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"China through the Lens of John Thomson 1868-1872" at the Chester Beatty Library
Manchu woman’s elevated shoes. Embroidered silk. CBL C 3287© The Trustees of the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin.

DUBLIN.- China through the Lens of John Thomson 1868-1872, a historic exhibition of photographs of pre-modern China, opened at the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin Castle. On loan from the Wellcome Library London, the exhibition features 51 images taken by legendary Scottish photographer and explorer John Thomson. The photographs form a unique archive documenting the people, customs and landscape of 19th century China providing a valuable historical record of a nation undergoing major change. The exhibition continues until 26 February 2012 and is timed to coincide with Chinese New Year celebrations. Traditional clothing and material from the Library’s own collection, are included in the exhibition.

A pioneer of photojournalism, and one of the most influential photographers of the 19th century, John Thomson was the first Western photographer to document the people and landscape of China for publication. His subjects ranged from street people to mandarins and princes, from imperial palaces to remote monasteries. His photographs show a fragile nation in the process of change with the weakening Qing dynasty (1644-1911). While most photographers at that time depicted their subjects in formal pose, Thomson attempted to capture the personality and lifestyle of his subject. The photos are particularly revealing about women, at a time when higher-class women, in particular, were rarely allowed to leave their household.

After returning to Britain, Thomson took an active role in educating the public about China. He sensed that a profound transformation was taking place in the world, and his photographs contributed greatly to Europe’s view of Asia. He became known as ‘China Thomson’ and his work constitutes a historical treasure chest, documenting imperial China before it disappeared forever. He was appointed by Queen Victoria to be photographer to the Royal Family, in 1881.

Thomson practiced photography in the early days of its development. The ‘wet- collodion’ process he used involved a large amount of cumbersome equipment. He needed the assistance of ten porters to carry instruments, chemical supplies and even a portable darkroom, across 5,000 miles.

Director of the Chester Beatty Library, Fionnuala Croke said the exhibition ‘brought a new dimension’ to the Chester Beatty’s Chinese collection, much of which dates back to the Qing dynasty. “In our collection we are fortunate to have rare books carved from tablets of jade; over 900 snuff bottles; dragon robes worn by the imperial family as well as painted handscrolls, woodblock prints and books all representative of a wonderful Chinese heritage. We are very pleased to bring this photographic legacy of deeply moving images to a wider public.”

A selection of original Chinese clothing and material from Chester Beatty Library’s own collection and similar to items worn by people in the photographs in the exhibition will be on display. Shoes for bound feet; a late 19th century finely-embroidered woman’s robe; children’s clothing; a fan appliquéd with kingfisher feathers; and an assortment of girdle hangings, including purses and spectacles, will amplify the exhibition.

The exhibition is on loan from the Wellcome Library London, which acquired Thomson’s photographs after his death. Sir Alfred Chester Beatty and Sir Henry Wellcome, were both American businessmen, philanthropists and collectors who settled in London. The exhibition travelled to China in 2009 and received rave reviews.

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