April 23, 2016 by Rob Cook
Editors Note: For this posting I have drawn heavily from Stephen White’s book, John Thomson, A Window to the Orient. I did this because White’s research on Thomson is the best. It is the most complete and detailed there is and in my opinion does justice to Thomson and his photography. If you want to learn more about John Thomson check out Stephen White’s books.
“The camera should be a power in this age of instruction for the instruction of the age.” ~ John Thomson in I875
I love John Thomson’s work. He is everything I wanted to be as a photographer but never managed to accomplish. In Stephen White’s book, John Thomson: A Window to the Orient, he describes Thomson and the power that allowed Thomson to produce an amazing body of work in a relatively short ten-year period, White says:
“Thomson’s great success as a photographer came in part from his artistic interests and his natural eye, but equally from his ability to enter a new environment and draw the most from it within a limited period of time. Many photographers contemporary with Thomson travelled
great distances to make important series of photographs. But Thomson to a greater extent, desired more than fine photographs from his travels. His interests ranged from art to botany, from chemistry to languages and social customs, history and geography. He had a curiosity, a quick wit, and a charm that allowed him to make new friends at a rapid pace. As he began to learn how to use his social talents he found himself capable of accomplishing great tasks in a brief period of time.”
John Thomson was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1837, the son of William Thomson, a tobacco spinner. He learned photography while working as an apprentice in a shop that made optical and scientific-instruments. During his apprenticeship, he became familiar with the technical principles of photography. During this time, Thomson also attended evening classes at the Watt Institution and School of Arts in Edinburgh where he learned design and composition.
In 1862, John Thomson decided to leave England to settle in the Far East. This experience set Thomson on a course that would change his life and greatly enhance the world’s understanding of Southeast Asia and China.
Thomson settled on the Malaysian island of Penang. In a rare excerpt, Thomson spoke of his early travels. He said, “During the ten months I spent in Penang and Province Wellesley, I was chiefly engaged in photography, a congenial, profitable, and instructive occupation, enabling me to gratify my taste for travel and to fill my portfolio.” In Penang, Thomson quickly discovered the most interesting subjects lay in the streets and countryside outside his studio. He began to visit the villages, recording the local people in a more natural environment. Travelling about, he carried with him a small stereoscopic camera, making two small (3 X 4 in) images at one time, as well as a variety of larger cameras, a practice he was to continue throughout his ten years photographing in the Far East.
Much of Thomson’s work from Penang hasn’t survived. He learned early on the difficulties associated with photographing in a humid, tropical climate. In Stephen White’s book he described some of the challenges Thomson faced:
“Thomson had to master the difficult techniques required to work effectively in the Far East, where photographic materials were always in short supply, and new photographic problems could be solved only by ingenuity. During the period of Thomson’s Far East travels the method of making photographs was the wet collodion process, or wet plate process, so called because of the need to make an exposure from the glass negative before the collodion with which it had been coated could dry. While the process offered many advantages over its predecessors, the daguerreotype and calotype, it was laborious and time-consuming. First the collodion syrup was applied evenly to a precut piece of glass, and the coated plate was dipped in a mixture of chemicals to attract the light, then the negative was placed in a holder to be inserted into the camera. The entire operation had to be performed in total darkness. Once the plate had been exposed it was removed, again in darkness, and developed. It could then be stored for future printing. This method offered the photographer the advantage of knowing instantly whether he had achieved the image he wanted, but forced him to set up his entire paraphernalia, including his darkroom tent, every time he wanted to expose even a single negative. It also required him to travel with large quantities of spare equipment, as the loss of the simplest element in the process could result in long delays while a replacement was sent for.”
After a year in Penang, Thomson moved on to Singapore and set up a studio to earn a living. In Singapore, Thomson hired two Chinese assistants, Akum and Ahong, which would accompany him on all of his travels throughout Asia.
In October I864, Thomson visited India. He was admitted to the Bengal Photographic Society and photographed the devastation caused by a cyclone, before returning to Singapore. By the beginning of the following year, Thomson was growing impatient with his studio work. Portraiture and the settled life proved dull beside the challenge of taking his camera into the remoter areas of the Orient. He resolved to visit Siam (Thailand).
On September 28, 1865, Thomson reached Bangkok and found a city more exotic than any he had ever seen. He said, “’When I use the term “floating city”, I mean to say that the dwellings of the people are for the most part afloat on rafts, and it is impossible at first sight to determine where land begins, and where it ends.”
Thomson’s first goal was to set a meeting with the King of Siam. King Mongkut had spent more than thirty years secluded in a monastery before ascending the throne. He was interested in Western education and had engaged an English governess for the Royal children. This lady, Anna Leonowens, later wrote a number of books about her experiences in Siam. Her life formed the subject of both a biography and a successful musical, The King and I.
A Royal audience was granted; the King appeared robed in spotless white, and Thomson, beckoned by his Majesty, was told that he wished to have his portrait taken as he knelt in an attitude of prayer. The scene was arranged, and Thomson was on the point of taking the photograph, when “his Majesty changed his mind, and without a word to anyone, passed suddenly out of sight. I thought this a strange proceeding,” wrote Thomson, “and fancied I must have given him some offence; but it was possibly one of his practical jokes. I appealed to the Prince; but his reply was simply that, ‘the King does everything which is right, and if I were to accost him now he might conclude his morning’s work by cutting off my head.'” At length, the King reappeared in a French Field Marshal’s uniform, and allowed himself to be photographed first in his uniform and then in his court robes.
Thomson remained in Siam (Thailand) for six months; He grew close to the King while photographing the city and the countryside, the royal ceremonies, and daily activities of the people. Thomson soon got the travel bug again and expressed his intention to go on to Cambodia, but there were obstacles to be overcome. One problem was to find a travelling companion. Europeans considered the trip deadly and Thomson was met with such warnings as, “You must en route pass the gold mines of Kabin; a fatal spot, some say it is fever, other assassins … Or, at all events go well armed, and never sleep both at the same time; and a third would say, Well after all I don’t know that they have the natives so much to fear as the tigers that infest the forest and jungle.“ After some effort, Thomson found a young employee of the British Embassy, H.G. Kennedy, to accompany him on his next trip to Cambodia.
As predicted, the travellers experienced many hardships on the journey. For much of the trip they traveled by boat. Thomson said this: “Every brush of our oars brought forth myriads of mosquitoes from the long grass growing within the banks. During the night our bloodthirsty assailants kept torturing us; they even swarmed in our mosquito nets, under which we vainly endeavored to sleep.”
The Muslim porter Thomson hired for the trip, Mohammed Ali, fell into the mud, and both Thomson and Kennedy became covered with leeches in rescuing him. The photographer’s superstitious assistants several times tried to turn back, terrified by the violent jungle storms. A buffalo cart overturned in the rugged terrain, costing them much of their food supply. Thomson came down with malaria. The party was forced to halt. For three days,
the fever raged and Kennedy stayed by his side, administering doses of quinine every four hours. When the fever broke, Thomson was too weak to move for another two weeks. Some days later the party encountered their first ruins, a shrine and two fragmentary idols. Mohammed Ali was sent on ahead to present the Governor with the passport letter from the King of Siam. Two elephants and five buffalo wagons were dispatched to meet the travellers and their baggage.
Many years later, while addressing a meeting of the Royal Geographical Society, Thomson spoke about his time in Cambodia. He talked about visiting the temple of Angkor Wat, and the city of Angkor Thorn, the capital of ancient Cambodia. Thomson said, “Many of the ruins are important, and are linked together by stone causeways raised well above the autumn flood levels, and were evidently intended and used by the ancients for extensive traffic from city to city.” Thomson and Kennedy spent two weeks exploring and photographing the temple and walled city. Thomson was prevented from taking many successful photographs by the local monkey population, “who persisted in shaking the branches of the trees every time they saw me emerge from my tent to expose the plate, and during the exposure … kept chuckling and dancing about the branches like black fiends.”
After two weeks exploring Angkor Wat, Thomson decided to move on to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. Cambodia at the time was newly independent from Siam and with an introduction letter from King Mongkut, the travelers were well received by the Cambodian King. While in Phnom Penh, Thomson photographed the king, his royal house and the people in the city. 
By this time, the two Europeans were exhausted by their travels; they hired a boat, and returned to Bangkok. The King of Siam was delighted to see the two explorers again. Thomson said, “He enquired kindly about our journey, said he was glad to know that we had got safely back, but could not forbear wondering why two Englishmen should undergo so long a journey, at the risk of being either devoured by wild animals, or carried off by jungle fever, only to see some stone buildings very much out of repair, and this more especially as he placed no restriction upon our looking at his own magnificent Wats in Bangkok.” Thomson gave the King a set of photographs of Cambodia, and these so greatly impressed the monarch that he offered gifts and a free passage back to Singapore in return.
After a year back in Singapore, in May 1866, Thomson made a selection of his work, left some of his belongings with his brother William, and set out for Scotland. He carried with him the first photographs ever made of the Cambodian ruins, as well as a selection of material from his other travels. He settled back in Edinburgh, where he submitted a paper on his Cambodian adventures to the Royal Geographical Society. Thomson was accepted as a fellow in the same year. He also joined the Royal Ethnographical Society, to whom he presented a paper on the people of Cambodia.
That same year, Thomson submitted his Cambodian photographs to The British Journal of Photography where they received high praise from the journal’s critic:
“A beautiful series of photographs was exhibited, illustrative of the paper. Apart from the consideration of the difficulty with which Mr. Thomson had to contend, viz. operating in a tropical climate far out of the range of modern civilization, and having to convey his instruments and chemicals so many hundred miles, sometimes on elephants, sometimes in carts, and at other times by unwilling natives, across rivers, prairies, and jungle swamps, and having to work the wet process at a temperature that made it to the operator the wettest of all processes, and in a country where at any moment he might have to contest the use of the focusing cloth with an ambitious rhinoceros or artistic tiger apart from all these considerations, the pictures he exhibited are entitled to take a high rank in virtue of their intrinsic merits, their softness and delicacy being such as could not be surpassed even in our own country, operating in the coolest temperature, and with the most perfect appliances of tent, chemicals, and the other comforts to which photographers take so kindly when out for a day’s pleasure with the camera.”
During the next few months Thomson found a publisher for his album of the Cambodian photographs. The book was illustrated with original photographic prints, not reproductions, and came out in a small edition. He also gave public lectures showing slides of the Cambodian and Siamese visits. It was at one of these he met the young woman who was to become his wife, Isobel Petrie.
Thomson soon had the urge to return to the Far East and set off in the autumn of 1867 for Vietnam. Thomson spent three months photographing in French-controlled Vietnam before moving on to Hong Kong in early 1868. In a series of articles published in 1868, Thomson described one of his many long walks in Vietnam. He said,
“Setting out, the walker passes coolies drawing morning supplies of pure water from a well, and the Chinese shops, already open, their inmates brushing their hair at the door. ‘A pack of the pariah dogs that infest Saigon have rushed howling across the road, and, through the cloud of suffocating dust they have raised, there is just visible the outline of a Cambodian cart, drawn by a pair of bullocks, and laden with produce from the interior.’ Bullock trains come into view, their wooden cart-wheels creaking hideously; gendarmes are seen conducting a small prisoner, apparently to execution, barefooted women make their way to market”
Thomson would often describe the people he met in vivid detail. In many ways, this is the power of his work. He could tell his stories in both words and pictures. Thomson describes a photo session with a family in Vietnam:
“Today they are in full dress to have their portraits taken. The father, who is rather imperfectly dressed, has taken shelter behind two children. He claims the distinction of a parent by wearing a conical hat made of leaves and worth about a third of a cent. On ordinary occasions the children are allowed to run about “au nature!”, until they reach the age of six or seven years.”
In Vietnam, Thomson encountered many Chinese. By the time he left Vietnam he was already formulating his next and arguably greatest work, depicting the Chinese in their natural environment. When Thomson arrived back in Hong Kong in 1868, it was a new beginning both in his life and his work. Behind him were six years of experience of photographing and studying various Far Eastern cultures. For the next four years, he would travel the far reaches of China to make one of the most important and complete photographic documents ever made of any people. His fascination with the culture of China, the immense size of the country, and the opportunity it offered him to chronicle unexplored regions, all intensified his desire to travel there. Balancing this objective, with the dangers and expense, was his need to establish himself economically in order to ask Isobel Petrie to join him in the Far East and become his wife.
Back in Hong Kong, Thomson didn’t set up a studio immediately; instead he set about writing illustrated articles about his travels, publishing them in the China Magazine. During his first few months in Hong Kong, Thomson went about making contacts that would be important for the future. He then set up a studio in the Commercial Bank building on Queen’s Road. An advertisement in The Daily Press offers: “Views of Hong Kong. J. Thomson, 40 views, 10 large (14 x 19), 26 small (8 x 10), and four of late Dragon Feast.”
With his studio up and running, Thomson sent for Isobel to join him in Hong Kong. He also brought his two Chinese assistants, Akum and Ahong, to join him from Singapore. And he made arrangements for his wedding. A notice in The Daily Press of 2nd November 1868 announces, “Married 19th, Rose Villa, John Thomson, Esq. to Isobel, daughter of Capt. P. Petrie.” Soon after the marriage, Isobel was expecting her first child. She found the Far East a difficult and frightening place to live.
Impatient to begin his travels in China, Thomson went with Isabel on a visit to Canton, less than a day’s travel by boat. His short stay produced an impressive body of work. Later in the year Thomson’s first child, William Petrie Thomson, was born, and a few months later, Isobel and the baby set out on the long voyage home. In her journal, Isobel wrote about her experience in the Far East. “The fact of my being so much stronger now makes the separation more bearable, and I have a kind of feeling, if l had stayed in Hong Kong, either my own or my baby’s life would have been sacrificed.”
Free to travel now, Thomson set out to explore the North Branch of the Pearl River, some forty miles above Canton. The party included three porters to transport the photographic equipment and the assistants Akum and Ahong.
This trip was one of Thomson’s least prolific as he faced challenges with poor air quality causing unclear pictures. After returning to Hong Kong Thomson decided to spend a year traveling the most remote areas of China.
In just over twelve months, Thomson travelled all over China, from the southern trading ports of Hong Kong and Canton to the city of Peking and the Great Wall in the north, and from the island of Formosa (Taiwan) to the interior of China, 3,000 miles up the Yangzi River. His subject matter ranged equally wide: from beggars and street people to the Mandarins and Princes, from Imperial Palaces to remote monasteries, and from rural villages to the grandeur of the Gorges, his vision encompassed more of the culture and people of China than had ever been available to western audiences. Often travelling with only his two assistants and dog, Spot, as a companion, he visited remote parts of China, which had never before seen a camera, often placing himself in dangerous situations. He had to cope with a wide variety of conditions in which to photograph, and often had to improvise when chemicals became impossible to find. His challenges were not only technical; he had to overcome fear and mistrust of the people he photographed.  Thomson was now at the height of his travels. By the time Thomson left China, the pressure to return home to his wife and two children, the second of whom he had not yet seen, was so great that he was unable to continue his travels.
It was during his trip up the River Min and to Foochow that Thomson had his greatest success in China. The success of these photographs exceeded even his personal expectations. It was in these images that Thomson’s true personality came out. In Stephen White’s book he said:
“Thomson’s personality was marked by an unusual degree of sensitivity to the lives and misfortunes of others. He had an ability to judge situations individually, without recourse to the racial stereotypes normally adopted by Englishmen living abroad at that time. While many of his photographs, including the earliest ones in Penang and Singapore, had depicted the lives of peasants as well as the wealthy and prominent, it was in Foochow that Thomson made his first deliberate series of photographs portraying the different social elements that made up the town. Many of his photographs depict criminals, ‘detectives’, lepers, beggars and beggar chiefs.”
After China, Thomson returned to Hong Kong for the last time, sorted out his negatives, taking only those he felt would be most useful in his future writing, probably less than twelve hundred. The rest remained in Hong Kong. He said goodbye to his two assistants, who had so faithfully served him for almost ten years. Then in the summer of 1872, facing an uncertain future, Thomson boarded a ship for England, never to return to the Far East.
After returning home, Thomson’s life changed dramatically. The nomadic existence of the past two years was replaced by the sedentary responsibilities of a man with a growing family, little money, and a desire to bring out a series of books recording his recent experiences. Stephen White describes this period of time in Thomson’s life:
“His first project, after settling with his family in the Brixton area of London, was to publish the Foochow book, which had been sold by subscription. In order to make the photographs permanent he chose the Autotype Company of London to do the printing. Each plate was numbered by hand to correspond with the letterpress titles. The book was to be Thomson’s most impressive, as well as his most rare work. It was published in an extremely small edition, the exact number being unknown. Before Foochow and the River Min was completed Thomson had already begun the process of compiling his great visual encyclopedia of China and its people. The book was a complex project, requiring difficult decisions about which photographs should be included to create a balanced account of the architecture, people and topography of China. Thomson also wrote the text for the book, a series of sometimes elaborate essays linked to particular photographs.”
The books were published in a four-volume set, under the title, Illustrations of China and Its People. Two hundred and eighteen photographs were reproduced by means of the collotype, or Albertype, process. The exact number of copies printed is unknown. It was difficult to print large editions of photographically illustrated books, consequently editions were often of one thousand copies or less. The Pall Mall Gazette gave a lengthy review to the four volumes:
“One fault only we have to find with the book as a whole the illustration is somewhat in excess of the literary material. In the case of a country like China there is very much about which we seek information, and although this information may possibly be gained from various sources, it would have been more convenient if Mr. Thomson had enlarged the scope of his literary labors and given us a fuller account of the subjects of his illustrations. But whatever may be the judgment on its method, Mr. Thomson’s book is in substance a most valuable assistance to the understanding of its subject. No picture of Chinese manners at once so full and so vivid has yet been attempted; for, admitting the many artistic faults of photography, there is assuredly no other process by which we are set in such intimate relation with facts remote from us in point either of place or time.”
1875 was a big year for Thomson. Early on he gave three lectures on “The Traveler in China.” A reviewer commented that: “Thomson’s photographs are real works of art, and they won universal admiration.” Later in the same year, Thomson attended the International Geographical Congress in Paris. Thomson received a second-class medal for his work, which was greater recognition than he had ever received in his own country.
Almost four years passed before Thomson took on another photographic project. The Street Life in London, a monthly magazine began to appear in 1877. With writer, Adolphe Smith, Thomson set out to document the underbelly of London life. The result was one of the great classics of Victorian photographic books, and the best known of all Thomson’s works. Thomson sympathetically exposed the daily life happening in the streets of London. His subjects were the city’s poorest citizens, the beggars, and the policeman on the beat. Street Life in London first appeared in twelve monthly episodes. Each installment had three stories and a photograph to accompany each story. Smith wrote most of the text although Thomson’s hand is felt throughout the work.
In the joint preface to Street Life, Thomson and Smith wrote:
“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.”
Empathy for the subjects was clearly shown by Thomson and Smith as this excerpt from one of the stories shows:
“In the photograph before us we have the calm, undisturbed face of the skilled artisan who has spent a life of tranquil, useful labour, and can enjoy his pipe in peace, while under him sits a woman whose painful expression seems to indicate a troubled existence, and a past which even drink cannot obliterate. By her side, a brawny, healthy “woman of the people” is not to be disturbed from her enjoyment of a “drop of beer” by domestic cares and early acclimatizes her infant to the fumes of tobacco and alcohol. But in the foreground the camera has chronicled the most touching episode. A little girl, not too young, however, to ignore the fatal consequences of drink, has penetrated boldly into the group, as if about to reclaim some relation in danger, and drag him away from evil companionship. There is no sight to be seen in the streets of London more pathetic than this oft-repeated story – the child leading home the drunken parent.”
The story ends by saying; “those who resort to the humblest ways of making money in the street are not always unworthy of respect and sympathy”. (See Photo Below)
Through his China work, Thomson had become so adept at posing people in a natural way that the London scenes appeared entirely spontaneous. The work was described in a newspaper review as providing “a large amount of important information, worthy of study by those residing in densely populated districts.” The twelve sections were collected as a book in 1878, and the volume sold sufficient well for an abridged version, entitled Street Incidents, that was published the following year. Thomson’s Street Life images are currently archived in the collection of the Bishopsgate Institute in London.
By 1878, Thomson’s family had grown. He had three daughters and two sons. The family had moved four times in seven years. Thomson had no stable means of income and economic pressures were constant. He occasionally sold some of his photographs of the East, but more important were the articles he submitted to various journals and his translations. He continued to write his own books of which a number were published.
In 1878, Thomson embarked on his last photo trip. The island of Cyprus had always held a fascination for Thomson, but it was a difficult and unpleasant time. The weather was terrible which resulted in many of the photographs being subpar. After Cyprus, Thomson returned to England but his photography life was far from over. Thompson returned to
London and opened a studio to provide a steady income and try to earn a place in London society. Thompson’s photographs were the perfect entry into the elite. His first step was to get himself elected to the Royal Photographic Society, and he became a member in 1879. That year he showed a considerable number of photographs in the annual exhibition of the Photographic Society. Among the prints exhibited were portraits of royalty, including Queen Victoria herself. Thomson received a Royal Warrant that year which entitled him to print the words “By Special Appointment to H.M. Queen” on his photographic mounts. 
In Stephen White’s book, he describes what Thompson’s studio would have been like.
“A Victorian portrait studio such as Thomson’s was lit solely by daylight, and was glass-roofed and glass-walled. ‘Moveable blinds and curtains enabled the operator to adjust both the quantity and distribution of light to accommodate different sitters at different times of the day. There was a range of backdrops on rollers, various properties ranging from imitation masonry to toys for children, and posing chairs. Headrests were generally employed to support the sitter’s head during the long exposure. They might be free standing, concealed, often imperfectly, behind the sitter, or be part of the posing chair. To make the customer feel relaxed, the studio often contained much of the paraphernalia of the Victorian drawing room -potted plants, paintings, furniture and so on.”
Thomson’s portraits were of the highest quality, and soon he opened a new studio on Grosvenor Street in the fashionable Mayfair district. He continued to work at this address until his retirement, around 1910. Shortly after moving to Mayfair Thomson was commissioned to photograph the art-treasures, and houses of the English branch of the Rothschild family.
Thomson’s interest in exploration remained strong, and was expressed in his involvement with the Royal Geographical Society. Thomson was offered a part-time position as photographic instructor for the Society. His fee for teaching, “including use of instruments, chemicals, and all other materials required was ten shillings, or five shillings for one hour’s lessons, excluding chemicals.”
From time to time, Thomson received recognition for his pioneering work in the Far East. In 1906 he received a Queen’s gold medal. In I908 the French gave him a medal for the Cambodian photographs.
John and Isobel Thomson spent much of their old age in Edinburgh. Thomson loved to entertain his young grandchildren with stories of his travels. He became increasingly deaf as he got older, but remained active and involved until the end. Thomson spent much of his last years searching for an archive for his beloved negatives. He contacted Henry Wellcome, an American who had gained great success in England with a pharmaceutical firm. Wellcome expressed an interest, and the last two years of Thomson’s life were spent trying to arrive at a price for the collection. After Thomson’s death in 1921, his son agreed on a price, and the negatives were in Wellcome’s library (later at the Wellcome Institute, London) to stay.
Thomson was returning from a meeting at the Royal Geographical Society the night he suffered a fatal heart attack near his home. He was eighty-four years old. The British Journal of Photography announced his death on 7 October 1921. Much of the information in the obituary was wrong.
I’ll give the last word on Thomson’s amazing life to Stephen White:
“Thomson accomplished something new in photography. He set out to record a people, what these people were, how they lived, and why they mattered. Everywhere, as Thomson photographed, he attempted to capture the individuality of each of his subjects, whatever their race or social class. His work with peasants in Vietnam or Siam is just as meticulous as his work with kings or princes. In Street Life in London as with the beggars in Foochow, he clothed each individual in dignity.”
**All rights to the these photographs are owned by the Wellcome Library in London**
 Stephen White. John Thomson, A Window for the Orient: University of New Mexico Press, Publisher, 1985.
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 The Gentle Author, John Thomson’s Street Life in London [Online] Available
 Hookey Alf of Whitechapel [Online] Available <http://spitalfieldslife.com/2010/03/04/hookey-alf-of-whitechapel/
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