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HomeContents > People > Photographers > John Thomson

Other: John Thompson 
Dates:  1837, 14 June - 1921, 30 September
Born:  UK, Scotland, Edinburgh
Died:  UK, London
Active:  Cyprus / Ceylon / Cambodia / Malaysia / Singapore / Hong Kong / China / England
Traveled widely in the Far East (particularly China, Taiwan, Cambodia, and Thailand) taking photographs during the period 1860-1879 frequently working in conjunction with the Royal Geographical Society of Great Britain for whom he had worked as their instructor in photography in 1866. His books include: ‘The antiquities of Cambodia‘ (1867), ‘Illustrations of China and its people‘ (1873-1874), his photographs of working class life are included in ‘Street life in London‘ (1877-1878), ‘Through Cyprus with the camera‘ (1879), and ‘Through China with a camera‘ (1898).
Wellcome Images, Wellcome Library, London, UK has considerable holdings of material by John Thomson.
The Royal Commonwealth Society collection at Cambridge University Library holds prints from his work in Cyprus.

Preparing biographies

Approved biography for John Thomson
Courtesy of the Victoria & Albert Museum (London, UK)

Thomson experimented with microphotography before travelling throughout the Far East between 1862 and 1872. He maintained a commercial photography studio during this time, first in Singapore, then in Hong Kong. His most famous work was made upon his return to London. Street Life in London was originally published in monthly installments, and is regarded as a classic of social documentary. In later life he became a fashionable portrait photographer in Mayfair, under royal patronage. 
This biography is courtesy and copyright of the Victoria & Albert Museum and is included here with permission. 
Date last updated: 11 Nov 2011. 
We welcome institutions and scholars willing to test the sharing of biographies for the benefit of the photo-history community. The biography above is a part of this trial.
If you find any errors please email us details so they can be corrected as soon as possible.

Further research

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John Thomson
Amoy, Fukien province, China: two Manchu soldiers with John Thomson 
Family history 
If you are related to this photographer and interested in tracking down your extended family we can place a note here for you to help. It is free and you would be amazed who gets in touch.

Exhibitions on this website

ThumbnailJohn Thomson - Street Life in London (1877) 
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Visual indexes

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Internet biographies

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Wikipedia has a biography of this photographer. Go to website
Getty Research, Los Angeles, USA has an ULAN (Union List of Artists Names Online) entry for this photographer. This is useful for checking names and they frequently provide a brief biography. Go to website
Grove Art Online ( has a biography of this artist. 
[NOTE: This is a subscription service and you will need to pay an annual fee to access the content.]
 Go to website

Internet resources

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John Thomson (1837-1921) ... 
The Welcome Trust in the UK has a collection of almost 700 original glass negatives of the travel of John Thomson. 
Illustrations of China and its people: a series of two hundred photographs, with letterpress descriptive of the places and people represented / by J. Thomson. (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Low, and Searle 1873) ... 
Scanned by Hong Kong University Library. 

Printed biographies

The following books are useful starting points to obtain brief biographies but they are not substitutes for the monographs on individual photographers.

• Beaton, Cecil & Buckland, Gail 1975 The Magic Eye: The Genius of Photography from 1839 to the Present Day (Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown & Company) p.74 [Useful short biographies with personal asides and one or more example images.] 
• Capa, Cornell (ed.) 1984 The International Center of Photography: Encyclopedia of Photography (New York, Crown Publishers, Inc. - A Pound Press Book) p.515-516 
• Perez, Nissan N. 1988 Focus East: Early Photography in the Near East 1839-1885 (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.) p.226-227 [Short biography on John Thomson possibly with example plates.] 
• Weaver, Mike (ed.) 1989 The Art of Photography 1839-1989 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press) p.469 [This exhibition catalogue is for the travelling exhibition that went to Houston, Canberra and London in 1989.] 
• Witkin, Lee D. and Barbara London 1979 The Photograph Collector’s Guide (London: Secker and Warburg) p.251-252 [Long out of print but an essential reference work - the good news is that a new edition is in preparation.] 

Useful printed stuff

If there is an analysis of a single photograph or a useful self portrait I will highlight it here.

• Newhall, Beaumont 1982 The History of Photography - Fifth Edition (London: Secker & Warburg) [One or more photographs by John Thomson are included in this classic history.] 
• Szarkowski, John 1973 Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art (New York: The Museum of Modern Art) p.36 [Analyzes a single photograph by John Thomson.] 
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