Seeing Lhasa: British Depictions of the Tibetan Capital, 1936-1947

7 September 2003 – 30 November 2004

Monks blowing ceremonial trumpets, with the Potala Palace in the distance. Lhasa, Tibet. Photograph by Frederick Spencer Chapman. 1936. 1998.131.305.1
Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, was the dream destination for Western explorers during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Only the lucky few managed to reach Tibet, inspired by the remoteness of its location on the "roof of the world" and the romance of Shangri-La.

The exhibition ‘Seeing Lhasa’ features rare photographs, albums, watercolours and film - much of which has never been exhibited before. The richness of Tibetan cultural traditions - in textiles, dress, architecture, ritual and ceremonial - are all displayed. Stunning images illustrate aspects of Tibetan life that are no longer visible in the city vacated by the Dalai Lama in 1959. The exhibition also includes portraits of many notable public figures, including the Dalai Lama and members of the Tibetan religious and governmental hierarchies.

During the period covered by this exhibition, a British Mission was established in Lhasa. This enabled the British to cultivate close political and social relations with members of the Tibetan elite. ‘Seeing Lhasa’ reveals the way in which the city of Lhasa, its palaces, monasteries and aristocratic houses, became the backdrop for a social world in which the British and Tibetans interacted. They ate and drank, watched films and played football together and these activities werephotographed and filmed as part of the British diplomatic agenda. British Mission lunch with the Lord Chamberlain of Tibet. Lhasa, Tibet. Photograph by Frederick Spencer Chapman. 1936. 1998.131.413

The exhibition demonstrates the aesthetic accomplishments of many members of British missions to Tibet. Some of the first colour film was shot in Tibet at this time and will be shown in the exhibition.

This unusual exhibition will have broad public appeal, as much for those interested in Tibetan culture and history as for those who find inspiration in magnificent costumes, painted interiors or architectural ornamentation. It will also appeal to everyone interested in photography and film and British colonial history.