Siamese Lady, c. 1861/2

Siamese Lady, c. 1861

The identity of the ghost-like, nineteenth-century photographer, P. Rossier, has until now eluded photo-historians, and this has always been frustrating for those who are interested in the early photography of China and Japan. Rossier is known to have had some involvement with the London firm of Negretti and Zambra who published, in stereographic form, the first commercial views of those countries between the years 1859 and 1861. Furthermore, Japanese sources all agree that in 1860, whilst in Nagasaki for a few weeks, Rossier taught wet-plate photography to Ueno Hikoma, Horie Kuwajiro, Maeda Genzo and others. The collection at the Siebold Museum, Nagasaki also contains a photograph of Alexander Siebold, taken by Rossier at Nagasaki in 1859.

The British National Archives have panoramic photographs of Nagasaki taken by Rossier in 1860, and these are referred to in the official correspondence between the British Consul at Nagasaki and the British Minister at Yedo. Two contemporary references to the photographer refer to him as M. Rossier. This can well be interpreted as Monsieur Rossier and easily lead to the conclusion that his nationality was French – particularly as ‘Rossier’ is a French name. These scattered pieces of information, when pieced together, told us very little indeed about Rossier. However, the identity of Rossier can now be revealed, together with other details which prove that he was a very significant figure indeed when it comes to assessing the history of photography in the Far East.

Pierre Joseph Rossier was born on the 16th July, 1829 in Grandsivaz, a small village in the Canton of Freiburg, Switzerland. That Rossier’s nationality has turned out to be Swiss is not a real surprise to me. Some time ago I noticed references to a photographer, ‘P. Rossier,’ having produced 1860s or 1870s stereoview photographs of Freiburg and Einsiedeln in Switzerland. (1) Given the stereo format of the Negretti and Zambra series, this seemed to me to be too much of a co-incidence. On the other hand, Rossier was not an uncommon name. And Freiburg is, and was, a French-speaking area of Switzerland.

I needed to check the Swiss museums to see what holdings, if any, they might have of Rossier’s photographs. Fortunately, I was introduced to the Swiss photo-curator, Sylvie Henguely, without whose help the task would have been very difficult indeed. Using her connections and specialist knowledge, Sylvie uncovered a number of stereos and cartes-de-visite, of Swiss scenes and portraits, scattered across various Swiss museums. From the printed captions on either the front or the back of the mounts it was clear that P. Rossier was a photographer who had a studio in Freiburg. Other photographs shown to me by the Swiss photograph collector, Gerard Bourgarel, indicated that Rossier also had a studio in Einsiedeln. However, none of the museums had anything other than Swiss photographs, and no other information, including Rossier’s first name, had come to light.

Group of French Sailors at Canton, 1858
Group of French Sailors at Canton, 1858

Sylvie and I visited the Freiburg Town Archives. Apart from being exceptionally efficient, the staff was most helpful and courteous. The head archivist, Hubert Foerster, helped tremendously; he produced trade directories which included a photographer named Pierre Rossier, copy passports issued to him in 1855 and 1872 and other information also. Despite Rossier’s being a common name in Freiburg, after some time we were able to build up a family tree.

Rossier’s 1855 Passport
Rossier’s 1855 Passport

Rossier was born into a Catholic farming family of modest means, the 4th eldest of 10 children. But unlike his brothers and sisters, Pierre was not destined to follow a farming career. He must have shown early intelligence because, at the age of 16, he was given a teaching post at a school in the nearby village of Mannens-Grandsivaz. (2)  A passport was issued to Rossier, whose occupation was shown as ‘photographer’, on the 19th October, 1855, for a period of 3 years. Countries noted to be visited were France and England, and the purpose of travel was to practise his profession as a photographer. Rossier was aged 26 and described as 5 feet 3 inches tall (1.6 metres) with brown hair and grey eyes (3).

It appears that Rossier was away from his country for 7 years and did not return until early 1862. In October 1865, in the nearby town of Aarau, Rossier married Catharine Barbe Kaelin (1843 -1867) who came from Einsiedeln (4). Less than a year later, on the 30th July 1866, Christophe Marie Pierre Joseph was born. Perhaps Catharine failed to recover from the childbirth because, on the 4th April 1867, she died at the tragically young age of 23.

Portraits of Pey Kwei & Commissioner Parkes, Canton, 1858
Portraits of Pey Kwei & Commissioner Parkes,
Canton, 1858 (notice the ‘NZ’ signature)

Pierre continued to work in his studio in Freiburg and on the 24th May 1872, applied for a one-year passport to travel to France. I was recently referred to a 19th century Swiss book on the history of Freiburg Canton’s notables and personalities which mentioned that Rossier died in Paris, but doesn’t give the date, and that he was the first photographer to traverse the Far East taking photographs:"Rossier Pierre, Ier photographe ayant parcouru les Indes. decede à Paris." (5)

The Freiburg trade directories also show that Rossier’s photo-studio, based at 211 Place du College, was in operation there until at least 1876. Sometime between 1871 and 1884, Rossier married for the second time. His wife, Marie Virginie Overney, was a domestic working for the landlords of 211, according to the Freibourg Census for 1871 which is held in the Freiburg Archives. On 16 March 1884, Joseph Louis, Rossier’s second son, was born in Paris. Joseph would own a café in Vevey, in the Canton de Vaud, Switzerland, and would die there in 1927 (6). All of this means we can now deduce that Rossier died in Paris sometime between 1883 and 1898. We now need to turn to non-Swiss sources to fill in some of the gaps in his life between the years 1855 and 1862.

Negretti and Zambra were a very successful London firm which specialized in the manufacture and sale of photographic equipment. The firm, which also operated its own photo studios, received a considerable boost when it was appointed as official photographer to the Crystal Palace Company in Sydenham, which opened in 1854. Partly because of this, Negretti and Zambra became one of the most successful photographic businesses in the country. Alongside their manufacturing concerns, Negretti and Zambra was a large retailer of stereoscopic views, issuing a significant number of collections from the early 1850s onwards. Albeit it from a position of financial strength, the firm took on the heavy expense, and uncertainty, of sending Rossier to China to photograph the Second Opium War of 1858-60.

Back of the Portraits of Pey Kwei & Commissioner Parkes
Back of the Portraits of Pey Kwei & Commissioner Parkes, above

These China views were published by Negretti and Zambra in a set of 50 in November 1859. (7) Taken almost exclusively in, and around Canton they were favourably reviewed by the photographic periodicals of the time. (8)  Interestingly, one of these reviews makes clear that Rossier’s instructions were not just to restrict himself to China on his: “…..roving commission to the East in search of novelties……..The time seems rapidly approaching…(to)be able to see the most distant corners of the world in miniature in the stereoscope………and the pictures we have received of Chinese people, costumes, and buildings, will, before long, be followed by others of Japan…….The photographer, a portion of whose work  we have before us, left Canton, according to  his instructions, and proceeded to the Philippine Islands……….” (9)

Rossier’s detour to the Philippines is also reported in the Illustrated London News(10): “…..Some time since Messrs. Negretti and Zambra, with an amount of enterprise for which they deserve the thanks of the public, dispatched a representative of their firm to China and Japan…….Having accomplished a considerable part of this interesting and difficult mission, he was directed to make his way to the Philippine Islands, and visit the Taal Volcano.” What then follows is a report from Rossier, in his own words, describing the difficulties encountered in securing these photographs.

General View of Yakuama (Yokohama), 1859
General View of Yakuama (Yokohama), 1859

Neither the Photographic News, nor the Illustrated London News, mentions the ‘representative’ by name. Unfortunately, Negretti and Zambra’s early records were destroyed in the bombing of London during the Second World War; but it seems quite possible that Rossier was taken onto the Negretti and Zambra staff after he left Switzerland in 1855. Negretti and Zambra, when appointing him for the task, may have calculated that the neutrality implied by his Swiss nationality would have been useful in helping him secure passage on British or French warships in the Far East – a huge advantage for a photographer trying to obtain images in far-off and otherwise inaccessible places.

Catholic Priest, Fribourg, c. 1860s
Catholic Priest, Fribourg, c. 1860s

We get our first official ‘sighting’ of Rossier when the English author, Albert Smith, meets him in Hong Kong on the 25th August 1858: “Paid a visit to Messrs. Negretti and Zambra’s photographer, M. Rossier, who lived at the Commercial Hotel, belonging, I believe, to Messrs. Lane and Crawford. He complained much of the effect of the climate on his chemicals.” (11)

It had been thought that the Negretti and Zambra’s China and Japan photographs might have been taken by somebody other than Rossier – perhaps Walter Woodbury, or the British consular secretary, Abel Gower. It is now clear that Pierre Rossier was the photographer: there is absolutely no evidence that Woodbury went to Japan, and Gower was only an amateur. (12)

There are other sources which confirm Rossier as Negretti and Zambra’s  photographer. The first is particularly significant and comes from a private journal, which I acquired recently, written by one of the officers of the British ship, HMS Sampson – the ship charged with the task of escorting the British Minister, Rutherford Alcock, together with the other Consuls, to Japan, where they would take up their positions ahead of the official opening of the country on 1st July, 1859. (13) The journal entry for the 8th July 1859 reads: I was included in a photographic view taken by Mr. Rossier, a gentleman we brought from Nagasaki, employed by the Crystal Palace Company.” (Negretti and Zambra was almost synonymous, at that time, with the actual Crystal Palace) From the journal it is clear that the photograph was taken in Yedo (Tokyo) on the same day that a party of officers inspected Alcock’s Legation and residence-to-be, Tozenji Temple. As the ship also visited Kanagawa and Yokohama, Rossier would have had ample opportunities to photograph in those places.

Back of the General View of Yakuama (Yokohama)
Back of the General View of Yakuama (Yokohama), 1859, above

The above excerpt strongly implies that Rossier was already in Nagasaki when HMS Sampson arrived there from Shanghai with the consuls on board. If so, it is not  clear how long Rossier had been in Nagasaki. HMS Sampson left Nagasaki for Yedo, with Rossier and the consuls, on 20th June 1859. It is worth noting that Abel Gower was one of those on board and he may well have become friendly with Rossier. There is a portrait of Gower, signed ‘P.Rossier,’ in the Leiden University photograph collection.

Rossier’s movements around this time are, to say the least, sketchy. We know that he was in Shanghai on 27th June 1860, staying at the exclusive Astor House Hotel (14) and that prior to that he had been in Hong Kong. He may have gone to Shanghai for photographic chemicals. It is far more likely, however, that he was there primarily to try to convince the British and/or French military authorities to allow him to accompany them to the scene of the imminent conflict in North China. If so, it seems as though he was singularly unsuccessful. The British already had Felix Beato and John Papillon, and the French had du Pin, Fauchery and possibly Legrand. Rossier would have been devastated. His employers, Negretti and Zambra, would have expected an explanation from the 30 year-old Rossier. After all, that is why he had been sent to China in the first place.

We know that Rossier was not in Peking during the sacking of the Summer Palace on the 18th and 19th of October because he was in Nagasaki taking photographs of the Harbour on behalf of the British Consul, George Morrison. In a letter of the 13th October 1860 to Minister Alcock in Yedo, enclosing the photos, Morrison reports that he has ‘.........taken advantage of the presence of a professional photographer …… for the moment, Mr. Rossier, an  employe (sic) of the firm of Negretti & Zambra of London…….the cost …….namely seventy Dollars…….but considering that M. Rossier’s time is specifically devoted to other purposes, and that he was occupied with them for several days…… he is not a tradesman here for the sale of photographs,  was not in a position to bargain……and have seen very fair photographs taken, unassisted, by a pupil of M.Rossier……” (possibly Ueno Hikoma) (15).

Japanese Ladies in Full Winter-Dress Costume 1859/60
Japanese Ladies in Full Winter-Dress Costume 1859/60

The publication by Negretti and Zambra of Rossier’s group of Japan photos was not until October or November 1861. (16) Given the fact that Rossier was taking photographs in Japan more than 2 years earlier, why would Negretti and Zambra not want to publish them when public interest was at its height? The only explanation I can think of is that the negatives were damaged on their way to London, or that Rossier, as he mentioned to Albert Smith, was finding difficulty in securing the appropriate chemical supplies.

This seems distinctly possible when we see that Negretti and Zambra placed the following advertisement in The Times, 28 May, 1860, page 3: ‘JAPANESE LADIES IN FULL DRESS  -A STEREOGRAPH (full coloured) of the above interesting subject, taken by Messrs. NEGRETTI AND ZAMBRA’S artist, now in Japan, forwarded on receipt of 24 stamps – 1, Hatton Garden, and 59, Cornhill.’ This strongly suggests that Rossier sent back to London a batch of Japanese negatives which must have been taken some three or so months earlier, bearing in mind that in those days the journey by sea could take ten to twelve weeks. There really must have been a serious problem with the quality of those negatives.

A second (?) batch of negatives arrives four months’ later. An announcement in The Times, 3rd October 1860, page11: ‘Photographs From Japan – A case of rare and curious photographs of the scenery of this interesting country, and illustrative of the manners and customs of the Japanese tribes, which have been executed by a special artist sent out for the purpose by the enterprising firm of Negretti and Zambra of London, are expected by the Peninsular and Oriental Company’s steamship Ceylon, which will probably arrive at Southampton on Wednesday.’  Even now, Negretti and Zambra could not have been happy with what they saw, since they would not publish them for another year!

Ironically, the first time we see some of these views in published form is in George Smith’s book which included 5 from the series, including the one advertised in June 1860. This book appeared on 9th April 1861 – still six months before Negretti and Zambra would eventually publish(17), (18). Whatever the real reason for the inordinate delay, it must have put a further strain on the relationship between employer and employee.

Catholic Priest, Fribourg, c. 1860s
Back of Catholic Priest, Fribourg, above
We next hear that Rossier is in Siam. The exact dates are not known but he was there at some point in 1861 because he assisted the French zoologist, Firmin Bocourt, by taking ethnographical portraits of Siamese subjects which were required for a French museum (19) The Rossier trail then goes cold and we next hear of him when he is in Shanghai in February 1862 selling off his cameras and equipment ahead of a return to Europe (North China Herald, 8 March 1862).

Rossier’s views of China and Japan are not easy to find. They represent the first commercial photographs taken in those countries. For this reason alone, Pierre Rossier’s place in Far Eastern photo-history is assured. Until he arrived in Nagasaki in 1859, Japanese students of photography had struggled to master the subject – this despite the unstinting assistance from the capable Dutch medical instructors. A seasoned professional photographer like Rossier, equipped with the right chemicals and equipment, was able to give the necessary impetus to Japanese self-sufficiency. But we still know too little about Rossier’s activities during his seven years’ absence from his homeland. I have a feeling that further research may reveal a number of other surprises.

© Terry Bennett

4th August 2004
Updated 1st July 2006

This  article was published in the December 2004 issue of The PhotoHistorian-Journal of the Historical Group of  the Royal Photographic Society

Notes & References


  1. James, H.A., ‘The Price Guide to Photographic Cards’, London: Bishopsgate Press, 1982 (see p. 94); Darrah, William C, The World of Stereographs, Gettysburg: William C. Darrah, author and publisher, 1977. (see p. 121)
  2. Freiburg Archives: Ref: AEF.census, No. 8, 1845, reg. VI, p.427 (Pierre Rossier’s occupation is shown as ‘regent’ )
  3. Freiburg Archives: Ref: AEF, DPC II, 13,335
  4. Freiburg Archives: Ref: AEF, RP582, p.60
  5. Raemy, Alfred,  Livre D’or du Canton de Freiburg, Nomenclature des Bourgeois de la Ville de Freiburg des Anciennes Familles Patriciennes et des Notablities et Celebrites du Canton, Freiburg : Bonny, 1898 (p.49). I am extremely grateful to Benoit de Diesbach Belleroche and Gerard Bourgarel who drew my attention to this publication.
  6. This additional information was discovered by Benoit de Diesbach Belleroche on further research into the Freiburg Archives.
  7. Entered in the Stationers’ Hall Copyright Register as: Stereoscopic Views in China Nos. 1-50 , published by Henry Negretti & Joseph Warren Zambra, No. 1 Hatton Garden, copyright – the same, date of publication 19th November 1859.   The National Archives hold this under reference: COPY 3/10 (appears on page 126)
  8. See the Photographic News 4th November 1859, pp99-100; 11th November, pp. 110-2; 18th November, pp.124-6 and the Photographic Journal 1st December 1859, p.298; La Lumiere 17th and 24th March 1860.
  9. Photographic News 4th November 1859.
  10. Illustrated London News, 4th February 1860, p.109
  11. Smith, Albert, To China and Back, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1974
  12. In my forthcoming book, Photography in Japan 1853-1912, to be published autumn 2006, I will be covering this aspect, and others in more detail.
  13. A ship’s journal, written by one of the officers of HMS Sampson, Henry Purcell Ward, between 1st January 1858 and 31st October 1860. The ship was part of the British China squadron and was kept occupied by the disturbances in China during that period. The ship was also instructed to take Rutherford Alcock (first British Minister to Japan) and the other Consuls to Japan in June 1859.
  14. North China Herald, 30 June, 1860 p.102. Rossier arrived from Hong Kong on the ship Pekin. I have to thank Eric Politzer for drawing my attention to this reference. Rossier’s staying at the Astor House Hotel is mentioned in the North China Herald, 14 July, 1860, p.110
  15. National Archives, Reference: F.O. 46.8  contains the correspondence referred to and also Rossier’s 3-plate and 8-plate panoramas of Nagasaki.
  16. The Art Journal, November 1861, p.351.
  17. Smith, George, Ten Weeks in Japan, London: Longman, Green, 1861
  18. For a complete list of the 25 views in this set, please refer to Photography in Japan 1853-1912. A second series of 40 Japan views is also listed.
  19. I am grateful to both Claude Estebe and Gerard Levy for pointing out that Rossier made photographs in Siam for Firmin Bocourt, a French zoologist, who carried out a scientific expedition in Siam in 1861/1862. This was reported in a lecture given by Milnes Edwards, at the French « Académie des sciences » who stated: «… [M. Bocourt] profita de la présence à Bangkok d’un artiste habile (M. Rossier) pour obtenir une nombreuse série de photographies »


(Mr. Bocourt took advantage of the fact that a good artist ((M. Rossier)) was staying in Bangkok and asked him to make numerous photographs) From: Académie des sciences, Seance du 10 août 1863, cote Y 324, p. 2.