Siamese Boatman: Photograph from 1865/66 negative by John Thomson.Wellcome Collection, London.
By Jeremy Miles
It is wonderful to see the remarkable work of pioneering Victorian photojournalist and travel photographer John Thomson back on the walls at Bournemouth’s Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum.
A new exhibition Siam: Through the Lens of John Thomson (1865-1866) openedat the clifftop museum last week and will run until April next year. It features a powerful and insightful collection of images captured in Siam and Cambodia nearly 160 years ago.
In a series of extraordinary photographs curated from the renowned archive of glass negatives at the Wellcome Collection in London, the exhibition offers a unique glimpse of life in 19th-century Southeast Asia. The images are of particular interest partly because they reveal a glimpse of living history but also because of their sheer quality produced at a time when such achievements must have seemed close to impossible.
Gallery-goers first saw Thomson’s groundbreaking work at the Russell-Cotes five years ago when the museum staged an exhibition of photographs he had taken in China during his mid 19th century travels.
Both shows are the result of this resourceful and talented Scotsman’s grasp of the possibilities offered by the practice of photography at a time when it was still in its infancy. Thomson had quickly become a master of the art and with finely honed technical, creative and social skills he managed to gain entry to what to the British public at the time was an unseen world.
His eagle-eyed attention to detail produced exquisite studies of the people, their costumes, architecture, customs, rituals and traditions. He even received special permission to visit Cambodia’s Angkor Wat (then under Siam’s control), becoming the first person to photograph its famous ruins. Ironically his Siamese hosts are said to have considered him quite mad to want to photograph a bunch of broken old temples.
His photographs reveal never before recorded details of far-off societies captured in images of extraordinary detail and breathtaking definition. They contain a wealth of anthropological and historical information.
To get his pictures Thomson had to make long, arduous journeys involving weeks of planning and negotiations and the transportation of heavy and cumbersome cameras, tanks of toxic chemicals and a huge portable darkroom.
Looking at the prints on show at the Russell-Cotes it is clear that his charismatic and engaging personality helped open the door to some very special areas of Siamese society, even the Royal Household of the legendary monarch Rama V – King Mongkut. Yup that was him immortalised in the musical The King and I, though it’s probably best you don’t mention this in polite Thai society.
The country’s authorities took great exception to what they felt was a less than respectful portrayal of their ruler by the actor Yul Brynner in the 1956 film and it was promptly banned in Thailand, remaining officially blacklisted to this day.
Of course, present-day Thailand ( it changed its name from Siam in the 1930s) is a long-time favourite destination on the British tourist trail and as such the subject of literally millions of point-and-shoot smartphone shots.
Scrolling through your Instagram feed, it is worth remembering that to achieve so much more, Thomson travelled more than 5,000 miles loaded up with his massive camera and bulky glass-plates that then had to be coated with wet collodion emulsion before an exposure – often of several seconds or more – could be made. It was a far from simple process.
King Mongkut. Photograph by John Thomson from 1865/66 negative.Wellcome Collection, London.
Perhaps the most astonishing thing about these photographs though is the simple fact that they survived. In old age and suffering from frail health, Thomson was desperate to find a home for his archive. He contacted the pharmaceutical tycoon Sir Henry Wellcome and offered to sell him his collection of 700 or so plates. Negotiations were still underway when in 1921 at the age of 84 Thomson died of a heart attack. Fortunately the Wellcome Library still took possession of the collection which was contained in three crates and, probably more by luck than judgement, stored them in conditions that just happened to suit the fragile negatives.
In 1980 the crates were re-opened and test prints were made. After 60 years they were a little battered and scratched but essentially in surprisingly good condition. When finally digitised and printed as large, high-quality images for exhibition many of the scratches, marks and scuffs were left untouched. The effect is both atmospheric and strangely enhancing giving Thomson’s photographs a unique sense of time and place and an undeniable stamp of authenticity.
*Siam: Through the Lens of John Thomson (1865-1866) is at Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum in Bournemouth until April 2024. More information at www.russellcotes.com
All Photographs from 1865-1866 negatives by John Thomson. Wellcome Collection, London.