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Through the Lens of John Thomson: Hong Kong and Coastal China 1868-1872

23 Nov 2013 - 16 Feb 2014

This is the first exhibition devoted to the images of China taken by the Scottish photographer John Thomson (1837 – 1921).  Born in Edinburgh two years before the invention of the daguerreotype and the birth of photography, Thomson first travelled to Asia in 1862, where he set up a professional photographic studio. Fascinated by local cultures, Thomson returned in 1868 and settled in Hong Kong. Over the next four years he made extensive trips to Guangdong, Fujian, Beijing, China’s north-east and down the great river Yangzi. This exhibition is drawn from his time in these regions.

These were the early days of photography, when negatives were made on glass plates that had to be coated with emulsion before exposure.  A cumbersome mass of equipment was required, but with perseverance and energy, Thomson captured a wide variety of images: landscapes, people, architecture, and domestic and street scenes. As a foreigner, his ability to gain access to photograph women was particularly remarkable.

Thomson’s excellent work in China established him as a serious pioneer of photojournalism and one of the most influential photographers of his generation.

After returning to Britain, Thomson took up an active role informing the public about China through illustrated lectures and publications. In 1920, he wrote to Henry Wellcome – pharmacist, philanthropist and collector – offering to sell his glass negatives. Thomson died before the transaction could be completed, and Wellcome bought the negatives from Thomson’s heirs in 1921. All images in the exhibition are from the Wellcome Library’s collection in London.

This exhibition seeks to show the great diversity of the photographs that Thomson took in China. What marked his work as special (portraits of the rich and famous aside) was the desire to present a faithful account of China and its people. Thomson wanted to show his audience the human aspects of life in China through his extensive record of everyday street scenes – rarely captured by other photographers of that era.