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Major J.C. Watson
Portrait of two Buddhist priests at T'ien-t'ung-ssu Monastery, Zhejiang Province, China
Albumen print, from wet collodion negative
21,3 x 16,7 cm
Bassenge Photography Auctions
Auction 104, 3 December 2014, 19th - 21st Century Photography, Lot: 4080
The Australian soldier, photographer and sometime merchant J.C. Watson remains a shadowy figure in the history of photography of China. Arriving in China in 1859 as a clerk in a trading house, Watson joined the so-called ‘Ever-Secure Army’, a Western-trained Chinese unit raised to assist in suppressing the Taiping Rebellion. He quickly distinguished himself and rose to the rank of major, and after the defeat of the rebels in 1867, he remained in Chinese service as an officer of the Anglo-Chinese Contingent in Ningpo. In 1880, he transferred to the local police and served as superintendent of the Ningpo force until his death in 1908.
It is not clear when Watson began practicing photography: the three examples of his work identified by Terry Bennett were published in the July 1877 issue of The Far East, and it seems unlikely that they were taken much earlier. Another, hitherto unused source for identifying his work is the Rev. A.E. Moule’s account of the Inland Mission in Zhejiang, published in 1878, which contains seven engravings based on photographs credited to ‘Major Watson’, among which this portrait appears.
Lit.: Terry Bennett. History of Photography in China: Western Photographers 1861 - 1879. London 2010, pp. 150-152.