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 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.
John Thomson was born on 14 June 1837 in Edinburgh, Scotland. After his schooling in the early 1850s Thomson was apprenticed to a local optical and scientific instrument manufacturer. During this time Thomson learned the principles of photography and completed his apprenticeship around 1858.
In April 1862 he set off for Singapore to join his brother. In Singapore, Thomson opened his first photographic studio and became a commercial photographer. During this period he travelled extensively throughout Malaya and to the island of Sumatra.
From October to November 1864 Thomson travelled to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and India and photographed the destruction caused by a recent cyclone.
In 1865 Thomson sold his studio in Singapore and moved to Siam (Thailand). In Bangkok he undertook a series of photographs of the King of Siam and senior members of the royal court and government officials.
In January 1866 Thomson set off for Laos and Cambodia. In Phnom Penh he photographed the King of Cambodia and the royal family. He was the first photographer to document Angkor Wat. After visiting Saigon he returned briefly to Bangkok before travelling back to Britain in May or June 1866.
In 1866 Thomson became a member of the Royal Ethnological Society of London and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.
In early 1867 Thomson published his first book, ‘The Antiquities of Cambodia’.
In July 1867 Thomson returned to Singapore before moving to Saigon for three months and finally settling in Hong Kong in 1868 where he set up his photographic studio.
In November 1869 Thomson married Isabel Petrie. They were to have three sons and three daughters.
In 1870 Thomson sold his studio, preparing for travelling to mainland China. From the end of 1870 Thomson began his major China expedition. He set out in Canton, then travelled to Macau, Santou, Chaozhou and Amoy. From there he went on to Fuzhou and the river Min. In April 1871 he arrived on the island of Formosa. After Formosa, Thomson returned to Hong Kong briefly before travelling north. In August 1871 he went to Shanghai, then to the imperial capital Beijing via Chefoo and Tianjin.
In October 1871 Thomson left Beijing for Shanghai, then downstream along the Yangtze river. In Hankou and Yichang he photographed the Three Gorges. On his way back to Shanghai, he stopped briefly in Jiujiang, Nanjing and Ningbo.
In 1872 he returned to Britain via Hong Kong and began to publish his photographs of the Far East.
In 1873 ‘Foochow and the River Min’ was published.
Between 1873 and 1874 ‘Illustrations of China and its People’ was published.
Between 1876 and 1877 Thomson produced a number of photographs of street scenes in London and in 1878 ‘Street Life in London’ was published.
In 1879 Thomson opened a portrait studio in Buckingham Palace Road, later moving to Mayfair.
In 1881 he was appointed photographer to the British royal family by Queen Victoria.
From January 1886 he 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. After this he spent most of his time in Edinburgh.
In October 1921 Thomson died of a heart attack at the age of 84.