New collection: The Pitt Rivers Museum

A highlight of the collection is travel photography from English explorer Sir Wilfred Thesiger, documenting a vanishing way of life in Arabia, Mesopotamia & Africa

View of a member of Wilfred Thesiger's travelling party looking out across the Wadi Sayfam towards Jebel Kawr, Oman, March 30 – April 2, 1949 (b/w photo), Wilfred Patrick Thesiger, (1910-2003) / Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, UK
View of a member of Wilfred Thesiger's travelling party looking out across the Wadi Sayfam towards Jebel Kawr, Oman, March 30 – April 2, 1949 (b/w photo), Wilfred Patrick Thesiger, (1910-2003) / Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, UK

 

The Pitt Rivers Museum

Located in the heart of Oxford, the Pitt Rivers Museum has collected photographs ever since its foundation in 1884 by Lieutenant-General Augustus Pitt Rivers. Particularly strong in images from the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the collection contains important fieldwork archives, including the photographs of adventurers such as Sir Wilfred Thesiger.

 

 

Group portrait of four Maasai youths, standing, carrying bows and blunted arrows, Ngorongoro District, Tanzania, 1961 (b/w photo), Wilfred Patrick Thesiger, (1910-2003) / Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, UK
Group portrait of four Maasai youths, standing, carrying bows and blunted arrows, Ngorongoro District, Tanzania, 1961 (b/w photo), Wilfred Patrick Thesiger, (1910-2003) / Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, UK

 

The Rise of Anthropology

During the second half of the 19th century, a new scientific discipline developed rapidly: ethnology. Now formally known as social anthropology, its remit was the precise study of peoples and cultures.

Although aimed at recording 'real' people, doing 'real' things, many of the photographs manifest a strong artistic element in their composition, hinting at the romantic Western view of their subjects. This can be seen in the careful positioning of figures within the frame of the photograph - not unlike portrait painting.

The sweeping skies and wide landscapes, suggestive a nineteenth century European association of wilderness with purity of spirit, achieve a similar effect. Thus, we can see that these photographs are much more complex than a photographic record of activities and clothing.

 

Last of the Great Explorers

Sir Wilfred Thesiger belongs to a long tradition of English gentleman explorers who had one foot in the world of colonial rule and the other in a deep fascination of other cultures. An adventurer at heart, he left the rarefied world of Oxford University for the exotic allure of East Africa at the earliest opportunity and spent the following decades absorbed in the exploration of foreign lands.

Thesiger is best known today for his travel writing: Arabian Sands (1959) and The Marsh Arabs (1964) are particularly well-loved by those who hanker after a golden age of intrepid discovery. Now, with the digitisation of thousands of negatives bequeathed to the Pitt Rivers Museum, Thesiger's cherished journalism is matched by an extraordinary collection of photographs which vividly portray the splendour and romance of travel.

 

 

Portrait of Wilfred Thesiger sitting in the Wadi al ‘Ayn, Oman, February 8–16, 1949 (b/w photo), Salim Bin Kabina, (20th century) / Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, UK
Portrait of Wilfred Thesiger sitting in the Wadi al ‘Ayn, Oman, February 8–16, 1949 (b/w photo), Salim Bin Kabina, (20th century) / Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, UK

 

 

Profile portrait of an Arab falconer, in Al Khatam sands near Al Ain, United Arab Emirates, December 20, 1948 – January 27, 1949 (b/w photo), Thesiger, Wilfred Patrick (1910-2003) / Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, UK
Profile portrait of an Arab falconer, in Al Khatam sands near Al Ain, United Arab Emirates, December 20, 1948 – January 27, 1949 (b/w photo), Thesiger, Wilfred Patrick (1910-2003) / Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, UK

 

 

Africa, Arabia, and Mesopotamia

The endless sand dunes of Arabia's legendary Empty Quarter presented Thesiger with his severest privations and perhaps his most stunning photographic opportunities. But what emerges most clearly from this collection is how often the explorer turned his lens on his guides and travelling companions. Thesiger respected his Bedouin friends tremendously, adopting their dress and becoming willingly absorbed into their way of life.

The same can been said of his travels amongst the Madan of the Iraqi marshlands, where his photography goes beyond the documenting of traditional customs to bring his subjects to life through candid, even affectionate, portraits. Whether in Africa, Arabia or Mesopotamia, Thesiger managed to capture a timeless charm in the people and places that he loved, and a dazzling record of his own wanderlust.

 

 

Seated portrait of Salim bin Ghabaisha, one of Wilfred Thesiger's Bedouin companions, in Ras Al Khaimah Emirate, United Arab Emirates, March – April 1950 (b/w photo), Wilfred Patrick Thesiger, (1910-2003) / Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, UK
Seated portrait of Salim bin Ghabaisha, one of Wilfred Thesiger's Bedouin companions, in Ras Al Khaimah Emirate, United Arab Emirates, March – April 1950 (b/w photo), Wilfred Patrick Thesiger, (1910-2003) / Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, UK

 

 

Portrait of a young woman named Matara, the sister of Amara bin Thuqub, one of Wilfred Thesiger's canoe–boys, Iraq, 1958 (b/w photo), Wilfred Patrick Thesiger, (1910-2003) / Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, UK
Portrait of a young woman named Matara, the sister of Amara bin Thuqub, one of Wilfred Thesiger's canoe–boys, Iraq, 1958 (b/w photo), Wilfred Patrick Thesiger, (1910-2003) / Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, UK

 

 

Find out more

View all images from the Pitt Rivers Museum collection on the Bridgeman website available for licensing.

Contact our Sales Team at nysales@bridgemanimages.com with any other queries, including accessing material not yet online.

Watch out for further features on treasures from the Pitt Rivers Museum coming to our website soon.


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