The diversity of Chinese culture

Thomson, J[ohn]. Illustrations of China and its people. A series of two hundred photographs, with letterpress descriptive of the places and people represented.

London, Sampson Low, Marston, Low, and Searle, 1873-1874.

Large folio. 4 vols. 110 ff., 74 blanks. With 218 collotype photograph views and portraits on 96 plates. Illustrated original cloth. All edges gilt.


First edition of this monumental photographic work, recording the diversity of Chinese culture during the late 19th century in a wealth of views, portraits, and public scenes. The Scottish photographer John Thomson (1837-1921), a pioneer of photojournalism, was one of the first photographers to travel to the Far East, documenting the people, landscapes and artifacts of eastern cultures. After settling in Hong Kong in 1868 and establishing a studio there, Thomson spent four years travelling throughout China: he saw the southern trading port of Canton, the cities of Beijing and Shanghai, and the Great Wall, venturing deep into central China. He visited the Fukien region in 1870/71, travelling up the Min River by boat and proceeding to Amoy and Swatow. On the island of Formosa he visited the capital, Taiwanfu, before journeying on to the aboriginal villages on the west plains of the island. Three months were spent travelling 3000 miles up the Yangtze River to Hupeh and Szechuan. Thomson's travels in China were often perilous, as he visited remote, almost unpopulated regions far inland. Most of the people he encountered had never seen a westerner or camera before. Thomson had to transport a bulky wooden camera, many large, fragile glass plates, and potentially explosive chemicals. He photographed in a wide variety of conditions and often had to improvise because chemicals were difficult to acquire. His subject matter varied enormously: from humble beggars and street people to Mandarins, Princes and senior government officials; from remote monasteries to Imperial palaces; from simple rural villages to magnificent landscapes.

Many of the plates have German captions carefully pencilled in. Bindings professionally restored at extremeties, spines rebacked. Removed from the Geographical Institute of the University of Vienna, with their library stamp throughout and deaccession stamp to title pages. A fine set. A copy recently sold at Sotheby's (London, 9 May 2017, lot 128) commanded £93,750.

Gernsheim 288f. OCLC 3384592.

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