opposite Francis Frith in Turkish Summer Costume, 1857. below left Abu Simbel, Colossal Figure on the Façade of the Great Temple, 1860. below right Island of Philae, Colossal Sculptures, 1860.

Francis Frith in Egypt

Julia Skinner explores the life and work of the pioneering photographer who documented the great monuments of ancient Egypt.


By the mid-19th century the invention of the new scientific art of photography was beginning to make the world seem a smaller place. Photography’s ability to provide accurate images of far-off lands was quickly appreciated as one of its greatest assets, and possibly nowhere more so than in depicting the monuments of ancient Egypt at that time of ‘Egyptomania’.

opposite Francis Frith in Turkish Summer Costume, 1857. below left Abu Simbel, Colossal Figure on the Façade of the Great Temple, 1860. below right Island of Philae, Colossal Sculptures, 1860.
Francis Frith in Turkish Summer Costume, 1857.

Indeed, this was recognised in its earliest days. When the French physicist François Arago introduced the daguerreotype process to the French Academy of Sciences in 1839, he stated that one of the benefits of this new invention was that it would take just a short space of time for a single man to copy the millions of hieroglyphs covering the exterior of the great monuments of Thebes, Memphis, and Karnak – a task that would take legions of draughtsmen 20 years to complete. He also claimed that the images would surpass in fidelity the work of the most capable of painters.

Abu Simbel, Colossal Figure on the Façade of the Great Temple, 1860.

This accuracy or truthfulness was believed to be the cornerstone of the medium by the English photographer Francis Frith (1822-1898), who took some of the earliest images ever made of the monuments of ancient Egypt. His photographs were greeted with awe and wonder by the Victorian public, appealing to both the popular taste for spectacle and the Victorian fervour for knowledge, education, and self-improvement.

Island of Philae, Colossal Sculptures, 1860.

Pioneering techniques

Frith was born in Chesterfield, Derbyshire, in 1822, into a devoutly religious Quaker family. After ten years spent running a successful wholesale grocery business in Liverpool (where he was a founder member of the Liverpool Photographic Society in 1853), he sold the concern for a moderate fortune while still only in his mid-30s. This allowed him to retire from business and pursue his passion for photography. His spirit of adventure then led him to make a series of pioneering and sometimes dangerous photographic expeditions to Egypt and the Holy Land between 1856 and 1860, taking photographs of the antiquities of ancient Egypt and places associated with the Bible.

above Karnak, A Sculptured Gateway, 1857. left Karnak, The Hall of the Columns, The Interior, 1860.
Karnak, A Sculptured Gateway, 1857.

There was a growing interest in the history, archaeology, and antiquities of the region, but only a few photographers had visited this part of the world. Several daguerrotypists had brought back pictures from the Middle East in the early 1840s, followed by a small number of photographers working with the calotype technique (using paper negatives) invented by William Henry Fox Talbot. However, Frith used the collodion wet-plate photographic process developed by Frederick Scott Archer. This required the coating of a glass plate with collodion (guncotton or nitrocellulose) dissolved in ether and alcohol, adding potassium iodide, followed by immersion in a solution of silver nitrate.

Karnak, The Hall of the Columns, The Interior, 1860.

This process produced sharp, finely detailed negative images of greatly increased sensitivity and unsurpassed tone-quality. However, a major difficulty was the need immediately to sensitise, expose, and process the plate while it was still wet. This meant that photographers like Frith operating in the field had to take a portable darkroom (usually a tent) with them, in which all the chemical processes took place on site as soon as the photograph had been taken. The technical challenges were formidable. Frith described working inside his tent at a temperature of 43°C, when the collodion actually boiled as it was poured on to the glass plates. This made it well-nigh impossible to attain an even coating of emulsion and keep the plates wet, while volatile and highly explosive photographic chemicals fizzed dangerously in their trays. Other aggravating factors included flies, sand, and dust, which would cause the appearance of pinholes on the developed images if they settled on the wet plates during the production process.

above Island of Philae, South End, 1860. Frith’s darkroom tent can be seen in the centre foreground of this view, pitched in the shade of the granite boulders, with one of the sailors from his Nile dahabiyah standing beside it. right Soleb, Columns of the Temple, 1860.
Island of Philae, South End, 1860. Frith’s darkroom tent can be seen in the centre foreground of this view, pitched in the shade of the granite boulders, with one of the sailors from his Nile dahabiyah standing beside it.

Nevertheless, Frith succeeded in producing negatives that are remarkable for their consistently high standard. By the end of his project, he had produced hundreds of photographs in various formats, and the quality of his images far surpassed anything that had been seen before.

Soleb, Columns of the Temple, 1860.

Pioneering expeditions

Frith’s three photographic expeditions to the Middle East took him to Egypt, Nubia, what was then the northernmost part of Ethiopia (now part of Sudan), the Sinai Peninsula, Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon, travelling with all his photographic equipment on the River Nile by boat, or overland through the desert by mule and camel. The logistical difficulties of his journeys and the gruelling conditions under which he produced such high-quality images make his photographic achievement almost unbelievable. Wherever he went, he and his team had to transport a heavy and cumbersome collection of three cameras: a dual-lens stereoscopic camera; a whole-plate (8 × 10 inches) studio camera; and a huge mammoth-plate (16 × 20 inches) camera that was hauled around in its own custom-made wickerwork wheeled cart. On top of this, they had to carry tripods, crates of fragile glass plates of various sizes for each camera, and a large store of bottles and flasks containing the various chemicals and solutions needed for all stages of the photographic process.

above Nubia, The Temple of Kalabsha, 1860. left The restored and relocated Temple of Kalabsha in 2004.
Nubia, The Temple of Kalabsha, 1860.

On his last journey in 1859-1860, he voyaged up the Nile as far as Wadi Halfa, just north of the Second Cataract, then left his dahabiyah there and travelled on by camel further into the desert, trekking overland along the banks of the Nile as far south as the temple of Soleb, 800 miles south of Cairo. Located just south of the Third Cataract, Soleb was the southernmost temple built by Amenhotep III, who ruled Egypt in the 14th century BC. Frith was told he was the first European visitor there in five years, and he was certainly the first photographer to venture that far.

The restored and relocated Temple of Kalabsha in 2004. Image: Richard Lunn

No other early photographer in Egypt ventured as far as Frith, nor was as thorough and systematic in his approach. He tried to photograph his subjects at least twice: usually in an overview taken from a distance, to represent the building or monument accurately in the context of the landscape around it, and then in close-up, using light and shadow to bring out architectural details. His photographs caused a sensation when they were published, establishing him as one of the most celebrated photographers in Britain in the mid-19th century. They were sold as extremely popular stereoscopic views and individual prints, and were published in a number of partwork portfolio series with descriptive commentaries. These were commercially successful, most notably the 25-instalment partwork series Egypt and Palestine Photographed and Described by F. Frith Jun., whose 75 whole-plate photographs included a photograph of Frith in Eastern attire to add authenticity to his narrative.

Photographic record

Frith’s expeditionary images earned him considerable renown in his lifetime and are still regarded as an incredible accomplishment, and not just in terms of the technical and logistical obstacles he overcame. His photographs are admired aesthetically for their artistry and composition, and the clarity of the images has proved to be of great value to archaeologists and Egyptologists.

above left The Kalabsha temple gate, now in Berlin’s Egyptian Museum. below Karnak, Court of Shishak, 1857.
The Kalabsha temple gate, now in Berlin’s Egyptian Museum. Image: Richard Mortel, CC BY 2.0, via Wikicommons

The photographs of the Nubian monuments that he took on his Nile journeys are particularly interesting because they show the temples in their original positions along the river before the building of the High Dam at Aswan in the 1960s, when the Nile valley above the First Cataract was flooded to form Lake Nasser, and many of these ancient structures were dismantled and re-erected on higher ground overlooking the lake. These include the temples at Abu Simbel, Wadi Kardassy, Maharraka, Dakkah, Wadi Saboua, Kalabsha, Dabod, and Gerf Hussein – all of whose original positions are now submerged beneath Lake Nasser.

Frith’s photograph of the Temple of Kalabsha shows it buried in rubble on its original site on the west bank of the Nile, 35 miles south of Aswan. It was dedicated to the Nubian form of Horus (Mandulis) and to Isis and Osiris. The reconstructed and relocated temple now stands at New Kalabsha, a short distance south of the Aswan High Dam, about 30 miles north of its original location. However, the granite gate of the temple seen in Frith’s view is now in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin.

Karnak, Court of Shishak, 1857.

Frith’s photographs show many temples and monuments in their unexcavated or unrestored state, looking very different from how the modern traveller sees them. For example, his view of the ‘Court of Shishak’ at Karnak shows a scene of devastation, with a vast confusion of rubble and gigantic fallen columns lying on the ground, all of which has now been cleared away. His photograph was taken looking along the main axis of the Amun temple from what is now called the First Court. Frith’s photographs of the mortuary temple of Ramesses III (1184-1153 BC) at Medinet Habu also shows it in its unrestored state. The site has since been cleared and tidied and is now beautifully preserved.

Monuments under threat

Frith’s photographs were taken when the temples and monuments of ancient Egypt were under increasing threat. Many were being plundered for artefacts for European cities, museums or private collectors, and much of the archaeology taking place in the region at that time was little more than a process of looting and destruction. Frith himself argued that one of the values of photography was that it preserved a record in the face of rapid change, and he realised his images would be important documentary records of antiquities that were under threat. As he wrote in the introduction to Egypt and Palestine:

left Medinet Habu, A Pylon Gateway, 1860. below A modern view of the Pylon Gateway at Medinet Habu, taken in 2004, with the area now tidied up and cleared of debris.
Medinet Habu, A Pylon Gateway, 1860.

I may be allowed to state, as giving additional value to good Photographs of eastern antiquities, that a change is rapidly passing over many of the most interesting: in addition to the corroding tooth of Time and the ceaseless drifting of the remorseless sand, Temples and Tombs are exposed to continued plundering – Governors of districts take the huge blocks of stone, and the villagers walk off with the available bricks, whilst travellers of all nations break up and carry off, without scruple, the most interesting of the sculptured friezes and the most beautiful of the architectural ornaments.

A modern view of the Pylon Gateway at Medinet Habu, taken in 2004, with the area now tidied up and cleared of debris.

For example, when Frith wrote his commentary to accompany his photograph of Kom Ombo, he described how he posed two of his Nile sailors to give a sense of the massive size of the sculptured blocks of stone from which the temple was built, but also recorded his disgust with the damage that had been done to this ancient monument.

Another site that epitomises his concerns was Armant (Hermonthis), a few miles south of Luxor, where one of the temples was built by ‘the celebrated Cleopatra’ (r. 51-30 BC) as a ‘birth temple’ of the war-god Montu; the columns in Frith’s view formed its outer portico. Frith commented on the ‘abundance and beauty’ of its sculptures, which included representations of Cleopatra making offerings to various deities, as well as depictions of her son Caesarion, but he was full of censure for the ruined state of the temple, ‘due not so much to the ravages of time as to the vandalism of modern pashas and beys’. This interesting temple, with its connection to one of the most remarkable women in history, can now only be seen in antiquarian photographs like Frith’s – it was demolished between 1861 and 1863 by order of the modernising Egyptian Khedive (Viceroy) Muhammad Said Pasha to provide building materials for the construction of a local sugar factory. Little trace of it now survives.

above Kom Ombo, Near View, 1857. below Erment [Armant], Cleopatra’s Temple, 1857.
Kom Ombo, Near View, 1857.

Later life

After returning from his last trip to Egypt in 1860, Francis Frith married and settled at Reigate in Surrey, where he established a photographic publishing company, F Frith & Co. For the next 30 years, he and his company photographers travelled around Britain recording its towns and villages, landmarks, historic buildings, romantic ruins, and scenic views, which were sold to tourists as souvenir prints. The business he founded to meet the Victorian public’s insatiable demand for these views was one of the earliest and most important and prolific photographic publishing companies in Britain, and pioneered popular mass-production photographic printing.

Erment [Armant], Cleopatra’s Temple, 1857.

Frith never returned to what he described as the ‘gorgeous, sunny East’, but he had his photographs, his writings and his memories to remind him of these adventurous years. When he wrote his memoirs 24 years later in 1884, he recalled his gruelling photographic expeditions to the Middle East as ‘these bewitching wanderings, the memories of which are worth, to me, mountains of gold and silver. I treasure them as gems…’.

Further reading
F Frith (1858-1860) Egypt and Palestine Photographed and Described, vols I & II, London: James Virtue.
F Frith (1862) Lower Egypt, Thebes and the Pyramids, London: James W Mackenzie.

All images: © The Francis Frith Collection, unless otherwise stated

Julia Skinner is the Photo Library Manager for the Francis Frith Collection, an archive of more than 300,000 historical photographs covering Britain and the Near East. She is the author of A Grand Spell of Sunshine: the Life and Legacy of Francis Frith, published to mark the 200th anniversary of Francis Frith’s birth, which is reviewed here. For more about the collection, visit www.francisfrith.com/uk.