Thursday, December 18, 2008

John Thomson, Photographer (1837-1921) (Part One)

copyright 2008 R. A. Suomala





King Mongut of Siam






The August 2008 issue of the magazine Architectural Digest contained an article entitled "China, Cultural Reflections". The article featured some of the work of 19th century photographer John Thomson. His remarkable images from 1868-1872 showed a China previously unknown to most of the rest of the world.

I only read the Architectural Digest intermittently but my wife, Sally, reads it more often. Most of the articles are very interesting albeit picturing things that are usually way beyond desires or prudent economic inclinations. Sally called my attention to the article mentioned above. However reading the somewhat abbreviated facts regarding Thomson's life left me wanting to know more. Here is a somewhat condensed version of what I learned about Thomson's life and photographs. And here is the rest of it. John Thomson was born in Edinburgh in 1837, the son of a tobacconist. This also being the year of Queen Victoria's accession to the throne and the golden age of the British Empire, Thomson was in every sense a true Victorian.

In the early 1850's Thomson was apprenticed to a local optical and scientific instrument manufacturer where he learned the principles of photography. Thomson completed his apprenticeship in the 1858 having concurrently attended classes at the Watt Institution and School of Arts where he received the "Attestation of Proficiency" in Natural Philosophy in 1857 and Mathematics and Chemistry in 1858.

In April 1862, Thomson left Edinburgh for Singapore. Initially, he established a joint business with his older brother, William, to manufacture optical and nautical instruments.

In 1863 Thomson established a studio and photographed many of the merchants that lived in and traveled to Singapore. These included according to Thompson “descendants of early Portuguese voyagers, Chinese, Malays, Parsees, Arabs, Armenians, Klings, Bengalees and Negroes from Africa". Thomson soon discovered that more interesting subjects lay outside the studio in the streets and countryside. To this end he equipped himself with a small stereoscopic cameras and a variety of large plate cameras (some contact prints were as large as 14X19 and were probably not full frame) and traveled from 1865 to 1868 to Siam, Cambodia and Vietnam.


The King of Siam was photographed by Thomson. This of course was the same King who engaged the English governess Anna Leonowens the inspiration for the musical play The King and I.


Thomson remained in Siam for 6 months photographing every aspect of the country and people before moving on to Cambodia.

Traveling in Cambodia by boat was not all that pleasant according to Thomson who noted that " Every brush of our oars brought forth myriads of mosquitoes------blood thirsty assailants kept torturing us-----they even swarmed in our mosquito nets, under which we vainly endeavored to sleep". When one of the buffalo carts overturned ruining much of the food supply Thomson, also suffering from a raging fever came across a shrine and two fragmentary "idols" which was his first glimpse of what we now know as Angkor Wat. At the request of the King of Siam, Thomson made a photographic record of ruins including the ruined ancient city that surrounded the temple.

In 1866 Thomson returned to Edinburgh hoping to establish a reputation for himself at the Royal Geographic Society that would hopefully result in some recognition and perhaps even some income. His work was highly praised by a critic in The British Journal of Photography. He found a publisher for an album of the Cambodian photographs. This came out as a very small edition as it was illustrated with actual photographic prints and not printed reproductions.

Returning to the Far East in 1867 Thomson spent three months in Vietnam before moving to Hong Kong. Thomson had met his future wife, Isobel Petrie, in Edinburgh in 1866 and they were married in Hong Kong in 1867. For the next four years Thomson traveled up and down the coast of China venturing inland on some of the many rivers that flow down to the sea.

Bear in mind that all of Thomson's photographs were taken using wet plates. Glass plates and chemicals had to be shipped in by sea from distant sources. His equipment had to be able to stand up to a very humid, tropical environment. In an 1866 article for The British Journal of Photography Thomson wrote " Glass plates have been a fertile source of annoyance to me while in the East ---- When I opened the box I found every glass----useless." and " --a Coolie of artistic taste and oily fingers had ------lifted out each negative-----left two indelible thumb prints (sic) on each--".

By 1870 Thomson had traveled North to Foochow, the river Min and Formosa.


While in Foochow Thomson photographed all levels of the social scale. This included criminals, lepers and beggars. His sensitivity to the lives and misfortunes of others was to become a strong influence on his later work when he moved to London. Part 2 of this article will treat this in more detail.


References:
1. China The Land And Its People,
Early Photographs By John Thomson
(First published in 1873)
ISBN 962 7015 02 4

Notes:
1. This picture was included in a book entitled Foochow and the River Min published by Thomson in 1873. A recent auction by Sothebys in NY saw an original copy of the book going for $180,000.

2 comments:

Julie said...

The article featured some of the work of 19th century photographer John Thomson. .......


___________________
Julie
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Diane said...

I am doing research on Capt James Madison Hood, who arrived in Bangkok in September 1865 as the new American Consul. Did Thomson by any chance photograph him or could he be in a group photo? Does anyone have info about him?
Thanks!