THOMSON, John (1837-1921)
Illustrations of China and its People
London: Sampson Low, Marston, Low and Searle, 1874. 4 volumes, folio. (18 1/2 x 13 3/4 inches). 222 collotype photographic illustrations on 96 plates.
Publisher’s maroon morocco-grain cloth, front covers with large pictorial designs and letters blocked in gilt, bevelled boards, expertly rebacked to style, blue endpapers, gilt edges. Housed in two red morocco backed boxes.
Provenance: Ladyman (booklabel in vols II-III), Hugh Lupus, 1st Duke of Westminster (1825-1899)
Thomson's China: the first large-scale photographic documentation of China and a visual encyclopedia of its lands and peoples.
Born in Edinburgh in 1837, it is believed that Thomson learned the photographic arts in his school years in that city. He first travelled to the far east in the late 1850s or early 1860s to visit his brother in Singapore, settling in Penang in 1862 at the age of twenty-five and opening his first photographic studio. However, studio photography did not interest him nearly as much as travelling the streets and countyside to capture the peoples and places he encountered. Between 1862 and 1868, Thomson travelled in Singapore, Ceylon, India, Siam, Cambodia, and Vietnam. In 1868, he arrived in Hong Kong: "it was a new beginning both in his life and his work ... His fascination with the culture of China, the immense size of the country, and the opportunity it offered him to chronicle unexplored regions, all intensified his desire to travel there" (White, p. 17). Making four distinct journeys between 1870 and 1872, Thomson explored South China, Foochow and the River Min, Formosa, North China, Peking, Shanghai and the Yangtze. Returning to London in 1872, he shortly thereafter began work on the present work -- his most ambitious project.
"My design in the accompanying work" Thomson writes in the Introduction, "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 my 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 races which I came into contact."
The selected 222 images were published on 96 plates, being collotypes produced from Thomson's original albumen photographs. "His imagery ranges from strict documentary to the picturesque, from an elegant straightforwardness to a photographic lyricism. His eye was that of the quintessential Victorian traveller, an incisive flaneur wandering the streets of exotic lands, and an educated geographer. His motivation for photographing was to capture the essence of these unforgettable and never-before-photographed regions, and to obtain permanent records for visual delectation, instruction and verification" (White, p. 8).
"This ambitious work ... was the first photographic survey of the Chinese nation, providing portraits, street scenes, monuments and landscapes. It was the first travel book to be successfully illustrated with photomechanical facsimiles of albumen prints replicated in the recently perfected collotype process" (Truthful Lens).
"The photographs taken on these journeys form one of the most extensive photographic surveys of any region taken in the nineteenth century. The range and depth of his photographic vision mark Thomson out as one of the most important travel photographers" (ODNB).
Mixed issue, with the first two volumes identified on the title as the second edition, and the final two volumes being the first edition.
Cf. Stephen White, John Thomson: A Window to the Orient (New York:1986); Goldschmidt & Naef, The Truthful Lens 168.