China through the lens of John Thomson 1868 - 1872

Merseyside Maritime Museum, Liverpool, 5 February to 6 June 2010

CHINA: Through the Lens of John Thomson 1868-1872 is anhistoric photographic exhibition including 150 images taken in China between 1868 and 1872. The exhibition includes a wide variety ofimages, themes and locations in China from Beijing to Fujian toGuangdong including landscapes, people, architecture, domestic andstreet scenes.

This is the first exhibition in England of photographs of 19th century China taken by the legendary Scottish photographer and travel writer John Thomson (1837-1921). Thomson's collection of 650 glass plate negatives is now housed in the Wellcome Collection Library, London. This exhibition of almost 150 prints from the collection was shown in venues across China in 2009 before coming to Liverpool. Following the Merseyside Maritime Museum it will tour to Hartlepool in late 2010 and The Burrell Collection in early 2011.

John Thomson (1837–1921) was born in Edinburgh two years before the invention of the daguerreotype was announced to the world in 1839. This discovery was the beginning of photography. That same year Fox Talbot introduced the calotype process, and with this new medium David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, two remarkable Scottish photographers living in Edinburgh, produced nearly 3,000 images, including city views, landscapes and scenes of everyday life. Their work undoubtedly had a profound influence on Thomson. In the years leading up to Thomsonbecoming a professional photographer, the technology of photographyalso developed at an incredible speed. The invention of thewet-collodian process in 1850 is regarded as the watershed: it reducedthe exposure time and the cost of making photographs; it also producedsharper images. The wet-collodian process quickly replaceddaguerreotype and calotype. As Thomson remarked: ‘the detail inwet-collodian negatives was of microscopic minuteness whilst presentingthe finest gradation and printing quality which had never indeed beensurpassed by any known method’. But this in itself added to hisdifficulties: it was necessary to make the negatives on glass platesthat had to be coated with wet-collodian emulsion before the exposurewas made, thus there was a large amount of cumbersome equipment thathad to be carried from place to place.

Yet Thomson persevered. To endure hardship was part of his Victorian education. He showed enormous energy and stamina. Like many of his Victorian contemporaries, he was excited by the opening up of Africa and Asia to the West, and he shared in the enthusiasm for exploring exotic places. He believed that by using photography, ‘the explorer may add not only to the interest, but to the permanent value of his work’. And ‘the camera should be a power in this age of instruction to instruct the age’.

In 1862, Thomson set out for Singapore, where he opened a studio and established himself as a professional portrait photographer. Meanwhile, he also became increasingly interested in the local culture and people. From Singapore he travelled into Malaya and Sumatra and took a number of photographs of local landscapes and people. In 1866, after moving to Bangkok, he made his first photographic expedition into Cambodia and Indo-China (Vietnam). His photographs of Cambodia and Siam (Thailand) established him as a serious travel photographer, and gained himmembership of both the Ethnographic Society of London and the RoyalGeographic Society.

During his second trip to Asia, Thomson based himself at the thriving British Crown Colony of Hong Kong in 1868. There he studied Chinese and Chinese culture while making a few short trips into Guangdong. Thomson’s major China expedition began in 1870. For two years he travelled extensively from Guangdong to Fujian, and then to eastern and northern China, including the imperial capital Beijing, before heading down to the River Yangtse, altogether covering nearly 5000 miles. In China, Thomson excelled as a photographer in quality,depth and breadth, and also in artistic sensibility. The experience hegained, and the techniques he developed, on the streets of Beijing laidthe foundation for his Street Life in London, compiled five yearslater. This established him as the pioneer of photojournalism and oneof the most influential photographers of his generation.

After returning to Britain, Thomson took up an active role informing the public about China. Besides giving illustrated presentations, he continuously published photographic and written works on China. He sensed that a profound transformation was taking place in the world, and ‘through the agency of steam and telegraphy, [China] is being brought day by day into closer relationship with ourselves … China cannot much longer lie undisturbed in statii quo.’ Undoubtedly his photographs contributed greatly to 19th-century Europe’s view of Asiaand filled the visual gap between East and West. He became known as‘China’ Thomson.

Yet what marked Thomson’s work out was not simply the massive amount of visual information he offered. His uniqueness was his zeal to present a faithful and precise, though not always agreeable, account of China and Chinese people. He wanted his audiences to witness China’s floods, famines, pestilences and civil wars; but even more so, he wanted share them the human aspect of life in China. He wanted his work to transcend that of the casual illustration of idiosyncratic types, to portray human beings as individuals full of peculiarities.

In 1920, Thomson decided to sell his 650 glass negatives, including those of China, to the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum, but died before the transaction could be completed. Eventually Henry Solomon Wellcome (1853–1936), the American-born pharmacist and philanthropist, bought the negatives from Thomson’s heirs.

Although Wellcome’s museum had a medical and historical theme, Wellcome was a cosmopolitan, and, in some aspects, compulsive collector. He also had an anthropological approach to history, and his ultimate aim was to create a Museum of Man, although this dream was never realised. After his death much of his collection, including Thomson’s negatives in three wooden crates, ended up in the Wellcome Library in London, where they remain today.

The 150 images included in this exhibition are all from the Wellcome Library’s collection. While a few images were reproduced in Thomson’s published works and shown in exhibitions, the great majority of his photographs have never been exhibited. Take, for example, the stereoscopes. Each of these negatives comprises two photographs taken from slightly different angles. Previously, due to the cost of photo-publishing, only one of the exposures was printed.

The images included for this exhibition have been chosen mainly for their locations, namely those of Beijing, Guangdong and Fujian. The photographs Thomson took in Fujian and Guangdong are his strongest series of landscapes. But they also show his sensitivity. The human aspect of his work was even more evident in his photos of the poor. In Guangdong and Fujian, he became increasingly concerned with the lives and conditions of ordinary Chinese. As he travelled further, this concern developed. In the imperial capital of Beijing, Thomson not onlydisplayed his talent as professional portrait photographer, his streetscenes of Beijing showed that he was ahead of his time. These deeplymoving images are sometimes compared to street photographs by the great20th-century masters like Andre Kertesz, Henri Cartier-Bresson orRobert Doisneau. But more importantly, they will remain as incrediblyvaluable historical material for anyone wishing to understand19th-century China and its people in their struggle to become modern.

Further information on John Thomson can be found here :

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