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John Thomson

Born: Edinburgh, 14 June 1837
Died: London, 30 September 1921
Nationality: Scottish

chemistry at Edinburgh University


1862 – settles in Pinang, Malaysia

1867 – publishes The Antiquities of Cambodia, illustrated with albumen prints

1870 – publishes North River (Hong Kong)

1873-4 – publishes Illustrations of China and its People, with collotype photographs

1872 – settles in London

1875 – publishes The Straits of Malacca, Indo-China and China, or Ten Years’ Travels, Adventures and Residence Abroad, illustrated with woodcuts

1877 – publishes Street Life in London with writer Adolphe Smith Headingly; first reformist publication illustrated with photographs


Malaysia, Siam (now Thailand), Cambodia, Vietnam, and China (1862-74); Cyprus (1879)



In his preface to Illustrations of China and Its People (London, 1873-74), Thomson explained his project and the challenges he met among the Chinese: 

"My design in the accompanying work is to present a series of pictures of China and its people, such as shall convey an accurate impression of the country I traversed as well as of the arts, usages, and manners which prevail in different provinces of the Empire. With this intention I made the camera the constant companion of my wanderings, and to it I am indebted for the faithful reproduction of the scenes I visited, and of the types of race with which I came into contact.

Those familiar with the Chinese and their deeply-rooted superstitions will readily understand that the carrying out of my task involved both difficulty and danger. In some places there were many who had never yet set eyes upon a pale-faced stranger; and the literati, or educated classes, had fostered a notion amongst such as these, that, while evil spirits of every kind were carefully to be shunned, none ought to be so strictly avoided as the 'Fan Qui' or 'Foreign Devil', who assumed human shape and appeared solely for the furtherance of his own interests, often owing the success of his undertakings to an ocular power, which enabled him to discover the hidden treasures of heaven and earth. I therefore frequently enjoyed the reputation of being a dangerous geomancer, and my camera was held to be a dark, mysterious instrument, which, combined with my naturally, or supernaturally, intensified eyesight gave me the power to see through rocks and mountains, to pierce the very souls of the natives, and to produce miraculous pictures by some black art, which at the same time bereft the individual depicted of so much of the principe of life as to render his death a certainty within a very short period of years."

Quoted in Weston J. Naef, "John Thomson's Illustrations of China and Its People," The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, vol. 30, no. 4 (February 1972): 194.