Scottish photographer, geographer and traveller John Thomson (1837-1921) was one of the first photographers to travel to East Asia. He left Edinburgh for Singapore in April 1862 to begin his travels around the region that would eventually last ten years. He initially took portraits of European merchants, but gradually developed a keen interest in local peoples and places. He began traveling extensively throughout Malaya and Sumatra, documenting village life.
In 1864, Thomson moved to Siam where he photographed the King of Siam and members of the royal court. He stayed for just over a year, before heading for the ancient cities of Angkor in the Cambodian jungles - these are some of the earliest known photographs of what is today a UNESCO World Heritage site. From Angkor, Thomson moved to Phnom Penh, where he again photographed the royal family.
Thomson eventually settled in Hong Kong in 1868. For the next four years, he travelled around China photographing various peoples and cultures from Hong Kong and Canton, Peking, Shanghai, Formosa and deep into central China among others. His subjects ranged from urban street beggars and peasants in rural settings to Mandarins in Imperial palaces. Before returning to Britain to settle for good, Thomson made one final photographic journey to Cyprus in 1878.
Digitising Thomson's photographs
Thomson’s photographs introduced the Victorian audience to the people and cultures of the Far East and established him as one of the pioneers of photojournalism. In 1921, Henry Wellcome acquired a collection of Thomson’s original glass plate negatives. These negatives are still held by the Wellcome Library today.
After an extensive conservation project, the Library digitised 660 original negatives, which cover Thomson’s travels to China, Indo-China and Cyprus in the 1860s and 70s. The digitisation project enabled the Library to scan the negatives to such size and quality that in some cases, viewers are able to see more in the photographs today than Thomson himself would have seen through his wooden box camera. Selected prints from this project have now travelled across the world in major international exhibitions.
Explore the John Thomson photographs
All of Thomson's photographs are available under a Creative Commons Attribution license; they can be freely downloaded and reused in any situation, so long as attribution is given to Wellcome Library.
Browse the photographs in the catalogue