The Extraordinary Victorian Photographer John Thomson

A Manchu Bride

A Manchu Bride

The intrepid Victorian photographer John 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 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.

King Mongkut of Siam, 1865

King Mongkut of Siam, 1865

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of the technology available to him—and it was the very latest technology, too, for by now wet-plate collodion had superseded both the daguerreotype and the calotype processes.

Angkor Wat, 1871

Angkor Wat, 1871

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.

Island Pagoda, from the album Fuchow and the River Min

Island Pagoda, from the album Fuchow and the River 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.

  • Hookey Alf

    Hookey Alf

  • The Crawlers

    The Crawlers

  • Old Furniture

    Old Furniture

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.