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Thomson, John, 1837 -1921 (photographer)



  • Existence: 1837 - 1921


John Thomson was born in 1837 in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was educated in Edinburgh and studied chemistry at Edinburgh University (Browne and Partnow 1983, p.616). Thomson moved to the Far East in 1862, settling first in Penang and then in Singapore. In October 1864 Thomson visited India, travelling via Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). The following year, Thomson, growing bored of studio work, set out for Siam (now Thailand). From Siam, Thomson went on to Cambodia. He returned to Singapore in May 1866 and then went on to Scotland. He remained in Scotland for a brief period, presenting papers and publishing some of his work. In 1867 he travelled to the Far East once again, visiting Singapore, Vietnam and then Hong Kong. He remained in Hong Kong, making valuable contacts and establishing a studio. Within a few years though Thomson was travelling once again, this time exploring China. After making an extensive photographic record of China, Thomson went on to Formosa (now Taiwan) and then returned to China. In 1872 Thomson briefly returned to Hong Kong and sailed back to England.

Thomson set himself to publishing his work, producing a number of volumes. In 1877, in collaboration with Adolphe Smith, he made a photographic study of the London poor. However, the series, which was called 'Street life in London', ceased publication the following January. In 1878 Thomson travelled to Cyprus, but this was to be the last of his photographic excursions. On his return to England, Thomson set about establishing a portrait studio. In 1886 he was appointed tutor in photography to explorers by the Royal Geographical Society.

Thomson married Isobel Petrie in November 1868 and they had six children. He died in October 1921 (White 1986, pp.9-36).


See the frontispiece, p.6 and p.10 of White's 'John Thomson...' (1986).


Thomson, John (1867), 'The antiquities of Cambodia: a series of photographs taken on the spot, with letterpress description'. Edinburgh.

Thomson, John (1872), 'Foo Chew and the River Min'.

Thomson, John (1873-1874), 'Illustrations of China and its people'. 4 volumes. London: S Low, Marston, Low and Searle.

Thomson, John (1875), 'The straits of Malacca, Indo-China and China, or, Ten years' travels, adventures and residence abroad'. London : S. Low, Marston, Low, and Searle.

Thomson, John and Smith, Adolphe (1877-78), 'Street life in London'. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, and Rivington.

Thomson, John (1879), 'Through Cyprus with the camera: in the autumn of 1878'. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, and Rivington.

Thomson, John (1898), 'Through China with a camera'. Westminster: A. Constable and Co.


Browne, Turner and Partnow, Elaine (1983), 'Macmillian biographical encyclopedia of photographic artists and innovators'. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.

White, Stephen (1986), 'John Thomson: life and photographs'. [London]: Thames and Hudson.

Found in 2 Collections and/or Records:


Illustrations of China and its People

Reference Code: GBR/0115/RCS/Y30377G
Scope and Contents

A volume measuring 36 x 48 cm containing plates with illustrations of various Chinese provinces, Hong Kong and Macao.

John Thomson (1837-1921) was a distinguished photographer and traveller, and this is volume I of his magnum opus, published in four volumes in 1873-74. It contains excellent Woodbury-type reproductions of his photographs taken in the early 1870s, and substantial notes on each illustration.

Dates: 1873
Conditions Governing Access: Unless restrictions apply, the collection is open for consultation by researchers using the Manuscripts Reading Room at Cambridge University Library. For further details on conditions governing access please contact Information about opening hours and obtaining a Cambridge University Library reader's ticket is available from the Library's website (

Through Cyprus with the camera, in the autumn of 1878. London : Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, and Rivington, 1879., 1878

Reference Code: GBR/0115/RCS/RCS.Cob.18.121-122
Scope and Contents

The two published volumes contain autotype and Woodbury type reproductions of Thomson's originals with descriptions on the facing pages. These descriptions have been utilised for describing the photographs.

Dates: 1878
Conditions Governing Access: The original typescript catalogue uses a different system to number the photographs from that used in the actual volumes. For the purposes of this catalogue the numbering in the actual volumes has been used. KS.

Additional filters:

Archival Object 1
Collection 1
China (nation) 1
Cyprus (island) 1
Cyprus (nation) 1

The UK Archival Thesaurus has been integrated with our catalogue, thanks to Kings College London and the AIM25 project for their support with this.