Illustration principale
Rare photo of Torres Strait Masks
THOMSON, Stephen, edited by W. A. MANSELL & co.
circa 1865-1870

Albumen print from a wet collodion glass plate negative
Size : 20,3 x 26,3 cm

Provenance : Pierre Marc Richard, Paris

The creation of Torres Strait masks or effigies made from turtle shell was a centuries-old tradition that was first witnessed by Westerners in 1606 and continued until the end of the 19th century. The forms, materials, and imagery of these masks varied from region to region. In the eastern Torres Strait, turtle-shell masks, known as le op (human face), almost universally took the form of human images adorned with lifelike coiffures and beards of human hair. Equipped with an opening on the underside, which allowed it to be slipped over the head, the mask completely covered the performer’s head and face when worn. Le op masks appear to have been used in initiations and, possibly, in other rites. However, they were primarily employed in funerary ceremonies held to honor and appease the spirits of the deceased, enabling them to travel to the island of the dead, which lay in the direction of the setting sun.
This early photography of a pair of extremely rare turtle shell masks from Darnley Island, in the eastern part of the Torres strait, was taken by Stephen Thompson (1831-1892), traveler, author, art critic and renowned London photographer, notably for the British Museum and the royal family.
These two masks were initially in the collection of Sir Henry Christy, a Quaker businessman whose wealth helped him to travel the world in search of ethnographical and archeological specimens. His interest in ethnology developed through Quaker concerns about the abolition of slavery and the protection of aboriginal peoples in British colonies. In 1865, he was elected to the Royal Society but did not live to take his place there. The bulk of his large collection was offered to the British Museum by the trustees of his estate and was accepted circa 1868. This image was probably taken around this time.
Price : 3.700 euros