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Significant Scots
John Thomson

Inside a forgotten kingdom: Incredible unseen images of China, Cambodia and Thailand in the 19th century go on show for the first time. Scottish photographer, John Thomson, captured daily lives of people in the Far East back in the 19th century. He carried hundreds of glass plates and a portable dark room to produce valuable prints took in east Asia. Incredible images show the impressive Angkor Wat, King Mongkut and panoramic views of Chinese provinces.

These historic images of the Far East captured by Scottish photographer John Thomson will be exhibited in London for the first time this month.

The incredible negatives were taken during 1862 and 1872 when Thomson set off to Asia for the first time. Throughout his 10-year expedition, he recorded daily lives of east Asian people, as well as the royals and became the first photographer who documented Angkor Wat, the world's largest religious monument found.

The Scottish photographer and writer was able to capture the individuality and humanity of the diverse people of Asia, whether royalty or street vendor.

In 1862, Thomson travelled to Singapore where he opened his first photographic studio and became a professional photographer.

He used the method of wet collodion process, where an exposure was made onto a glass negative with highly flammable liquids. This had to be done in complete darkness, on location, in a portable darkroom tent.

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.

Fascinated by the Asian culture and its people, Thomson set off to Siam where he was able to photograph King Mongkut, Rama IV, and his royal family together with royal ceremonies in 1865. He also captured the panoramic views of the Chao Phraya River, temples and monks.

The 180-year-old pictures added unique values to the history when the 29-year-old Thomson travelled to Cambodia and became the first photographer to visit Angkor Wat, what is now, one of the most important sites of ancient architecture in the world.

In 1867, Thomson settled in Hong Kong and documented another set of images capturing local Cantonese people.

From then on, he started an expedition in different provinces of China, including Macau, Chaozhou, Shanghai as well as the imperial capital, Beijing.

In China, Thomson captured a wide variety of subjects from landscapes to people, architecture, domestic and street scenes.

Dr Michael Pritchard, Chief Executive of The Royal Photographic Society and photo-historian commented: 'John Thomson is a key figure in nineteenth-century travel and documentary photography and this exhibition, which is long overdue, finally gives proper recognition to his career and stunning imagery'

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.

Photographs from these journeys form one of the most extensive records of any region taken in the nineteenth century. The range, depth and aesthetic quality of John Thomson’s vision mark him out as one of the most important travel photographers.

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.

Thomson's archive will be shown from 13 April to 23 June this year at the Brunei Gallery at SOAS, University of London.

See some of his photographs at:

See also:

Through China with a Camera
By John Thomson (1899) (pdf)

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