• John Thomson's Journeys

    United Kingdom

    Thomson, born 14 June 1837, was a pioneering Scottish photographer, geographer and traveller. He was one of the first photographers to travel to the Far East, documenting the people, landscapes and artifacts of eastern cultures. Upon returning home, his work among the street people of London cemented his reputation, and is regarded as a classic instance of social documentary which laid the foundations for photojournalism. He went on to become a portrait photographer of High Society in Mayfair, gaining the Royal Warrant in 1881.

    Son of William Thomson, a tobacco spinner and retail trader, and his wife Isabella, Thomson was born the eighth of nine children in Edinburgh. After his schooling in the early 1850s, he 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 1861 he became a member of the Royal Scottish Society of Arts.

    Source: Wikipedia

  • A self portrait of John Thomson, accompanied by two Manchu soldiers. Possibly he was trying to show that the city had fallen into the hands of outsiders: the Manchu and the Europeans.

    Photo and caption courtesy of Wellcome Trust

  • In 1877, John Thomson and radical journalist Adolphe Smith published “Street Life in London” in twelve monthly parts.

    “We have sought to portray these harder phases of life, bringing to bear the precision of photography in illustration of our subjects. The unquestionable accuracy of this testimony will enable us to present true types of the London poor and shield us from the accusation of either underrating or exaggerating individual peculiarities of appearance.”

    Photo courtesy of Bishopsgate Institute, text taken from Spitalfields Life.

  • Vendors of pills, potions and quack nostrums are not quite so numerous as they were in former days. The increasing number of free hospitals where the poor may consult qualified physicians have tended to sweep this class of street-folks from the thoroughfares of London.

    Photo courtesy of Bishopsgate Institute, text taken from Spitalfields Life.

  • William Hampton of the London Nomades - “Why what do I want with education? Any chaps of my acquaintance that knows how to write and count proper ain’t much to be trusted into the bargain.”

    Photo courtesy of Bishopsgate Institute, text taken from Spitalfields Life.

  • Itinerant Photographer on Clapham Common - “Many have been tradesmen or owned studios in town but after misfortunes in business or reckless dissipations are reduced to their present more humble avocation.”

    Photo courtesy of Bishopsgate Institute, text taken from Spitalfields Life.

  • Thomson organized his photographs and authored the lengthy captions for Illustrations of China and Its People after his return to Britain in 1872. The first two volumes were published in 1873; volumes three and four followed in 1874. The albums received much critical acclaim, as the following excerpt from a review in the November 11, 1874 edition of the Pall Mall Gazette indicates:

    No picture of Chinese manners at once so full and so vivid has yet been attempted.... There is scarcely any side of Chinese life, either public or domestic, of which he has not secured some record.

    Photo courtesy of MIT Visualizing Cultures

Cyprus

  • A group of Greek Orthodox monks standing on an open loggia, with round-arched supports to the roof and a wooden balustrade. The loggia opens to the left of the photograph. Some of the monks look out to the countryside

    Photo and caption courtesy of Wellcome Trust

  • Four people standing in a sunny street with a packhorse.

    Photo and caption courtesy of Wellcome Trust

  • A cemetery, tombs under trees in bright sunlight.

    Photo and caption courtesy of Wellcome Trust

China

  • This photograph shows how the photographer John Thomson often had to conform to the established rules of Chinese portraiture. The sitter is posed in the centre, facing the camera, with a child on one side and a tea-table on the other. The face of the old man and the boy remain expressionless: in the Chinese tradition, the photo is a record of the person rather than that of the personality. This rigid style was quite contrary to Thomson's own tradition of portraiture, in which the subject often appears more human and vivid, and the backdrop more interesting.

    Photo and caption courtesy of Wellcome Trust

  • Bonham Strand, Hong Kong. Chinese decorations with mechanical figures, at the time of the visit of H.R.H. the Duke of Edinburgh.

    Photo and caption courtesy of Wellcome Trust

  • A woman with a swept-back, raised, hair-style and white (bone?) earrings. Another style of female coiffure in a different clan in Shantou from that shown in Wellcome Library no. 19886i. In Chaozhou and Shantou, while the main population group are the Teochew, there are also other ethnic groups, such as the Hakka, Punti and others. Each group has its own dialect and distinct culture and customs. Even among the Teochew there are many clans. Among each clan there are also marked cultural, linguistic and culinary differences. Throughout the 19th century, clan disputes were a regular recurrence in the region.

    Photo and caption courtesy of Wellcome Trust

  • A young man and woman, seated. She is holding a fan and looking at him. Although this couple are sitting closely together, the husband looks away into the middle distance. In traditional China it was improper for a couple to face one other. It seems that the scene was set up by Thomson, but the couple look rather hesitant.

    Photo and caption courtesy of Wellcome Trust

  • A great hanging rock at Baksa, Formosa, with two deadly snakes common to the place.

    Photo and caption courtesy of Wellcome Trust

  • A woman holding panniers suspended from a yoke on her shoulders, standing outside by the wall of a house. This photograph was taken near to a tea plantation on terraced hills just outside of Fuzhou. Terraced fields were common in the Fujian countryside. To fertilize them the native women had to transport human manure from the city of Fuzhou. They did not bind their feet, and they carried the same burdens as the men did.

    Photo and caption courtesy of Wellcome Trust

  • The building is Ningbo Tianhou Temple or Qingan Guildhall, Ningbo, Zhejiang. Ningbo Tianhou temple was a late Qing reconstruction of the Song period Tianhou temple. The reconstruction took place in 1850 with donations from overseas Chinese shipping merchants; thus parts of the complex also functioned as a guildhall for those merchants. After the reconstruction it was renamed Qingan Guildhall, meaning to celebrate the goddess for pacifying the raging sea. This reconstructed temple is the most magnificent building in Ningbo, and according to Thomson it was the finest example of temple architecture in China.

    Photo and caption courtesy of Wellcome Trust

  • An open roadway with colonial buildings to the left: Siemssen & Co., the Comptoir d'Escompte de Paris and the Masonic Hall. In the foreground, the memorial to the 'Ever-Victorious Army' which suppressed the Taiping rebellion in 1860-1864. The memorial was carved in Hong Kong and erected in 1866.

    Photo and caption courtesy of Wellcome Trust

  • A plump, smiling butcher working at his stall, with various carcasses behind him. Throughout the Qing, Beijing’s butcher shops were run by the Chinese and Muslims. Muslim butchers, in particular, were known for their good-quality meat and carving skills. The man in this photograph had a shop in the Qianmen area. According to Thomson, he had a happy, smiling face, and stood behind a small wooden counter 'encircled by carcasses of sheep, ghastly heads, and entrails'.

    Photo and caption courtesy of Wellcome Trust