Artwork of the Week – John Thomson

© The Wellcome Library, London


Liverpool artwork of the week 2010-22. ‘A Manchu lady after having her face painted’ Beijing 1871 – 1872, photograph by John Thomson at Merseyside Maritime Museum 5 February to 6 June 2010.

It’s a shame this exhibition closes at the end of this week, it is a fascinating collection which not only gives us a taste of what China was like 140 years ago but also how different the photographic process was and what an amazing chap John Thomson must have been to undertake this project. If you are at all interested in photography do try and see this before it finishes.

After the hair had been dressed, the face was painted. In Qing China, Manchu and Chinese women, in particular those from wealthy families, tended to cover both their face and neck with a thick white paste. When the paste was dry, it was smoothed and polished. Afterwards a blush of rose powder was applied to the cheeks and eyelids. The surplus rouge was left on the lady’s palms, as rose-pink on the hand was greatly esteemed.

China: Through the Lens of John Thomson 1868 – 1872. 5 February – 6 June 2010
The vanished world of Imperial China is vividly captured on glass plates by an intrepid Scottish photographer John Thomson who travelled throughout the country meeting people from all walks of life. The exhibition startlingly reveals the character of the vast empire mainly through its remarkable people.

Thomson bravely faced danger in order to get the images he wanted. Some people feared his camera would take vital essences from their bodies while others were reluctant to face each other in portraits.


Thomson amassed 650 glass plates before returning to Britain where he published many photographic and written works on China.

Although he was not the first European photographer to visit the country, Thomson was the first to travel extensively and produce works informing Western audiences about China the country.

The plates were purchased by the Wellcome Library in London after Thomson’s death. There are more than 140 images in the exhibition – most have never been displayed in Europe. The exhibition recently toured Beijing and other Chinese venues and will tour Europe after Liverpool.

China: Through the Lens of John Thompson 1868 – 1872 has been organised by Betty Yao MBE, Credential International Arts Management.