Luminous-Lint - for collectors and connoisseurs of fine photography

Getting around


HomeWhat's NewContentsVisual IndexesOnline ExhibitionsPhotographersGalleries and DealersThemes
AbstractEroticaFashionLandscapeNaturePhotojournalismPhotomontagePictorialismPortraitScientificStill lifeStreetWar
CalendarsTimelinesTechniquesLibraryImages and WordsSupport 

HomeContents > People > Photographers > John Thomson

Other: John Thompson 
Dates:  1837, 12 June - 1921, 30 September
Born:  Great Britain, Scotland, Edinburgh
Died:  Great Britain, Scotland, Edinburgh
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.

HomeContents > Further research

Thumbnail Thumbnail Thumbnail Thumbnail Thumbnail Thumbnail  
General reading 
Leonowens, Anna Harriette, 1870, The English Governess at the Siamese Court: Being Recollections of Six Years in the Royal Palace at Bangkok, (London: Trubner & Co / Boston: Fields, Osgood & Co) [Includes woodcuts based on photographs taken by John Thomson provided to the author by the King of Siam] [Δ
Readings on, or by, individual photographers 
Lehr, Janet, 1980, ‘John Thomson‘, History of Photography, vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 67-71 [Δ
Montague, Joel & Mizerski, Jim, 2014, John Thomson: The Early Years - In Search of the Orient, (White Lotus Press) isbn-10: 974843494X isbn-13: 978-9748434940 [Δ
Morgan, Emily Kathryn, 2014, Street Life in London: Context and Commentary, (MuseumsEtc) isbn-10: 1910144010 isbn-13: 9781910144015 [Δ
Rosen, Jeff, 1993, ‘Posed as Rogues: The Crisis of Photographic Realism in John Thomson's Street Life in London‘, Image, vol. 36, no. 3/4, pp. 9-39 [Δ
Thomson, G [sic; John], 1869, ‘Notes of Cambodia and Its Races‘, Transactions of the Ethnological Society of London, vol. n.s. 6, pp. 246-252 [Δ
Thomson, John, 1867, The Antiquities of Cambodia. A series of photographs taken on the spot with letterpress description, (Edinburgh: Edmonston & Douglas) [Δ
Thomson, John, 1873, Foochow and the River Min. A series of photographs, (London: Autotype Fine Art Company) [Δ
Thomson, John, 1873, ‘Notes on a Journey to Southern Formosa‘, Journal of the Royal Geographical Society, vol. 43, p. 97 [Δ
Thomson, John, 1873-1874, Illustrations of China and Its People: A Series of 200 Photographs, (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Low and Searle) [4 volumes, 1873 [vols. 1 and 2] and 1874 [vols. 3 and 4])] [Δ
Thomson, John, 1875, Straits of Malacca, Indo-China, and China, or, Ten Years Travels, Adventures, and Residence Abroad, (New York: Harper and Brothers) [Δ
Thomson, John, 1875, The Straits of Malacca, Indo-China, and China; or Ten Years' Travels, Adventures and Residence Abroad, (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Low & Searle) [Δ
Thomson, John, 1907, ‘Geographical Photography‘, Scottish Geographical Magazine, vol. 23, no. 1, p. 17 [Δ
Thomson, John, 1983, China and Its People in Early Photographs: An Unabridged Reprint of the Classic 1873/4 Work, (Dover Publications) isbn-10: 0486243931 isbn-13: 978-0486243931 [Δ
Thomson, John & Smith, Adolphe, 1881, Street Incidents, (London, Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington) [Δ
Thomson, John & Smith, Adolphe, 1969, Street Life in London, (New York: Bernard Blom) [Facsimile edition] [Δ
Thomson, John & Smith, Adolphe, [1877], Street Life in London, (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington) [Δ
White, Stephen, 1985, John Thomson: Life and Photographs, (London: Thames and Hudson) [Δ
White, Stephen, 1986, John Thomson: A Window to the Orient, (NY: Thames and Hudson) [Preface by Robert A. Sobieszek] [Δ
Yao, Betty, 2010, China: Through the Lens of John Thomson (1868-1872), (River Books Press) isbn-10: 6167339007 isbn-13: 978-6167339009 [Δ
If you feel this list is missing a significant book or article please let me know - Alan -
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.
QR code

Exhibitions on this website

ThumbnailJohn Thomson - Street Life in London (1877) 
Title | Lightbox | Checklist
* New *

Visual indexes

ThumbnailJohn Thomson: A Chinese portrait artist, Hong Kong
ThumbnailJohn Thomson: Cambodia: Angkor Thom
ThumbnailJohn Thomson: Carts and wagons included in Street Life in London (1877)
ThumbnailJohn Thomson: China, a travelling chiropodist
ThumbnailJohn Thomson: Cyprus
ThumbnailJohn Thomson: Hong Kong facing the harbour
ThumbnailJohn Thomson: Illustrations of China and Its People
ThumbnailJohn Thomson: Magic Lantern Peep Show in China
ThumbnailJohn Thomson: Physic Street, Canton, China
ThumbnailJohn Thomson: Royal family of Siam
ThumbnailJohn Thomson: Street Life in London
ThumbnailJohn Thomson: The Crawlers
ThumbnailJohn Thomson: The Land and People of China
All photographs by this photographer 

Internet biographies

Terms and Conditions

Wikipedia has a biography of this photographer.Show on this siteGo 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.]
Show on this siteGo to website

Internet resources

Terms and Conditions

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. 
John Thomson: Glimpses into Life in the Far East ... 
Scanned by Cornell 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.] 
 Facebook LuminousLint 
 Twitter @LuminousLint