Project author: Anastasija Markelova

During my family trip around Sri-Lanka in March 2013, in one of antique shops I came across a shoebox full of old pictures. I bought 300 pictures, about a half of them all, however, I had to come a long way to understand what a treasure I’ve got.

When I returned to Moscow I started to study the pictures and suddenly realised that I had bought a personal photo archive, which depicts 50-60 years of a family life. According to the pictures the main passion of this family was wanderlust. They travelled around the world by liners and planes, cars and horses. For example, in my collection there was found a photo where the family was climbing Kilimanjaro and servants were carrying some personal items.

At the beginning stage I deciphered most of the inscriptions from verso. I could figure out the names of the family members, travel locations and dates, yet there was no surname. I was longing to solve the mystery. How could (it happen that) all these photos, capturing half century of a rich family life, ended up in an antique shop? Who was hiding behind the camera?  

A year after I had found this archive, my friend travelled around Sri-Lanka. Her trip sparked in me an idea that seemed obvious. I asked her to talk to the owner of the shop, who had sold me these pictures. I hoped that he would know something that would assist me with my research.

My friend brought new photos and the seller told me that the surname of the family – was RUST. They owned properties in different continents, cargo ships and tea plantations. The children, Helene (the youngest), Violet and Cecil - were surrounded by people of high social status, and their father Julian Rust was a kinsman of the Duke of Nottinghamshire and a man inclined to the arts, whose chief passion was photography.

The family name revealed a new opportunity to me to study an archive. Through the Internet I found some mentions about the Rusts. The most complete information was found on genealogy site In the same resource I got to know Frances Forrest, who has been looking for information about her ancestry for years, but she has never met them. Frances shared a link to Sri-Lankan The Sunday Times, where Helene Rust was telling about her life. From this article I knew that her farther was a friend of Indian prince Sir Raza Ali Khan Bahadur (His Highness Nawab of Rampur). Helen mentioned that when the family visited India, where they also had a house, their friend the Nawab of Ranpur had a special train sent to pick them up.

 The full names of Helene’s father and grandfather also helped me to discover, that they were professional photographers. The first mention about Julian and Thomas Rust’s photographic activities dated 1868. Thomas Rust had studios in London, and in 1874 Rust opened five of his own studios in India (Allahabad, Mussoorie, Murree, Landour and Meerut). He was patronized by h.e. the earl of Mayo and by H. R. H. the Duke of Edinburgh. Thomas Rust’s landscapes are considered very artistic and he may well have had some formal training in this area. He was also famous for tableau vivant or “living picture” (that was one of the most popular forms of amateur performance and entertainment for the middle and upper classes during the nineteenth century). His son Julian Thomas Rust joined the firm in 1899 and continued until 1914. Julian Thomas Rust was well known as a portraitist. His images of rich and famous brought him instant recognition and fame, so he was a man of considerable means. In 1933 he made pictures of young Indira Gandhi, which is proved by correspondence by Indira Gandhi & Jawaharlal Nehru (Book Two Alone, Two Together: Letters Between Indira Gandhi & Jawaharlal Nehru 1922-1964, Sonia Ghandi). Now days the photographs, made by Thomas Alfred Rust and Julian Thomas Rust, are kept in the following collections: The Alkazi Collection of Photography, Harry Ransom Centre, The British Library, National Gallery of Australia. They are also sold at Christie's and Bonham’s. In overall, the father and the son, Thomas Alfred Rust and Julian Thomas Rust, dedicated 80 years to photography.

Having an aim to carry out further research I came back to Sri Lanka in March 2015 and bought all the Rust’s photos in the antique shop. Then, I visited 4 houses that belonged to the family. This visit coincided with the 11th anniversary of Helene’s death. I wanted to find Helene’s grave, so that there I could explain why I was conducting the research about her family.

The owner of the antique shop told me about Helene’s servant, who lives in a house, which she bequeathed him. It was my lucky chance to talk to person who knew Helene really well. He started to serve Helene at the age of 10 and also buried her 50 years later. Several days after the meeting we went to Helene’s grave. I expected to see a luxury family vault, but instead of this I saw a humble plot of earth. Suddenly, I felt empty inside and I realized that the history of this family had finished forever. In this way I found the answer to my second question: the archive ended up in an old man’s shop because the Rust family kin was cut short. Cecil passed away in London in 1960 after a long illness. In 1974, 14 years later, Violet died. Helene was the last of the Rusts from this generation. None of them had any legal descendants.

During these days in Kandy, I often mentally turned to Helen and asked her to allow me to tell their story. I asked myself: why do I need this? I was even identifying myself with Helene at some point and felt a metaphysical connection with her. I have photos where she is still a baby, and a photo where the prince of Wales, the future king of Great Britain Edward VIII, is getting a bouquet of flowers from Helene, and ones at her funeral – I can practically trace her whole life. It’s so important for me to save family memory.

The narrative is an important part of the project, because it immerses the viewer into the story and of the development of the project, which allows the witnessing of the key events within the research and the building of a personal relationship with the material. It turns the viewer to himself and asks questions about his role and the family's own identity.

The Rust family owned properties in British colonies. The family crest on the wall of one of their former houses says “Fortis et Stabilis” ("Strong and Stable"). All family members buried in different places. The last of this kin, Helene, was buried by her servant’s family. Her servant had inherited her only property and is selling all what they was acquired in order to have some money to live on.

The reference to the Wiki

The British Empire was the biggest state with the colonies on the all inhabited continents that has ever existed in the whole human history. By the mid 30-ies of XX century the Empire covered more than 13,000,000 sq. mi (34,650,000 km2) almost a quarter of the Earth's total land area (not including approximately 8.1 million km² in Antarctica, which still claims Britain and its former dominions: Australia and New Zealand).

By 1922 the British Empire held sway over about 458 million people, one-fifth of the world's population at the time. The domination of the English language in the world in the fields of transport and trade is explained by the heritage of Pax Britannica. The British Empire was increasing during more than two centuries and the culmination of the enormous expansion of the state is considered to the beginning of the XX century. During that time period, a variety of different areas on all continents rightly called an empire "on which the sun never sets."


Year: 2016.