Camels are an occasional but telling presence in the Lankester Harding films: we see camels at rest, carrying supplies, and chewing in their characteristic fashion. These moments inspired me to consider the history of associations with this highly distinctive creature.
During the era of modern European expansion, camels became more closely associated with north Africa and the near East. In the four continents sculpted on the Albert Memorial, for example, the elephant represented Asia, while in the group sculpture depicting Africa a kneeling camel is ridden by a woman wearing an Ancient Egyptian headdress, flanked by stereotyped images of an Arab and black Africans. In another intriguing example of imperial statuary, the memorial erected at Brompton Barracks, Chatham in 1890 in honour of General Gordon depicts him in a fez seated crossed-legged on a camel. In preparation, the sculptor Edward Onslow Ford reportedly studied a camel in London zoo.
It was unusual for a military statue at this time not to feature a horse and the camel’s presence reflects the period of ‘high imperialism’ during which such creatures became part of the symbolic language of imperial domination. The camel was one element of the range of symbols of ‘the East’, exemplified by Flaubert’s passage in Madame Bovary, quoted by Robert Irwin, in which the eponymous character reads a tawdry Orientalist novel characterised by a series of exotic tropes, including kneeling camels.
Within this wider context of the image of the camel in the European mind, for travellers to Egypt and the near East in the early twentieth century such as colonial officers and scholars, these animals provided an essential means of transport. For the twentieth-century archaeologist the camel was a standard presence on an archaeological dig as images by celebrated figures such as Gertrude Bell indicate.
From canister LH4 comes a sequence where we see two heavily-laden camels walk towards the camera against a wide sparse background with mountains in the distance. This composition recalls the way in which Orientalist painters depicted desert scenes which would frequently incorporate a camel, providing visual animation in the expanse, and geographical rooting.
The camera focuses more tightly on the camels kneeling and enjoying a meal in subsequent footage from canister LH4. We linger at first on their chewing, a very expressive act exaggerated by their jowly features. The camera then pans to one side and another, perhaps to highlight the vast burdens they carried. These massive burdens are again emphasised as two camels walk out of a gorge, a metal can dangling and one can imagine the rhythmic clanking sound it would have made as the camel ambles along. In the subsequent scene from LH11, we see a group of workers, and a donkey, lead a party with a camel at the back, who towers over the group. Its load looks almost as wide as the camel is tall. Harding then takes an unusual viewpoint, looking down over its neck as it drinks vital supplies of water in footage from LH12. This perspective draws attention to the slender legs and knobbly knees.
In the final extracts from canister LH15 we see touching views of a camel followed by one of her fluffy offspring, who follows its mother obediently. Unlike its mother, the young camel is free from carrying a load (a camel must be at least six years old before they can be used for transporting packs). The last view we have is taken from over the mother camel’s shoulder and depicts her and her young having a meal, with the tight focus on the camels’ faces once again. It seems Harding is delighting in the rubbery features of the chomping camel.
These films display a detectable fondness for these animals – not seeing them simply as symbols or ‘eastern’ tropes but valuing their service for the excavation and the diversion they provided with their languid and singular behaviour.
Hall, J. 1989. Hall's Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art. London: John Murray.
Irwin, R. 2010. Camel. London: Reaktion
Irwin, R. 2013. 'Flaubert's Camel: Said's Animus' in Z. Elmarsafy, Anna Bernard and David Attwell (eds), Debating Orientalism. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 38–54.
'The Gordon Statue, Mr. Onslow Ford, R. A. interviewed', Morning Post, Friday 13 July 1900, accessed 1 November 2016.
The Sheikh (dir. George Melford, Paramount Pictures) [via Internet Archive].
Tromans, N. and E. Weeks (eds). 2008. The Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting. London: Tate.
Werness, H. B. 2006. Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in World Art. London: Continuum.
My thanks to Chris O'Rourke, Amara Thornton, Peter Yeandle and other attendees of the Filming Antiquity workshop for their insights.
 My thanks to Chris O’Rourke for showing me this film.
 Continuum Encyclopaedia, p. 69; Hall, p. 56.
 ibid, Hall.
 Irwin, Camel, p. 79
 Thanks to Peter Yeandle for bringing this statue to my attention. See also: http://www.kenthistoryforum.co.uk/index.php?topic=15509.0 including contemporary newspaper account.
 See also the later Imperial Camel Corps statue on Victoria Embankment Gardens, unveiled 1921.
 Irwin, 2013 pp. 38–54
 Irwin, p. 46.