THE PASSING OF A PIONEER NILGIRI ARTIST BY
THE DEATH OF Mr. A.T.W.PENN AT COONOOR
To few men is it given to write their names so indelibly on the scroll of Time that its association with the work they have wrought shall remain a record for posterity. That “their work endureth better than their knowing” is an attribute of the truly great – of genius. In this rare category will Mr A.T.W.Penn, the Pioneer photographic artist of the Nilgiris be placed by the thousands who have known, appreciated, and in some measure, wither greater or less, possessed examples of his famous landscape work over half a century. For it is not too much to say that no illustrated work hitherto upon the Nilgiris, nor, in the past days, no private album of Nilgiri views did not contain examples of his lensed pictures; there are literally thousands who to-day prize the possession of a set of Nilgiri views of by-gone years, bearing the superscription of A.T.W.Penn. And, with all due honour to those artists who now are, or yet may be, none can hope to excel in composition, balance, tone, and all that goes to make a beautiful picture, the classic efforts of this pioneer of the Nilgiris.
Photography in these days has become so general a property that anyone who can push a button may depend upon the camera doing the rest, so that it is hard to realise that sixty years ago the art was one that required exceptional technical skill besides the artistic faculty from those who pursued it. The wet plate was slow in action and elusive in operation. Its making, taking, and development were all tricky and called for quickness, cleverness and dexterity on the part of the photographer. What today is a matter of formula, mechanical adjustment, or practice by rule of thumb, was then a matter for individual judgement and personal initiative. Photography was then in its infancy and largely an experimental process. In this sense it was very much more an Art than it is in modern times. Yet, despite, and possibly because of, its laboriousness and difficulty of attainment, results were achieved that the highly talented of to-day, with all the advantages of modern apparatus might well envy. The accomplishment of consistently successful work in those early days indeed had something to be proud of!
Then, too, in thinking of the work of this old Nilgiri artist, one is conscious of the glamour of romance that surrounded the setting of the scenes of those pictures of early days. To a large extent the Nilgiris were as yet being discovered and exploited. Primeval forests and virgin wastes, comparatively untenanted by the ubiquitous blue-gum and wattle since introduced; hill tribes whose primitive dwellings and communal life was as yet unsullied by the touch of civilisation; young plantations, the outcome of courageous enterprise, just coming into being; the plentitude of game, with the howl of the jackal (so infrequently heard now) a thing of regular nocturnal occurrence and the cry of the hyena or the roar of the nobler denizens of the forest, causing little remark; youth, youth, youth and energy making themselves known and felt on every hand; the sense of doing something new in a country for the first time – what a stimulus all this must have been to the artistic temperament which sought to capture and reduce to black and white the atmosphere of such vital scenes.
Hence we have pictures of gentle down-land or forbidding height; enchanting wild-wood or barren waste; purling stream or mighty cataract; jungled hill or far-flung ranges, all very much the same, no doubt, as they are to-day, and yet with a difference of aspect created by the lapse of time. There is for instance, a little picture of Mr. Penn’s taken many years ago, of the turn of the road below the old Craigmore toll-bar. It is one that many will remember, but time has marred its composition and you may not obtain its counterpart today. There is one of Murkurti Peak, with the shadow of that stupendous peak leaning over into the valley below that no other artist has succeeded in obtaining. There is one of Katary Falls, when the name used to be so spelt, that the modern kateri can never yield. So, too, with the hill tribes. I do not find in modern pictures the same stateliness of bearing or dignity of mien in the Todas as those of Mr. Penn’s plates, and never again will it be possible for such typical Badaga groups as those which identify Mr. Penn’s work, for the people now no longer cling to their native dress. Refer to pictures to be seen in Sir Frederick Price’s history of Ootacamund, or Mr. E. Thurston’s “Castes and Tribes of Southern India,” and the significance of what it is attempted here to convey will become apparent. The old order hath changed and given place to new, and the old will certainly be found more genuine.
But the stranger may ask: “Why should Mr. Penn’s portraiture, whether of men or of nature, be thought better than similar work done to-day?” I think the answer is that no one to-day has the time to spare or the patience to give to obtaining results as, to the writer’s personal knowledge, did Mr. Penn. I have known him literally to spend hours and even days in getting a picture in the way he wanted it. And that was another thing not possessed by many. He knew a picture when he glimpsed at it. He possessed the faculty of mentally envisaging a scene – a thing not quite so simple as it sounds, and yet a thing of simplicity for those who have the gift – and he never rested until the scene on the ground glass tallied with the mental view. Like a hunter after big game, he counted not the hours of pains-taking toil in making an effective approach, and when, within proper range and a favourable moment, he shot and bagged his quarry.
Looking back over the better half of half a century, we find many changing scenes of topical life depicted by his camera. Ooty lake, gay with pretentious sailing craft, or merry with row-boats; both now a thing of the past. The Volunteer Corps, with their mutton-chopped or bearded officers, of which he was one of he most enthusiastic, retiring as a major with the V.D., is shown in several of his pictures helmeted, garbed and armed in the fashion of the time. The Ootacamund hunt – I saw a reproduction of one of his groups only the other day, taken in the governorship of Lord Connemara – chronicles its early history by the aid of Mr. Penn’s camera. Fancy dress balls, amateur theatricals, Christie Minstrel shows (in which he took a prominent part), pretentious official functions or homely scenes – none there were of any consequence who came to Ooty in those days who did not at some time or other during the season freeze for a moment while he removed a lens-cap. Ootacamund and the Nilgiris generally owe a greater debt to Mr. Penn’s talent than perhaps they realised.
Personally, this doyen of Nilgiri photographic artists was one of the (most) modest and gentle of men. His placid and kindly disposition, his unselfishness, the sterling qualities of his character, endeared him to all with whom he came in contact. The only time when his temperament could be said to be fiery, and when he was impatient of interference, when he was truly masterful and domineering was when the fate of a picture hung in the balance. And then the ardour of the artist asserted itself. He was not to be trifled with and woe betide him who marred an effect!
I well remember his recounting, not so very long ago, how he obtained what afterwards proved a most wonderful, an almost unique, cloud and landscape effect with a wet plate by the ruse of giving the upper portion of the plate a longer exposure than the lower. He took up a position on Church Hill, made his focus and then had his Badaga carriers hold a black cloth over the upper portion of the lens. Then, when all was ready, he capped the camera and inserted his plate. Then he made his time exposure of the scene and when it came to the moment for the Badaga to expose their portion of the lens, he became so eager that with a forward pitch of his hands he pushed both men over, so that they went rolling down the steep and grassy slope of Church Hill, while he completed the exposure and replaced the cap without shaking the camera. It was only when he saw his frightened followers picking themselves up gingerly that he realised the severity of his thrust. Other men, he told me, tried in vain to emulate that picture effect, but the trick of the half exposure (including the toppling over of the Badagas) he kept to himself! It was a Trade Secret.
So far as his profession was concerned, Mr. Penn bade farewell to active life some years ago, retired to England, whence he had come as a very young man. But the call of the Blue Mountains was ever in his ears and he returned a brief while back to spend his age in Coonoor. For those he leaves behind to mourn him, his end was tragic, when last Sunday morning he went to All Saints’ Church and suddenly collapsed and died. But for himself this painless passing was one of the most beautiful. And a passing it was, for men of his quality never die. They live in the hearts of those that loved them and in the work their brain and hand and soul have wrought “better than their knowing”!
THE SOUTH OF INDIA OBSERVER  November 1924