Captain Barton’s Motu Girl

Captain Francis Rickman Barton (1865–1947) was an officer in the British Army and an amateur photographer who was stationed in New Guinea from 1899 to 1908. In 1904 he began assisting anthopologist Charles Seligman, who was preparing the book Melanesians of British New Guinea (1910). The book features some of Captain Barton’s photos. Sixteen photographs taken there by Barton are now in the British Museum and more than 1,500 of his photos are in the collection at the Royal Anthropological Institute in London. According to the British Museum, nearly all of the photos are of females. The photo below, from the Royal Anthropological Institute, is his most famous.


F. R. Barton – Motu Girl, Fairfax Harbour, Port Moresby (c1907)

According to Photographing Papua: Representation, Colonial Encounters and Imaging in the Public Domain (2007) by Max Quanchi, the girl in the photo was a regular model for Barton. There is another nude photo of this model that was probably taken the same day. The tatoos on the girl’s abdomen were retouched with lampblack, and she was taken to a secluded area of mangroves away from the port to provide a suitable background.

The book South Sea maidens : Western fantasy and sexual politics in the South Pacific (2002) by Michael Sturma, and Supple Bodies: The Papua New Guinea Photographs of Captain Francis R. Barton (2003) by Christopher Wright, also note that the anthropological photographs of Barton are usually young females carefully posed to produce a photo of artistic as well as anthropological merit.

The photo has inspired other works of art. A drawing by Megaera Lorenz of the girl as an ancient Egyptian is here. Chuck Bowden’s version, drawn in pencil, pen, and colored markers is here. A realistic sculpture by Lisa Lichtenfels is below.  The tattoos on the girl and the mangroves have been deleted, and a few other changes were made.


Lisa Lichtenfels – Motu Girl (date unknown)

Some Barton photos from the British Museum collection are available on the internet, but they lack the degree of artistry shown in the Motu Girl, Fairfax Harbour, Port Moresby photo. These photos, examples of which are here and here, are more stiffly posed and appear to be produced only for an anthropological study of tatoo patterns. I was not able to find any Of Barton’s photographs from the Royal Anthropological Institute collection. I wonder what artistic treasures may be there.