbul).

Credit: Ewbank Auctions

British and French tradesman and explorers had a history of being drawn to this part of the world; they were interested in the trade of textiles and spices. Europeans were thrilled to discover the culture of the Middle East, and in turn these explorers brought with them their own art and culture, which had a great influence on these places.

Early photography played a significant role in building relationships between the Middle East and Europe. Travellers could send home images of what they had seen to accompany their magnificent tales of places such as Egypt and Constantinople.

During this time in the 19th century, it is believed by historians that some 200 professional photographers were active. The Bonfils were one family that made a great contribution to bringing the Middle East to Europe through photography, but their names have almost disappeared from history books.

Credit: Ewbank Auctions

Félix Bonfils (1831-1885) was a French photographer who, in 1860, travelled with General d’Hautpoul to the Levant on an expedition.

Along with his son Adrien and wife Lydie, he captured photographs of Lebanon, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Greece and Constantinople.

In 1878, Bonfils published Souvenirs d’Orient, a collection of photographs which Gratien Charvet described in the forward to the collection as: “Initiated, executed and completed by Monsieur F Bonfils with unequalled perseverance – should be regarded as one of the most considerable achievements – picturesque, artistic and scientific – of our epoch.’’

However, in 1885, when Félix Bonfils died, no obituary was to be found in any newspapers, in the Middle East nor in France.

Credit: Ewbank Auctions

Skipping forward to the 21st century, next week, the Bonfils will be rightly celebrated once again as a scrapbook of 82 albumen photographs by Bonfils and his companion Pascal Sébah will come to auction in Surrey.

This original leather-bound album, which is dated 1882 and monogrammed on the front, features images of Egypt, Palestine, Jerusalem and Istanbul, all of which are signed and captioned in French.

Pascal Sébah (1823-1886) was a photographer in Constantinople who was born to a Syrian Catholic father and an Armenian mother. He opened his first photography studio in 1857 in the centre of the city at 439 Grande Rue de Pera. He later opened studios in Cairo and exhibited his works depicting the Ottoman empire in Vienna.

Ewbank’s Photographic, Militaria, Books & Stamps will take place on 24 August 2017. Discover the online catalogue on Barnebys