I work for the Natural History Museum in London. I spent three months this summer creating catalogue records for several thousands of photographs taken by the Botanists/Soldiers/Explorers/Teachers/Photographers/Ornithologists that were Frank Ludlow and George Sherriff. What I saw then has been bothering me for months so now I’m seriously considering re-tracing their steps in my own future trip to the Himalayas. While I can.
Both Ludlow and Sherriff were soldiers in the British army in the early twentieth century, their paths crossed in British-controlled India and together they bounced off of each other’s enthusiasm to plan a series of expeditions into the Himalayas to collect plant and bird specimens. Unfortunately I can’t show you these images but rest assured that they remain the greatest holiday snaps I’ve ever seen.
George Sherriff was the better photographer of the two, something that is quite plain when you look at the quality of composition each attains, but Ludlow does get better over the years. What these two men capture is an astounding array of portraits of local people in Bhutan, Kashmir and Tibet, the royal family of Bhutan, multi-storey monasteries, monks clad in saffron, spear-wielding and scantily-clad hunters, rickety bridges over surging melt-water, locals hulking baggage through white-water rapids, immense glaciers, snow-cloaked peaks, barren plateaus, ruined towns, chains of sherpas carrying everything from tents to rugs for the camp site, thousands of beautiful Primula flowers, my favourite flower – the vicious Meconopsis horridula, and the odd shot of either Ludlow or Sherriff’s black Labrador dog. You rarely get any images of the two great men themselves and by all accounts Frank Ludlow was very shy. As a package it’s an awesome collection. There is talk of some kind of eventual exhibition in collaboration with the British Film Institute because they hold all of these expedition’s moving images but I suspect that may be some years off.
I have periodically revisited the idea of going to Bhutan because it’s so remote and detached from the rest of the world. Unfortunately the barriers on tourists are excessively harsh, in monetary terms. It costs a lot to get there and then, currently, you have to pledge that you will spend over $200 per day of your stay in order to be granted entry. There are various supplementary costs on top of that. This is probably why it’s such a hidden destination so far.
The photographs show a country of great variety from the barren northern borders with Tibet down to more lush forest and grassland on the nape of the Himalayas. The expeditions entered from the north of the country so there are also many images of rural Tibet, and that’s no push-over for entry requirements either.
Tibet, though, is far cheaper and the bureaucracy certainly not insurmountable. I would be most interested to see the transformation in the rural towns and to see whether the more ruined areas are now totally destroyed. The glaciers in this part of the world are well known to be disappearing fast. I hold very little hope that they will look anywhere near as magnificent in the twenty-first century as they did seventy years ago.
The other place featuring most prominently in the collection is Kashmir and there too is a never-ending source of inspiration and awe. Of the three destinations mentioned so far this is surely the easiest to visit but as recent history shows it doesn’t come without its own problems. The images show colonial villas and neatly manicured English gardens with a towering snowcapped backdrop. They stay in Sikkim too and you see much the same style of strange juxtaposition again.
If I do manage to follow this old course and backpack through the Himalayas then I must prepare myself for the worst. If the cost and bureaucracy don’t break me then it’s still very possible that the disappointment and distress of seeing the evaporating Himalayan ice will do that instead.