Legendary Scottish photographer and travel writer John Thomson (1837-1921) set off for Asia in 1862 and over the next ten years he undertook numerous journeys photographing countries in Asia including Siam, Cambodia, Vietnam and many areas in China. The photographs of these journeys form one of the most extensive records of any region taken in the 19th century. The range, depth and aesthetic quality of John Thomson’s photographic vision mark him out as one of the most important travel photographers.
The method of taking photographs at that time was the wet-collodion process, so called because an exposure was made onto a glass negative. This had to be done in complete darkness, on location, in a portable darkroom tent. Thomson had to travel with large number of crates, glass negatives and bottles of highly flammable and poisonous chemicals. Given that his journeys took him through difficult terrain, sometimes to regions where a white man was rarely seen before, it is all the more remarkable that Thomson was able to make photographs of such beauty and sensitivity. He captured the land, the people and their daily lives in very a natural way, achieving what we call today a ‘photo-journalistic’ style.
Unlike most photographers working in the Far East at that time, Thomson was not a government official, nor a missionary. He was a professional photographer who was fascinated by Asia and its people. Thomson possessed an open mind and was sensitive to the lives and surroundings of his subjects.
These are exhibitions of historical value documenting 19th century Asian landscapes, architecture, people and customs. The collection of over 600 glass plates travelled back with Thomson to Britain in 1872 and today is housed in the Wellcome Library, London.
On 14 June 1837, Thomson was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, one of four children and the son of a tobacconist. After his schooling, he was apprenticed to a local optical and scientific instrument manufacturer, where he learned the principles of photography and completed his apprenticeship around 1858.
In April 1862, Thomson set off for Singapore to join his brother, who was already working there as a watchmaker. Initially he ran a business with his brother called ‘Thomson Brothers’. They made optical and nautical instruments as well as operating as a photographic studio. Thomson then set up his own photographic business. During this period, he travelled extensively throughout the mainland territories of Malaya and the island of Sumatra, exploring the villages and photographing the indigenous peoples and their activities.
From October to November 1864, Thomson travelled to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and India and photographed the destruction caused by a recent cyclone.
In 1865, when Thomson was 28, he sold his studio in Singapore and moved to Siam (Thailand). In Bangkok he undertook a series of photographs of King Mongkut of Siam and other senior members of the royal court and government. He also photographed several important royal ceremonies.
In January 1866 Thomson set off for Angkor Wat in Cambodia. In Phnom Penh he took photographs of King Norodom of Cambodia and other members of the Cambodian royal family, before travelling to Saigon. He returned to Britain in summer 1866.
In 1866, Thomson became a member of the Royal Ethnological Society of London (now the Royal Anthropological Institute) and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.
In early 1867, Thomson published his first book, The Antiquities of Cambodia. In July he returned to Singapore, before moving to Saigon for three months and finally settling and establishing a studio in Hong Kong in 1868.
In November 1869, Thomson married Isabel Petrie. They were to have three sons and three daughters.
In 1869, Thomson contributed photographs to the commemorative book documenting the first ever visit of a member of the royal family, the Duke of Edinburgh, to the British colony of Hong Kong.
In 1870, Thomson relinquished his studio in Hong Kong, before leaving for the mainland of China. He also published his first book about China called Views of the North River with the Hong Kong publishers Noronha and Sons.
From the end of 1870, Thomson embarked upon his major China expedition, beginning in Canton (Guangdong), then travelling throughout the country, as well as visiting Formosa (Taiwan) and Macau.
In 1872, Thomson returned to Britain via Hong Kong, and began to publish his photographs of the Far East and South East Asia.
In 1873, Foochow and the River Min was published.
Between 1873 and 1874, Illustrations of China and its People was published. Queen Victoria presented Thomson with a gold medal for this work.
Between 1877 and 1878, Thomson and socialist journalist Adolphe Smith produced a series of photographs and essays revealing the conditions of a life of poverty in London, called Street Life in London.
In 1878, Thomson visited Cyprus. He was the first person to photograph and publish a survey account after the signature of the Cyprus Convention allowing Britain to gain control of the island.
In 1879, Thomson opened a portrait studio in Buckingham Palace Road, later moving it to Mayfair. He was elected a member of the Royal Photographic Society.
In 1881, Thomson was appointed photographer to the British royal family by Queen Victoria.
From January 1886, Thomson began instructing explorers at the Royal Geographical Society in the use of photography to document their travels.
In 1898, Through China with a Camera was published.
In 1910, Thomson retired from his commercial studio.
In May 1920, after visiting Sir Henry S Wellcome’s collection of photographs, Thomson wrote to the curator offering to sell the museum his collection of glass negatives and notes from his travels.
In September 1921, Thomson died of a heart attack at the age of 84 and was buried in Streatham Cemetery, London.
In July 1922 Thomson’s glass negatives were acquired by Wellcome and that collection provided the basis for this exhibition.
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