It’s April, reviews of Octopus are beginning to come in from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers who are new to my work (and they seem to love it, I am relieved to say), and I think it’s the perfect time to take a more in-depth look at the life and work of the intrepid Victorian photographer John Thomson, whose images of London street scenes adorn the covers of my Send for Octavius Guy series. He’s renowned for this set of photos—and deservedly so—and yet his early work is possibly even more extraordinary; just click on the image to your right and you’ll see why.
Thomson was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1837, at a point in history when the very first photographic processes (the daguerreotype and the Talbotype, commonly known as the calotype) were about to step forth on to the scene. He was apprenticed in his late teens to a manufacturer of optical and scientific instruments, but continued his education by attending evening classes, notably in natural philosophy, mathematics and chemistry.
In 1862, after completing his apprenticeship, at the age of 24 he quit these shores to join his brother William in Singapore, where the two of them set up in business together to manufacture marine chronometers. Thomson also established a photographic studio, providing photographic portraits for European traders. Neither concern was to last for long, however, for Thomson soon set off on a tour of south-east Asia, travelling as far south as Sumatra, then up through Ceylon and India, and ending up in Siam (Thailand) in 1865. After photographing the king and his royal court, he then journeyed on to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, which he documented extensively in what are likely to be the earliest photographs of the site.
In case this sounds incredibly easy to a generation used to snapping away at all and sundry with their iPhones, please bear in mind the limitations of the technology available to him—and it was the very latest technology, too, for by now wet-plate collodion had superseded both the daguerreotype and the calotype processes. Even so, to make just one photograph, John Thomson needed a bulky camera, a glass plate somewhat larger than the final print, chemicals that included highly flammable, explosive gun cotton, and the materials with which to construct a makeshift darkroom. The glass plate had to be coated in a chemical emulsion and sensitized in this darkroom, exposed in the camera, and then developed (again in the darkroom) before the jellied emulsion dried—and all of this within a matter of ten short minutes. To document Agkor Wat extensively required crates of heavy, fragile glass plates to be hauled through the mosquito-ridden jungle. No small feat, you will agree.
In 1866 Thomson returned to Britain, where he published his first book of photographs, The Antiquities of Cambodia He also became a member of the Royal Ethnological Society of London and was elected as a Fellow to the Royal Geographical Society. After a break of barely a year, he set off again, this time bound for China. He spent the next six or so years documenting China’s peoples and places, not just in the major cities of Hong Kong, Canton, Peking and Shanghai, but also in its remote inland provinces, often journeying there up rivers such as the Yangtze and the Min.
He eventually returned to Britain in 1872, where at the age of 35 he settled in the London suburb of Brixton. Thomson spent the next few years publishing his work, first as a series of monthly magazines and later as actual books. It was during this time that he renewed his acquaintance with Adolphe Smith, a journalist he’d met during the previous trip to Britain, and the two of them set to work on a project documenting the lives of everyday London folk. By this point collodion technology had moved on, and pre-prepared dry plates were now available to purchase commercially. The result, Street Life in London, comprising pen-portraits by Smith and photos by Thomson, initially appeared as a monthly magazine in the years 1876/77, and was later reissued as a book. It’s from this extraordinary work that the covers of Gooseberry and Octopus both derive, not to mention the host of images that went into the making of my books’ respective trailers.
Thompson was now justifiably famous. With his success assured, he opened a London portrait studio in 1879, and two years later was appointed photographer to the British Royal Family by Queen Victoria. He eventually retired in 1910 and moved back to Edinburgh. He died in 1921, at the advanced age of 84. Throughout his life he photographed kings and queens and workers and paupers in equal measure, but—whatever his subject happened to be—he always managed to instil his work with a gentle, quiet respect and a genuine feeling of compassion for his fellow human beings. Street Life in London is available as a free pdf download from the London School of Economics Digital Library under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 licence. Just click on the link.
There’s a new article on the website this month, based on my various researches for my novel Octopus. Hackney Marshes and Highwaymen considers an assertion from the late Victorian period that the highwayman Dick Turpin used to frequent The White House Inn on the once remote and desolate Hackney Marshes. Hmmm, as Gooseberry would no doubt say. It goes on to describe the urban sprawl that occurred from the 1850s onwards, as London found ways to cope with a rapidly expanding population.
Next month I’ll be looking at the phenomenal response by readers to Bertha, a character who appears in both Gooseberry and Octopus. How did I come to dream her up? Who was she going to be originally? And what makes her so very popular with readers the entire world over? Join me next time as I explore the reasons why!
Finally, as a small token of my thanks for taking the trouble to find this page, I’d like to offer you a copy of my book Why the Victorians Saw Ghosts – An Illustrated Guide to 19th Century Spiritualism. Download it for free from Smashwords.com. When it comes time to pay, just use coupon code: TD22X. A word of warning: opt for the ePub version if that happens to be a format you can use; for technical reasons beyond my control it is vastly superior to the MOBI on offer.
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