Pioneering Scots photographer John Thomson ‘forgotten’ in home city

Buddhist priests at Yongquan Monastery, Drum Mountain, Fuzhou, China. At the time of Thomson's visit about 200 monks lived there. He was intrigued by their robes which he thought resembled the monastic garb of medieval Europe.
Buddhist priests at Yongquan Monastery, Drum Mountain, Fuzhou, China. At the time of Thomson's visit about 200 monks lived there. He was intrigued by their robes which he thought resembled the monastic garb of medieval Europe.
0
Have your say

The work of a pioneering Scottish photographer who is celebrated in the Far East has been “forgotten” in his home city, it has been claimed.

John Thomson, who took some of the earliest photographs of China on record, is the subject of two exhibitions in London this summer.

Thomson with two Manchu soldiers, Xiamen, Fujian.  Amoy, or Xiamen, was the southern frontier of the Qing empire.

Thomson with two Manchu soldiers, Xiamen, Fujian. Amoy, or Xiamen, was the southern frontier of the Qing empire.

But efforts to arrange a similar retrospective in Edinburgh have so far fallen short.

Thomson set sail from Leith in 1862 with a camera and a portable dark room determined to capture the ancient civilisations of China, Thailand - then known as Siam - and Cambodia.

He spent more than a decade in the Far East, capturing thousands of intimate portraits of people from all walks of life - including royalty and street beggars.

With photographic technology in its infancy, Thomson was adept at using the so-called “wet plate” process, meaning all exposures were made on a glass negative that had to be developed immediately.

A travelling chiropodist in Beijing, 1871 or 1872. Until the advent of modern medicine, many people in China sought help from untrained doctors and herbal remedies for their ailments.

A travelling chiropodist in Beijing, 1871 or 1872. Until the advent of modern medicine, many people in China sought help from untrained doctors and herbal remedies for their ailments.

Prints made from 700 of his original glass plates have now gone on display at the Brunei Gallery in London as part of a new exhibition, China and Siam: Through the Lens of John Thomson.

Co-curator Betty Yao said Thomson could be considered one of the greatest photographers of the 19th century, whose work shed light on a part of the world little understood by British society at the time.

Yao, an expert in Asian culture, discovered Thomson’s glass negatives at the Wellcome Library in London and subsequently embarked upon a world-wide exhibition tour.

“No one had seen his work in China before and the tour was very successful,” she said. “It has now visited 20 cities around the world and been seen by close to one million people.

King Rama IV of Siam, later immortalised in the musical The King and I, wearing the uniform of a French field marshall. The portrait of the king was taken outside the Aphinao Niwet Throne Hall within the Grand Palace in Bangkok.

King Rama IV of Siam, later immortalised in the musical The King and I, wearing the uniform of a French field marshall. The portrait of the king was taken outside the Aphinao Niwet Throne Hall within the Grand Palace in Bangkok.

“But it has yet to visit Edinburgh. I’ve been trying for three years to arrange a suitable venue.”

Yao believes that Thomson has been forgotten in his home city, despite retaining close links with it until his death in 1921.

“He was a very interesting character in that he could communicate with the great and the good, but also had equal respect for those from poorer communities,” she added.

“That really emerges from his background in Scotland.”

Born in 1837, the son of a tobacco spinner and shopkeeper, he was apprenticed to an Edinburgh optical and scientific instrument manufacturer where he learned the basics of photography.

He departed the Scottish capital for Singapore in April 1862 and spent the next decade travelling widely across south-east Asia.

Among the historical sites he documented was the ancient Cambodian city of Angkor. Accompanied by a British consular official who acted as his interpreter, Thomson produced one of the first photographic records of what is now a Unesco World Heritage Site.

He settled in Brixton, London, in 1872 and undertook regular lecture tours as well as publishing several books.

Dr Michael Pritchard, chief executive of The Royal Photographic Society said: “John Thomson is a key figure in 19th century travel and documentary photography and this exhibition, which is long overdue, finally gives proper recognition to his career and stunning imagery.”

China and Siam: Through the Lens of John Thomson, is at the Brunei Gallery, London, until June 23