- A Grand Tour of Asia
- Ten Speed Press, 128 pp.
A Grand Tour of Asia 1910 – A Travel Scene Through Tinted Glasses
I’m not sure what category A Grand Tour of Asia by Hania Tallmadge and Beverley Jackson should be put in. It’s certainly not a novel or narrative non-fiction or even a coffee table book (unless a downsized model). Other than the fact that it has a hardcover and pages inside, I’m not all that sure this one is really a book.
But saying the above and leaving things there would be the easy way out. The more I looked at the hand-tinted period photos taken on an extended trip through Asia nearly a century ago, reconsidered the captions and reread the afterwards by the authors, the more I began to see a substance and adventurous direction in the effort.
To quote from the publisher “A Grand Tour of Asia recreates a time and a place that no longer exists except in the lyrical images so lovingly preserved by the lens of a wandering American, and so wryly captured in the prose of his mysterious companions nearly a century ago. Christian Rub, a character actor in Hollywood films, presented the intriguing album to its current owner, Hania Tallmadge, in 1949, when she was a child.”
An example of the collection of images is one of several Americans including the album’s creator Mme. Ganna Walska either astride horses or standing in front of a building of apparent Oriental construction with the brief caption, “We stopped at the tea house between Nikko and Lake Chuzenji.” The book, formatted to resemble the original album is filled with photographs and captions like this that convey the subtlest sense of mystery and even intrigue. No big deal here. Merely 100 years ago casually killing time in front of some joint in nowhere China. As mentioned earlier, Tallmadge received the album as a gift from Christian Rub, a close friend of her Aunt Walska. Christian was a character actor in Hollywood for three decades and his best-know role was that of the voice of Geppetto, the puppeteer in the animated film Pinocchio.
The book is an historically unique collection of photographs taken in the spring of 1910 on a four-month tour of the Far East. It includes more than 150 images reproduced in their actual size, their hand-tinted colors authentic and un-retouched. Even the handwritten script has been carefully replicated. Who was the amateur shutterbug with the refined sense of composition? Who were his three stalwart companions? In particular, who was the album’s unnamed commentator? A Grand Tour of Asia is a curious offering for those interested in photography, travel, history, and mystery.
The intrepid group of four visited Japan, Korea and China, traveling by sea and rail, in rickshaws and sedan chairs, on foot and on horseback. They turned up in crowded city streets and grand, but empty palaces. They strolled beneath Tokyo’s bloom-laden cherry trees and hiked the rugged ramparts of China’s Great Wall. The women somehow managed this in huge hats, tight corsets, and voluminous Gibson-Girl dresses, while their male companions must have sweltered in stiff collars and heavy tweeds.
And there’s a photograph of the travelers dressed just this way standing on a stretch of the Great Wall with the simple caption, “We stopped for a portrait upon one of the Seven Wonders of the World.”
Among my collection of books are a number from the nineteenth century and early twentieth by the likes of Svenn Hadin traveling in Asia and Sir William Butler in Africa. These guys wrote volumes, hundreds of pages and included dozens of drawings of their adventures that spanned the course of years. They point out an already obvious cultural difference between Europeans and Americans – the latter travel at a faster pace and retain much of the experiences and imagery in their heads while guys like Hadin and Butler view their journeys as something resembling fact-finding tours not just for themselves but for God and Country.
Both Tallmadge and Jackson seemed to have solved the mysterious identity of the photographer, as Jackson explains in her afterward:
“In the lower right corner of one photograph, written in the tiniest handwriting either of us had ever seen, she spotted a name – Byron L. Smith. This tantalizing clue, however, inspired more questions than answers and sent Hania to the public library. After several days, the trail led to a Byron L. Smith, founder of the Northern Trust Bank in Chicago. Further digging led to an article in Chicago Record Herald dated July 14, 1910. This newspaper article revealed that Mr. Smith (we hoped our Mr. Smith) had returned to Chicago from a four-month tour of the Far East on July 13, 1910.”
The other man and woman on the journey are not identified.
Aside from the fact that this collection is a fascinating look within countries that have changed tremendously over the years, there is an elusive, mysterious almost eerie quality to the book much like Nick Bantock’s Griffin & Sabine books as in a photo of Walska posed in front of a temple with the caption, “Not until I was back home and looking with a magnifying glass did I notice an unidentified man in the shadows behind me.”
My first run through of A Grand Tour of Asia left me thinking, “They’ve got to be kidding with this one. There’s nothing here.” But with each further perusal my interest expanded. This book tends to grow on a person