Thursday, March 24, 2016

Irene Vincent's photographs: A modern pilgrimage to Dunhuang


Few people may be aware of it, but among the information and images about Dunhuang and other archaeological sites on the eastern Silk Road available on IDP's website, there are also a number of photographs taken by modern-day explorers.

In the twentieth century, as news of the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas spread worldwide following their 'rediscovery' by Sir Aurel Stein and Paul Pelliot, an increasing number of travellers, both from China and overseas, started venturing to the site. Irene Vincent, née Vongehr, was one of the foreign visitors who made it, despite the difficulties of the journey.
Detail of a photograph of Irene Vincent at the Mogao Caves, Dunhuang in 1948. Photo 1231/4(49)
Born in 1919 in Hankou, on the Yangzi River in China, she grew up speaking fluent Mandarin and Cantonese, in addition to English. She went to university in the United States, graduating with a degree in International Relations from Sweet Briar College, Virginia. She married John Benjamin Vincent, and shortly after set up home with him in various parts of Asia. They lived in Shanghai at the beginning of the Second World War, then moved to Calcutta for five years in 1942. They eventually returned to China in 1947, where they settled in Beijing with their two daughters.
Film negative of the Vincent family in 1948: Irene, John, Jamini and Bronwen. Photo 1231/1(90)
In the summer of 1948, Irene left behind husband and children to go on her own pilgrimage to the man-made caves of Dunhuang, a dream that had haunted since her student days:
‘In his secret heart almost everyone carries the name of some place on earth which he hopes to see before he dies... In 1939 I had chosen mine — the Thousand Buddha Caves of Tun Huang. The summer school of the University of Michigan offered that year an excellent course in Chinese art. I had spent three months at this heady banquet ... After this hastily devoured—almost indigestible—feast, the memory of the Thousand Buddha Caves had remained to haunt and tantalize me. I never really expected to see them with my own eyes, however. The only westerners who had this good fortune seemed to be eminent scholars, under the wing of important organizations, who spent weeks travelling there in horse-carts, sacks of bullion concealed in their luggage.’

Extract from Irene Vongehr Vincent, The Sacred Oasis: Caves of the Thousand Buddhas Tun Huang. London: Faber and Faber 1953: 43. Reproduced by courtesy of Bronwen Vincent.

The journey, during which Irene Vincent took numerous photographs, lasted eight long weeks. The region was hardly accessible at the time, and although she had been able to fly from Beijing to Lanzhou, the second half of the trip was not as easy. Irene had to search for a 'motorised camel' for the remaining 800 miles, and she ended up taking not one but two trucks in order to reach Dunhuang. The first one, which belonged to the government-owned oil company, dropped her in Jiuquan, in Gansu province, where she jumped on another dilapidated vehicle bound for Dunhuang.
Irene's truck experiencing some difficulties on its way to Dunhuang. Passengers are waiting on board while it is being fixed. Photo 1231/4(2)
Irene covered the last twelve miles to the Mogao Caves on horseback. She stayed as a guest of the Dunhuang Art Institute for ten days, capturing with her camera as many of the caves as possible in the short amount of time available.
Central portion of Mogao Caves, Dunhuang. Photo 1231/4(6)
West wall of Cave 283. Photo 1231/4(25)
Photograph of a view looking across the river to the Dunhuang Mogao caves with Irene Vincent. Photo 1231/5(31)
On her return, Irene met her husband and their daughters, Jamini and Bronwen, and they returned as a family to Dunhuang. There, John Vincent took the first known colour photographs of the wall paintings of the Mogao caves some of which were published — along with some of Irene's photographs — in Basil Gray's  Buddhist cave Paintings at Tun-huang, in 1959.
Irene Vincent and her two daughters in a truck to Qinghai, during their family trip to Dunhuang in 1948-49. Photo 1231/2(56)
Photograph of Cave 257, taken by John B. Vincent. Photo 1231/6(10)
The Vincent Collection of photographs and negatives by Irene and John was generously donated to the British Library by their daughters and son in memory of their parents. It includes several hundred items, recording their respective visits to Dunhuang Mogao Caves, as well as their time in various places across China right up to the Communist Revolution in 1949.

To see all of the Vincent photographs on IDP search the IDP database for 'Photo 1231'.
See IDP News 42 for more on on 20th century travellers to Dunhuang.

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