RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
An album of century-old photographs taken in the kingdom of Tibet goes on auction later today in London. The photos capture a moment in history when Tibet emerged, just briefly, from its long and deep isolation. They were taken during a British military expedition to Tibet aimed at fending off the Russians, who also had their sights set on the area.
David Park handles books and maps for the auction house Bonhams.
Mr. DAVID PARK: Good morning to you.
MONTAGNE: These are some of the earliest known photographs of Tibet. Would you briefly elaborate for us on what this moment in history was?
Mr. PARK: This is probably, sort of a high point of British Imperial endeavor. And the British decided that they couldn't stand the idea that they weren't allowed to go into Tibet. And they attempt to force the door down. And that's what this expedition was all about.
MONTAGNE: And what did they know of Tibet, which had been cut off for hundreds of years, really, from the outside world?
Mr. PARK: Well, travelers had been getting through to Tibet one way or the other for, you know, over the years. And there were accounts written in the 18th century. So it wasn't completely unknown. And, indeed, with our album is a little sort of guide to Lhasa and a map of Lhasa, complied by the intelligence branch of the Indian army in Simla and given to members of the expedition.
MONTAGNE: Lhasa, capital of Tibet. Now, I'm looking at this one photograph and it is surprising, in that it doesn't look like at least we imagine Tibetans to look today. It's a group of people and they have a mop-like - it looks like wigs on their head. But what am I looking at?
Mr. PARK: Yes, you're right about the wigs. And that's not their actual hair. These are Tibetan nuns. And they are - they're truly exotic aren't they? Their headdresses are amazing. Their heads were shaved, apparently, and they wore these astonishing wigs on top. But they look quite friendly, do you not think?
MONTAGNE: Well, yeah, friendly enough, actually.
Mr. PARK: They seem to be quite happy even though they're being photographed by an invading force. And I think, by and large, you know, their people were quite friendly. There were some ugly incidents on the way to Lhasa, but the British seemed to - made friends with people, quite well.
MONTAGNE: Pick another photograph to describe for us, that might surprise us.
Mr. PARK: A lot of the photographs are views that have never been seen before by people in the West. So you've got the really impressive fortresses along the line of march and panoramas showing the, you know, fantastic landscape, including Mount Everest.
The photographs do include the personalities right at the center of the treaty, which the leader of the expedition signed in Lhasa. So we have a sort of a leading man of Bhutan, who is sort of a broker between the British and the Tibetans.
We have portraits of the Counsel of Four who had the unhappy task of placating the British and coming to an agreement with them, although they don't look particularly cheerful, but they don't look totally wiped out by it either.
There are quite a few photographs taken in the monasteries of monks and nuns and so forth, giving you a very good impression of what Lhasa was like and what life in the monasteries was like.
MONTAGNE: And so the auction is later today. David Park is director of books, maps and manuscripts at Bonhams auction house, joining us from London.
Thanks very much.
Mr. PARK: Thank you very much.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.