China Through the Lens of John Thomson 1868-1872

2011-11-17 ~ 2012-02-26


Chester Beatty Library

Dublin Castle

Dublin 2

This exhibition is devoted to images of China by Scottish photographer John Thomson (1837-1921). Born in Edinburgh Thomson first travelled to East Asia in 1862, where he set up a professional photographic studio. Fascinated by local cultures, Thomson returned in 1868, settling in Hong Kong. Over the next four years he made extensive trips to Guangdong, Fujian, Beijing, China’s north-east and down the Yangtze. This exhibition is drawn from his time in these regions.

In the early days of photography, when negatives were made on glass plates, a cumbersome mass of equipment was required but Thomson was nevertheless able to capture a wide variety of images. His works present the human aspects of life in China through the extensive record of everyday-street scenes, rarely captured by other photographers of that era. After returning to Britain, Thomson took an active role informing the public about China, through illustrated lectures and publications. In 1920, he wrote to Henry Wellcome – harmacist, philanthropist and collector – wishing to sell his glass negatives. Thomson died before the transaction was completed, and Wellcome bought the negatives from Thomson’s heirs in 1921. The images in this exhibition come from the Wellcome Library’s collection in London.

Timed to co-ordinate with Chinese New Year celebrations in 2012, the exhibition will include over 50 stunning images with a wide variety of themes in China including people, architecture, domestic and street scenes. A selection of traditional Chinese clothing and accessories from the Library’s own collection will also be on display.

A Community Ambassador Tour in Mandarin, a “China Through the Lens of John Thomson” Embroidered Textiles Workshop with Rosemary Cullen and a Gallery Tour of “China Through the Lens of John Thomson” exhibition with Betty Yao, Curator will all take place during the festival. Full details and booking at

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