The Scottish photojournalist John Thomson was one of the first Western photographers to travel to the Far East. In 1862, Thomson left Edinburgh for Singapore, where he and his brother William manufactured optical and nautical instruments. While there, he also opened a photography studio, shooting portraits of the European visitors and native residents.
After a year back in Edinburgh, Thomson returned in 1868, this time settling in Hong Kong. Over the next four years, he traveled throughout the country, photographing the people of China and recording Chinese culture.
In 1869, His Royal Highness Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, sailed to the Far East in HMS Galatea (seen above). The Anglican Colonial Chaplain, William Beach, hired Thomson to provide photographs of the visit for a commemorative book, with the profits promised to the Building Fund for the new choir in St. John’s Cathedral, Hong Kong.
Thomson wrote: “He was the first English Prince who had roamed so far and wide … and who, according to the Chinese notion, had braved the dangers of the deep in order that he might, for once, feast his vision on the glories of the ‘Great Middle Kingdom.’”
“… I well remember his landing. Ships of all nations vied in the splendour of their decorations; long lines of merchant boats guarded the approach to the wharf; and on a thousand native craft … swarming over the decks or clinging to the rigging of their vessels… . Nor can I forget the regret expressed by some at finding he was only a man and a sailor after all… . A different being, this, surely, from the offspring of their own great Emperor, who is brother of the Sun, and full cousin to the Moon, and on whose radiant countenance no common mortal may look and live.”— John Thomson, The Straits of Malacca, Indo-China and China (London: S. Low, Marston, Low, & Searle, 1875). Graphic Arts (GAX) 2006-2337N
Back in Scotland, Thomson’s images of China found wide distribution and earned him the nickname of ‘China’ Thomson. Near the end of his life, Thomson made plans to sell his 650 glass negatives to the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum but died before the sale could be completed. Eventually Henry Solomon Wellcome (1853-1936), the American-born pharmacist and philanthropist, bought the negatives from Thomson’s heirs.
John Thomson (1837-1921), Illustrations of China and Its People: a Series of Two Hundred Photographs (1873). Rare Books (Ex) DS709 .T475f
John Thomson (1837-1921), Spain (1876). Rare Books (Ex) 1521.286q
John Thomson (1837-1921), History and Handbook of Photography (1877). Firestone Library (F) TR149 .T513 1877
John Thomson (1837-1921), Street Incidents: a Series of Twenty-One Permanent Photographs (1881). Marquand Library (SAX) DA683 .T463 1881
John Thomson (1837-1921), Through China with a Camera (1898). Graphic Arts Collection (GAX) 2006-2368N