Maritime Museum – China: Through the Lens of John Thomson 1868 – 1872

thomson_manchu_bride-100China: 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.

The photographer won their confidence and portrayed everyone from humble flower sellers and knife-grinders to beautiful brides and powerful Mandarin bureaucrats. They pose before backdrops of palaces, monasteries, pagodas, streets and back yards.
Street gamblers entice wary passers-by, four men carry a passenger in a sedan chair, a dealer hawks his curiosities on a doorstep and a woman carries two buckets on a yoke.
An opulently-dressed bride smiles shyly, a lady is seen after having her face painted, a government minister contentedly smokes his pipe and a smartly-dressed schoolboy carries his book and slate.

Thomson brilliantly catches the humanity of his sitters who wear traditional working clothes or finery at a key period when China was increasing its links with the West. He provides a wonderful historical record of costumes and hairstyles. 

The exhibition also features historic models of traditional Chinese junks and other vessels from the museum’s collections.  A selection of the museum’s pictures of ships by Chinese artists, known as China Trade paintings, is also included.

Rachel Mulhearn, director of Merseyside Maritime Museum, says: “Thomson was one of those talented Victorian travellers who helped increase understanding of distant countries through photography. This exhibition takes us to the heart of Chinese culture and its people.”

Landscapes include stone animals, a large Junk sailing ship on the South China Sea, the Great Sacrifice Hall containing Ming tombs and a chapel destroyed by rioters. 

Thomson (1837 – 1921) was born in Edinburgh two years before the invention of the daguerreotype which marked the beginning of photography. In the years leading up to him becoming a professional photographer, the technology developed at incredible speed.
In 1862 he established a portrait studio in Singapore before moving to the British colony of Hong Kong in 1868. In 1870 he began his travels in mainland China which lasted for two years and produced most of the photos in the exhibition.

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.

Venue details

A Manchu bride, Beijing 1871-2. Copyright The Wellcome Library