A Record of Daily Life in Old China – Meixin Wang on the photographs of John Thomson

Meixin Wang, China Resource Specialist at the British Museum tells us how John Thomson’s photographs can help us understand the history of China

During the 1860s, Scottish photo-journalist travelled across South East Asia and China. He took with him the latest camera equipment of the time, using the wet plate photographic technique. He captured street scenes, people and landscapes – and his photos of China are on display at a new exhibition in London at the Brunei Gallery from April to June 2018.

Meixin Wang of the British Museum writes:

A Pioneering Photographer

John Thomson’s pioneering photography of people in China during his travels is a good source to understand the way people lived in those years. They are a good reference for the artefacts from the 19th century that have been collected by various museums in the world as well.

I think he really does help us understand China. China today is very different from China in the 19th century. His photos will provide invaluable insight to the way of life of China then.

A Record of Everyday Life in Old China

Thomson’s photos act as a record of everyday life of Chinese people in the 19th century in comparison with what it is today. They are a  good source to help us learn about Chinese history too.

As a Westerner who resided outside China, John Thomson had a particular sharp and sensitive eye to the people and environment. His photographic and artistic skill brought these people to life.

Vase seller - John THomson Exhibition

Street scene in China, John Thomson

Photography vs Painting

On a more personal note, Thomson’s image often remind me of the paintings by George Chinnery, an 18th century portrait painter who lived in Macau and Hong Kong and painted many landscapes and portraits there. Paintings and photos are visual and therefore have strong impact on the audience.

Come to the John Thomson Exhibition

Exhibition: China and Siam – Through the Lens of John Thomson

Venue: Brunei Gallery, SOAS, Thornhaugh Street, London WC1H 0XG, near Russell Square

Dates: 13 April to 23 June 2018


Street scene in Macao, George Chinnery

Street scene in Macao, George Chinnery


Photo by John Thomson, courtesy of Wellcome Library, London

Painting by George Chinnery – V&A, public domain


Meixin Wang is the China Resource Specialist at the British Museum.


The John Thomson Exhibition Blog features multi-media stories about John Thomson, the Victorian photographer, and the London exhibition of his photos of China and Old Siam from the 1860s, Through the Lens of John Thomson, co-curated by Betty Yao and Narisa Chakrabongse. www.johnthomsonexhibition.org