Thomson with two Manchu Soldiers, Xiamen, Fujian in 1871. Thomson rarely appeared in his own photographs, he is seen here in Amoy (Xiamen) which was then on the southern frontier of the Qing empire. By juxtaposing himself with the Manchu soldiers, he was possibly trying to show that the city had fallen into the hands of outsiders: The Manchu and the Europeans. In 1842, the Qing government were forced to grant the British the right to trade freely in Amoy, but continued to station its own army there. All images courtesy Wellcome Library, London

The first London exhibition devoted to the Scottish photographer John Thomson (1837-1921) and his photography in Asia is currently on view from 13 April to 23 June at the Brunei Gallery at SOAS. Thomson’s photography of China, Siam (Thailand) and Cambodia was widely praised by his peers and continues to enthuse new audiences today. These 150-year-old images were discovered at the Wellcome Library, London.

John Thomson was a Scottish photographer and writer who set off for Asia in 1862. Over the next 10 years he undertook numerous journeys photographing countries including Siam, Cambodia and various provinces of China.  Photographs from these journeys form one of the most extensive records of any region taken in the 19th century.  The range, depth and aesthetic quality of John Thomson’s vision mark him out as one of the most important travel photographers.

John Thomson’s Journey East

Thomson travelled east as a professional photographer only two decades after the invention of photography. Working with the wet collodion process he travelled with cumbersome crates, glass negatives, a portable dark room, as well as highly flammable and poisonous chemicals.  It took sheer perseverance and energy, through difficult terrain, to document regions where previously unseen by Westerners. It is particularly remarkable that Thomson was able to make photographs of such beauty and sensitivity.

In Siam

In Siam, Thomson was able to photograph King Mongkut Rama IV, his royal family and entourage, together with royal ceremonies such as the tonsurate ceremony and the presentation of the Lenten robes. Thomson’s panoramic views of the Chao Phraya River, temples and monks, dancers and musicians, are a unique historical treasure.  In Cambodia, Thomson was the first photographer to visit Angkor Wat to record, what is now, one of the most important sites of ancient architecture in the world.

In China

Between 1868 and 1872, Thomson made extensive trips to Beijing, Fujian and Guangdong travelling down both the Yangtse and the Min Rivers.  In China, Thomson captured a wide variety of subjects from landscapes to people, architecture, domestic and street scenes.  As a foreigner, Thomson’s ability to gain access to photograph women was particularly remarkable. Whether photographing the rich and famous or people in the streets going about their business, Thomson’s desire was to present a faithful account of the people of Asia.  This body of work established him as a pioneer of photojournalism and one of the most influential photographers of his time.

His collection of 700 glass plates travelled back with Thomson to Britain in 1872 and since 1921 has been housed and expertly preserved at the Wellcome Library, London.  These 150-year-old glass negatives are in excellent condition allowing this exhibition to showcase very large, in some cases life-size, prints.   The photographs are exhibited alongside a selection of Chinese Qing-dynasty robes, textiles and a selection of Siamese court objects.

China and Siam early photography, 13 April to 23 June at Brunei Gallery, SOAS, University of London, More on