China through the lens of John Thomson

Manchu Bride © The Welcome Library, London

Caption: Manchu Bride © The Welcome Library, London

Culture | Posted: Friday, August 24th, 2018 at 2:32 pm | return to news

‘China through the lens of John Thomson’

The Russell-Cotes autumn exhibition, opening on 2 November, will feature photographs of China in the 1860s and 1870s taken by photographer, John Thomson (1837 – 1921).

Thomson spent four years photographing the regions of China and produced iconic photographs of people and places. Such is the range, depth and aesthetic quality of his work, that he is regarded as one of the most influential photographers of his generation.

Visitors will see iconic photographs of China reproduced on a large, sometimes life-size, scale accompanied by objects collected by Merton and Annie Russell-Cotes on their visit to China a decade later.

Edinburgh-born, John Thomson set off for Hong Kong in 1868 and over the next four years, undertook several major journeys to Beijing, Fujian and Guangdong travelling down both the Yangtse and the Min Rivers. He captured a wide variety of subjects, including landscapes, people, architecture and domestic and street scenes.

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 everyday business, Thomson’s desire was to present a faithful account of the people he encountered. This body of work established him as a pioneer of photojournalism.

Manchu Bride © The Welcome Library, London

Caption: Manchu Bride © The Welcome Library, London


Thomson’s collection of 700 glass plates travelled back to Britain in 1872 and since 1921, they have been housed by the Wellcome Library, London.

At the Russell-Cotes, the photographs will be shown alongside items from the Museum’s own collection.

Museum founders, Merton and Annie Russell-Cotes, who were contemporaries of Thomson, visited China in 1885. They too were interested in China and its culture and brought back souvenirs and decorative arts as well as collecting further items in Britain.

The collections now include ‘Lotus’ shoes for bound feet, mandarin sceptres, ceramics, hair ornaments, opium pipes and musical instruments. The exhibition offers an opportunity to see objects from the Russell-Cotes Chinese collections alongside photographs of them in use in their original context.

Exhibition curator, Betty Yao, said, ‘It is very exciting that John Thomson’s wonderful photographs will be seen in Bournemouth and in the context of the beautiful Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and their historic Chinese collection. It will offer an extraordinary insight into 19th century China and into the views, perceptions and interests of British travellers, such as Thomson and the Russell-Cotes, who were among the first tourists and travellers.’

‘China through the lens of John Thomson’ runs from 2 November until 2 June 2019. It will be accompanied by a range of talks, demonstrations and family events.

The gallery is open from 10am to 5pm, Tuesday-Sunday and Bank Holiday Mondays.

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