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(Related Organisation’s Event) FRASHKB Lecture and Lunch, Betty Yao MBE: China and Siam through the lens of John Thomson

27 October 2018 @ 2:30 pm - 5:00 pm BST

Lecture and lunch                                                                                          

Saturday, 27th October

China and Siam through the lens of John Thomson


Speaker:                     Betty Yao MBE

Time:                          2:30 p.m.

Venue:                        Royal Asiatic Society, 14 Stephenson Way, London NW1 2HD

Cost:                           £8 per member or guest, to include refreshments

Lunch:                        An optional self-paying lunch will be arranged at 12:45 p.m. at Chutneys, 124 Drummond Street, London NW1 2PA (corner of North Gower Street.)  Tel: 020 7388 0604.

Booking:                     Please email Paul Bolding at paul@paulbolding.org.uk or tel: 020 7684 5811.


The first London exhibition devoted to the Scottish photographer John Thomson (1837-1921) and his photography in Asia was shown from 12 April-22 June 2018 at the Brunei Gallery, SOAS. Thomson’s photography of China, Siam (Thailand) and Cambodia was widely praised by his peers and continues to enthuse new audiences today. The images are from newly discovered negatives held at the Wellcome Library, London.

John Thomson (1837–1921) was a Scottish photographer and writer who set off for Asia in 1862. Over the next ten years he undertook numerous journeys photographing countries including Siam, Cambodia and various provinces of China.  Photographs from these journeys form one of the most extensive records of any region taken in the nineteenth century.  The range, depth and aesthetic quality of John Thomson’s vision mark him out as one of the most important travel photographers.

Thomson travelled East as a professional photographer only two decades after the invention of photography.  Working with the wet collodion process he travelled with cumbersome crates, glass negatives, a portable dark room, as well as highly flammable and poisonous chemicals.  It took sheer perseverance and energy, through difficult terrain, to document regions where previously unseen by westerners.  It is particularly remarkable that Thomson was able to make photographs of such beauty and sensitivity.

Thomson developed a method to photograph in tropical conditions which he subsequently taught to generations of young travel photographers at the Royal Geographical Society.  During an era when his contemporaries were taking portraits in which their subjects looked stilted and wooden, Thomson captured the individuality and humanity of the diverse people of Asia, whether royalty or street vendor.

In Siam, Thomson was able to photograph King Mongkut Rama IV, his royal family and entourage, together with royal ceremonies such as the tonsurate ceremony and the presentation of the Lenten robes.   Thomson’s panoramic views of the Chao Phraya River, temples and monks, dancers and musicians, are a unique historical treasure.  In Cambodia, Thomson was the first photographer to visit Angkor Wat to record, what is now, one of the most important sites of ancient architecture in the world.

Between 1868 and 1872, Thomson made extensive trips to Beijing, Fujian and Guangdong travelling down both the Yangtse and the Min Rivers.  In China, Thomson captured a wide variety of subjects from landscapes to people, architecture, domestic and street scenes.  As a foreigner, Thomson’s ability to gain access to photograph women was particularly remarkable.  Whether photographing the rich and famous or people in the streets going about their business, Thomson’s desire was to present a faithful account of the people of Asia.  This body of work established him as a pioneer of photojournalism and one of the most influential photographers of his time.

His collection of 700 glass plates travelled back with Thomson to Britain in 1872 and since 1921 has been housed and expertly preserved at the Wellcome Library, London.  These 150 year old glass negatives are in excellent condition allowing this exhibition to showcase very large, in some cases life-size, prints.


27 October 2018
2:30 pm - 5:00 pm BST
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Mary Painter


Royal Asiatic Society Lecture Theatre
14 Stephenson Way
London, NW1 2HD United Kingdom
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