Restoring John Thomson’s grave

Jamie Carstairs, Historical Photographs of China Project manager, has joined the committee seeking to restore photographer John Thomson’s grave. Here he explains why.

An ad hoc group has come together to try to raise the funds needed to restore the grave of John Thomson (1837-1921), whose final resting place is in a south London cemetery.  The badly eroded headstone marking his grave has fallen over and is lying flat on the ground. The inscription is barely legible. Surely we can do better than this to preserve the memory of a man whose photographs of China, amongst other places, so shape the way we picture the nineteenth century.

The fallen over grave stone of John Thomson, who is buried alongside his wife and his son Arthur, in Streatham Cemetery, Tooting, London. Photograph by Terry Bennett.

The fallen over grave stone of John Thomson, who is buried alongside his wife and his son Arthur, in Streatham Cemetery, Tooting, London. Photograph by Terry Bennett.

The pioneering Scottish photographer geographer and traveller, John Thomson, is rightly acclaimed as probably the greatest of the nineteenth century photographers of China.  His ten years’ work as a photographer in Asia led to the publication of Illustrations of China and Its People in 1873/4.  In four volumes, 200 fine documentary and portrait photographs are enhanced with Thomson’s astute and informative text.

Gochi, a young Baksa woman, Taiwan, 1871. A photograph by John Thomson, which was published in his Illustrations of China and Its People, Vol. II, Plate IV 'Types of Pepohoan' (1873/4).  Maxwell Family Collection (Mx01-076), courtesy of Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham.

Gochi, a young Baksa woman, Taiwan, 1871. A photograph by John Thomson, which was published in his Illustrations of China and Its People, Vol. II, Plate IV ‘Types of Pepohoan’ (1873/4).  Maxwell Family Collection (Mx01-076), courtesy of Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham.

A scan of Thomson’s stereoscopic negative numbered 770. 'Gochi, a Baksa girl 1871'. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY.

A scan of Thomson’s stereoscopic negative numbered 770. ‘Gochi, a Baksa girl 1871’. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY.

A portrait of Gochi. Thomson’s negative numbered 782. 'Pepohoan girl, Baksa, Formosa, 20 years old.' Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY.

A portrait of Gochi. Thomson’s negative numbered 782. ‘Pepohoan girl, Baksa, Formosa, 20 years old.’ Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY.

In 1878, further social documentary photographic work resulted in Street Life in London. Adolphe Smith provided much of the text, which is presented in a similar style as in Illustrations of China and Its People. Street Life in London brought to bear ‘the precision of photography in illustration of our subject’ – London’s poor – memorably personified as ‘Caney’ the Clown, the ‘Crawlers’ and the Flying Dustmen.

Thomson also photographed in Malaysia, Thailand, Taiwan, Cambodia, Vietnam and Cyprus. He was a member of the Photographic Society (later the Royal Photographic Society) from 1879 and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.  Thomson taught photography to Isabella Bird, who also photographed in China in the mid-1890s.

John Thomson’s photographs provide a rich and lasting visual legacy of later nineteenth century Asia – and of London. It seems only right that we should restore his grave in London as a fitting memorial to the man himself.

If you would like to donate to renovate Thomson’s grave, you can make a contribution via JustGiving, at https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/johnthomsongravestone

Many thanks from the restoration committee: Terry Bennett, Michael Pritchard, Jamie Carstairs, Betty Yao.

Buddhist monks playing chess, Temple of the Five Hundred Gods, Guangzhou. Edward Bowra Collection (Bo01-099), courtesy of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs.

Buddhist monks playing chess, Temple of the Five Hundred Gods, Guangzhou. Edward Bowra Collection (Bo01-099), courtesy of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs.

The exhibition of superb large prints from Thomson’s glass negatives: China and Siam Through the Lens of John Thomson, is on at the Brunei Gallery, SOAS, University of London. Admission free. Exhibition ends on 23rd June 2018!

Yang-May Ooi interviewing Betty Yao at the exhibition 'China and Siam Through the Lens of John Thomson', at the Brunei Gallery, SOAS, University of London. Photograph by Jamie Carstairs.

Yang-May Ooi interviewing Betty Yao at the exhibition ‘China and Siam Through the Lens of John Thomson’, at the Brunei Gallery, SOAS, University of London. Photograph by Jamie Carstairs.

Recommended books:

China and Its Peoples in early Photographs – An Unabridged Reprint of the Classic 1873/4 Work by John Thomson (Dover Publications, New York, 1982).

Victorian London Street Life in Historic Photographs by John Thomson (Dover Publications, New York, 1994) – an unabridged republication of Street Life in London.

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