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HomeContents > People > Photographers > Joseph Lawton

Dates:  ? - 1872
Born:  England
Died:  England
Active:  Ceylon
Lawton arrived in Ceylon around 1860 working for a trading company H.C. Byrde and Co in Kandy. In 1866 he opened a studio in Kandy on Castle Hill Street. There is a published catalog of his photographic work (1868). In 1870 the Ceylon Archaeological Committee commissioned Lawton to photograph the ruins at Anuradhapura, Mihintale, Polonnaruwa and Sigiriya. These photographs became his signature work. Due to ill health he left Ceylon in 1872 and the studio continued selling Lawton’s photographs under the direction of his wife Helen. The firm was taken over by R. Charter in 1885. His photographs appear in ‘Architectural Remains Anuradhapura, Ceylon: the Dugabas and Certain Other Ancient Ruined Structures‘ by James Smither, published in 1894.

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John Falconer, British Library 
A Biographical Dictionary of 19th Century Photographers in South and South-East Asia

Commercial, Sri Lanka
Originally employed with the trading firm of H.C. Byrde and Sons in Kandy,[1] started a photographic business at 1 Castle Hill Street, Kandy, in 1866. He was employed with the Committee on Ancient Architecture, photographing historical sites at Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura and Sigiriya from 1870-1, when he returned to England due to ill-health. In 1871-72, Lawton was also employing W.C. Webster, A.W. Grigson (qv), J. Simpson. After his death the firm continued in business, managed by his wife Helen (who also ran a millinery business from 12 New Road), until the early 1880s. The photographic side of the business was managed by C. Robertson from 1876-81, and from 1876-78 it is advertised as a Chemist and druggist, advertising the ‘late J. Lawton’s’ photographs; from 11 Ward Street, Kandy. Firm taken over by R. Charter by 1885.
Photographic side of business operated by ‘Carl Jurgensen, Artist’ at 12 New Road in 1875.[2]
In his presidential address to the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1871, Colonel Amelius Beauclerk Fyers announced that
an Archaeological Committee has been appointed by Government to explore, take photographs, decipher inscriptions, and endeavour to trace the history of each work in various parts of the Island. Mr Lawton of Kandy has been appointed Photographer to the Committee, and has already taken very good photographs of the principal buildings in Pollonaruwa; of Minniri, Giretella and Topare Tanks; of the ancient fortified rock of Bijeri and some of the most important objects of interest in Anuradhapura.[3]
Elsewhere Fyers records that Mr Lawton accompanied Mr Smither[4] to Anuradhapura early in the year, and ‘a most interesting set of photographs were taken’. Lawton fell ill on his return from the trip and had to go to England: ‘his services are much required in the island...Two large volumes of photographs of ruins, etc., in Polonnaruwa, Annuradhapura and Sigiria, are now in my possession...Duplicate copies of these have been sent back to England.’’[5] This latter set of two large volumes, with descriptive text by L.F. Liesching,[6] is now held in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Library, London.[7]
Lawton’s illness was to prove fatal, however, and at a meeting of the Ceylon branch of the Royal Asiatic Society on 7 November 1872, Fyers announced his death, noting that his illness had been exacerbated by his archaeological work:
...And how well worth an expenditure of both time and money it would be to thoroughly investigate all those ruins, to lay bare, as much as possible, of what is underground. A great deal has already been done in the way of clearing some of the most interesting architectural remains at both Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, and very beautiful photographs of them have been taken by the late Mr Lawton.
I must take this opportunity of stating how much I regret the death of this very careful and excellent photographer. Mr Lawton entered into an agreement to take photographs of the principal ruins at both the ancient cities, and visited them twice. He did not confine himself only to his own legitimate work, which consisted merely in taking photographs after the ruins had been cleared, but he looked after the coolies employed in excavating and cutting down, and I fear exposed himself more than he ought to have done. At all events, he was never fit for anything after his return from his last visit to Anuradhapura, He was recommended to try a change of air and scene to Bombay, but he returned little, if at all, benefitted by his voyage. He was then ordered to England, where he died. Mr Lawton was a thoroughly honest, upright man, very hard working, and desirous at all times of doing his work efficiently and to the satisfaction of those under whom he was employed. By diligence, patience, and strict integrity he had become a first class photographer, and he was justly respected by all with whom he was associated. Had the unsparing hand of death not visited him he would, I feel confident, have made a European name for himself by the excellence of his photographs, especially of those of the ruins of the island.[8]
Engraving from a photograph by Lawton of the unveiling of the statue of Sir Henry Ward at Colombo, reproduced in the Illustrated London News, 7 November 1868, pp. 448-9.
Engravings from two photographs by Lawton, of high-class ladies of Kandy and Kandyan chiefs, reproduced in the Illustrated London News of 9 July 1870. These were taken at the levée held for the Duke of Edinburgh.
Opinions of the Press. From the Ceylon Observer. Mr Lawton of Kandy has executed a photograph exhibiting in good proportion the Peradenia Railway Bridge, with the first train on it; a large-sized picture and giving a very excellent idea of the work, the river it spans and the scenery around. A small sized view has the disadvantage of showing the bridge rather contracted in size but the effect of the reflected piers and scenery, in the water is wonderful. Mr Lawton’s view of the Satin Wood Bridge is also admirable. The lights being brighter, the details of the bridge come out more vividly than in Messrs. Slinn’s [ie Skeen and Co.’s] beautiful picture: we have also a larger expanse of the river.
‘One of the glories of the Gardens - a group of palms with the magnificent Talipot as the central object - has just been exquisitely photographed by Lawton. If ‘a thing of beauty is a joy forever’ then this picture will carry joy to all who have a keen sense of the beautiful.
‘Mr Lawton has sent us two very beautiful landscape photographs, representing scenes on the Mahawelliganga at Gangarooa, - a spot famous in Ceylon history for the desperate battle which here took place between the Kandians and the Portuguese, and as one of the earliest sites of systematic coffee culture in British times. The view looking up the river to Peradenia with the ‘Peacock’ mountain at Pusilava in the distance, is especially beautiful: reed, bamboo, cocoanut and forest vegetation combining to add richness to the picture, while the still water is broken by the little islets scattered over its bosom. The second view, taken down the river, is also characteristic, the background being closed in by the Hantanne range with the numerous coffee plantations dotted over its sides.[9]

  1. Λ Ferguson’s Ceylon almanac for 1864
  2. Λ (ed.) A.M. Ferguson, The Ceylon Directory; Calendar, and Compendium of useful information for 1875 (Colombo 1875). 
  3. Λ Proceedings of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1870-71, p. xxxv. 
  4. Λ James George Smither FRIBA, Government Architect, Public Works Department 1870-83, author of Architectural Remains, Anuradhapura, Ceylon (London, 1894). 
  5. Λ Ceylon Survey Department Report for 1871, p. 253. 
  6. Λ Louis Frederick Liesching, Ceylong Civil Service 1850-85; Assistant Government Agent, Anuradhapura 1867-71. 
  7. Λ FCO Ceylon Albums 2 and 3, received July 1872. 
  8. Λ Journal of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1870-74, proceedings 1872, pp. xix-xx. 
  9. Λ Reproduced in a Lawton advertisement of c. 1868. 

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Images of Ceylon 
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Printed biographies

The following books are useful starting points to obtain brief biographies but they are not substitutes for the monographs on individual photographers.

• Lenman, Robin (ed.) 2005 The Oxford Companion to the Photograph (Oxford: Oxford University Press)  [Includes a short biography on Joseph Lawton.] 
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