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Great Britain

Tribute to Scots pioneer, John Thomson, who captured the East

John Thomson standing next to two Manchu soldiers in Xiamen, on the southern 'frontier of the Qing empire. Pictures: The Wellcome Library
John Thomson standing next to two Manchu soldiers in Xiamen, on the southern 'frontier of the Qing empire. Pictures: The Wellcome Library

The grave of a pioneering Scottish photographer who took some of the earliest pictures of China on record has been rediscovered and restored in London.

John Thomson was born in Edinburgh in 1837 and enjoyed a remarkable career in the Far East when photographic equipment was still in its infancy.

Betty Yao at Thomson's restored grave. Picture: The Wellcome Library

Betty Yao at Thomson's restored grave. Picture: The Wellcome Library

He travelled widely through China and what was then Siam after setting sail from Leith in 1862, accompanied by a primitive portable darkroom.

Thomson spent more than a decade in Southeast Asia, capturing thousands of intimate portraits of people from all walks of life, ranging from royalty to peasants.

Now fans of his pioneering street photography have traced his final resting place to Streatham Cemetery in south London and paid for his family gravestone to be re-erected.

A successful fundraising appeal allowed for the memorial to be repaired and rededicated at a small ceremony held earlier this month.

A travelling chiropodist in Beijing, 1871'72. Picture: The Wellcome Library

A travelling chiropodist in Beijing, 1871'72. Picture: The Wellcome Library

It is the latest example of a new found appreciation for Thomson’s work and follows a well-received retrospective exhibition organised by the London-based Wellcome Collection.

Betty Yao, an expert in Asian culture, rediscovered Thomson’s glass negatives at the Wellcome library and arranged for them to be displayed in China for the first time.

“John Thomson’s photographs provide a rich and lasting visual record of the Far East,” she told Scotland on Sunday. “It is fitting that we restore his grave as a renewed memorial to the man and his work”.

Yao said she was still looking for a suitable host venue in Edinburgh to stage an exhibition of Thomson’s work in 2021, the 100th anniversary of his death.

She added that Thomson was relatively little known in Scotland where his pioneering exploits were less appreciated than in London.

“He was a very interesting character in that he could communicate with the great and the good, but also had equal respect for those from poorer communities,” she said. “That really emerges from his background in Scotland.”

Born in 1837, the son of a tobacco spinner and shopkeeper, Thomson was apprenticed to an Edinburgh optical and scientific instrument manufacturer where he learned the basics of photography. He travelled to Singapore in April 1862 and spent the next decade travelling and taking pictures.

Thomson became adept at using the so-called “wet plate” process, in which exposures were made on a glass negative that had to be developed immediately.

Among the historical sites he documented was the ancient Cambodian city of Angkor. Accompanied by a British consular official who acted as his interpreter, Thomson produced one of the first photographic records of what is now a Unesco World Heritage Site.

He eventually settled in Brixton, London, in 1872, where he ran a successful portrait studio and gained a Royal Warrant in 1881.

Thomson also acted as the principal photography teacher for the Royal Geographical Society, training a new generation of travellers and explorers in photography.

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