Some unconnected thoughts on JT over Christmas Those who know my work through my research paper and publications will know that my colleague, René Vienét and I have been working on John Thomson together since the time that we fortuitously bumped into each other at the Wellcome in London in the early 1990s.That was before the Institution had started to digitise their Thomson negative holding. Previously I had worked with Richard Ovenden (at the time was a research scholar at the National Library of Scotland, now Librarian at the Bodeian, Oxford), on their 1988 John Thomson Exhibition.
It included a copy of FooChow and the River Min and 120 gold/platinum toned albumen prints made by Barbara and Michael Gray. The history of the collection and how it was acquired by the Wellcome library has been covered by William Schupbach, head of the iconographic collection, and, to be found on the Wellcome website. The Wellcome have no original prints. neither do any other archives have any really substantial holdings to the best of my knowledge, the largest in terms of quantity being the Fuji Art Museum: of mixed quality mostly proof copies, perhaps reference for his later graphic publications? Those that have survived, gold tone albumen prints in good condition are few and far between. It is my considered view that Thomson considered silver to be so prone to fading that he took the decision not to make and distribute his images as silver prints but explore other possibilities and options.
I suggest that when confronted with the fragility and serious fading of the images in his Anger Watt album he decided upon his return to the UK to use the carbon process for his next venture: FooChow and the River Min. Both Swan's carbon transfer and Poitevin's Collotype showed great promise and he decided to channel all his energies into the two major publications with which all who are familiar with Thomson's work will know.
The quality and stability that these two processes possessed convinced him that this was the direction to follow. This perhaps helps explain why so few original albumen prints are known. A small number of glass positives held at the Wellcome were made by him as intermediate steps for the reduction, to crop and reduce sections of his large format negative images to create the origination he supplied to the Autotype Company in Ealing, would suggest that this to be the most likely explanation. The 4 volume set he designed, originated and produced (Illustrations of China and its People etc.,) was even more revolutionary than FooChow and the River Min because both text and image could be printed up together, and, in a single pass. A revolutionary development as any graphic designer would agree! It was only because of its rarity that FooChow and the River Min is worth more, in market terms than Illustrations. I agree with most if not all of what John Turner had written. I am not comfortable with the extreme scale fo the enlargement of Thomson's images. However I can see that the presentation of his work to an audience that has no prior history of photography's technological background is problematic. The scale and size of the spaces in Chinese venues that have to be filled runs counter to North American and European cultural mores. But who can argue for one to be imposed on the other? Not to show his work? To object and insist that the scale of the images' integrity should prevail? There is no answer, perhaps the answer being that there is no answer. Ho Hum.