John Thomson's China

A Scot who travelled throughout the Far East, photographing everyday life.

The photographs shown on this website are a small sample from the collection of nearly 700 photographs in the Wellcome Library which the photographer John Thomson (1837-1921) took on his foreign travels, brought home to London and offered at the end of his life to the collector Henry Wellcome. Thomson's travels took him to the areas represented today by the states of Malaysia and Singapore; Thailand, Vietnam and Laos; Taiwan ROC and the People's Republic of China; and the island of Cyprus. The photographs exist today in the Wellcome Library in their original format: negatives on sheets of glass, coated with the chemical collodion (nitrocellulose). The present selection concentrates on the photographs from main land China and Hong Kong.

This may perhaps raise two questions in the reader's mind: how and why did Thomson take and keep these photographs, and why did he offer them to Wellcome? In answer to the first question, Thomson's entire career was spent in photographic documentation of the social conditions of his time. Born in Edinburgh in 1837, he had followed the same path as many Scots to distant parts of the British Empire, in his case Singapore. There, and later in Hong Kong, he earned his living as a portrait photographer, making 'carte de visite' portraits of both natives and Europeans. Earnings from his portrait work enabled him to set off on a series of long journeys, first to Thailand, Cambodia and Indochina, and finally (1869-1871) to Taiwan and China. He took with him on these journeys a heavy and fragile burden consisting of glass plates and photographic chemicals, which enabled him to take photographs recording the people and places that he witnessed. The people included King Mongkut I of Siam (Thailand), members of the Chinese imperial family and government, street traders, fisherfolk, miners, lepers, women of leisure and orphans, while the places include not only cities such as Hong Kong and Beijing but also the overgrown ruins of Angkor Wat, out of the way places in rural southern Taiwan, and Hubeh and Hunan provinces in central China, where he was probably one of the first, if not the very first, person to take photographs. Later on he braved the malarial swamps of Cyprus to photograph the Cypriot families in their rustic houses.

After his return to Britain, he wrote, taught, and photographed. He used the negatives which he had brought home from abroad as illustrations in the many books which he published on his travels; he taught photography to explorers travelling under the auspices of the Royal Geographical Society; and, reverting to his first profession, he became once more a portrait photographer, with a studio in the West End of London specialising in portraits of the gentry, aristocracy and nobility of Edwardian Britain.

How did the transfer of Thomson's negatives to Henry Wellcome come about? It began with a visit by Thomson in 1920 to the first public exhibition of Wellcome's historical collection in Wigmore Street, London, which had opened in 1913. Thomson would have seen there a corridor lined with photographs already in Wellcome's possession: it was a small display and had much about Africa but nothing about China. So, on 12 May 1920, Thomson wrote to the curator of the gallery,

Dear Sir, I don't know if Mr Wellcome intends to have a room in the museum set apart for the exhibition of photographs. If he does, selections from the photographs taken by me during my eastern travels would prove useful, seeing that each photograph was taken to represent something peculiar to the lands and to the people I visited. Each series includes antiquities, arts, architecture, industries, and evidence of evolution. The regions include Siam, Cochin China, Cambodia, China and the islands of Formosa and Cyprus. I would supply the negatives and quotable notes to each subject. I am sure that such a series would add usefulness and interest to the wonderful collection of this museum. Kindly let me know your views on the subject.

Yours sincerely, J Thomson.

Wellcome accepted Thomson's offer, though Thomson had died before the negotiations were concluded, and Wellcome subsequently bought them from Thomson's heirs. As a result, three wooden steel-lined crates containing nearly 700 precious negatives were delivered to the Wellcome offices, and subsequently became part of the Wellcome Library, where the crates and their original contents are preserved today.

Since 1981 the photographs have been catalogued and studied with the aid of many scholars. As a result they, together with thousands of other photographs, can now be seen in the Wellcome Library, and scans of them are available in the Wellcome Library on-line catalogue. In 2009 an exhibition of 150 selected photographs travelled to four cities in China: in 2010 that exhibition continued its tour in the UK, and the photographs shown in the present web pages form a taster of some of the images to be seen in the exhibition.

Share |