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John Thomson – a renowned photographer in Singapore 1862

Scotsman John Thomson was a 19th-century photographer who travelled extensively around Asia in the 1860s and 1870s, capturing some of the earliest photographic images of the region and publishing them in several books.

John headed out to the Straits Settlements, first arriving in Penang before reaching Singapore around 1862 aboard the P&O steamer, Emeu.[1] John’s older brother, William, had preceded him to Singapore where he ran a ship-chandling business on Battery Road. William also established a partnership, Sack and Thomson, offering professional photographic services, on Beach Road sometime between 1860 and 1861. However, the partnership soon dissolved and William continued with the business on his own.[2] The business was renamed Thomson Brothers after John joined his brother.[3]

John’s impending arrival to Singapore was announced in The Straits Times newspaper on 3 May 1862.[4] Upon his arrival, John immediately set up a photographic studio at 3 Beach Road on 16 June 1862.[5] William likely took charge of the watchmaking aspect of their business, while John managed the photography. It was the only photographic studio in Singapore at the time before the arrival of other key players in the photography business such as Sachtler & Co., K. Feilberg & Co. and G. R. Lambert & Co. between 1863 and 1867.[6] The studio relocated to Killiney Road around 1863, before moving to the same premises as William’s ship-chandling business on Battery Road in 1865. John’s skills in taking artistic photographs and his knowledge of the latest innovations of photography gave the Thomsons an edge over the rest.[7]

Although John was based in Singapore until 1865, he led an itinerant life travelling around the Malay Peninsula with his photographic equipment and developing a good portfolio of stock photographs. Photography became both a means of livelihood – as his photographs became popular with the European residents – as well as an impetus to feed his love for travel. John travelled with two trained men from Madras (now known as Chennai), India, who helped to carry his heavy portable dark-room apparatus and process the photographic plates on site using the wet-plate collodian method.[8] The process proved to be a challenge, especially in the undeveloped regions they travelled to as it required pure water, which was not always easily available, as well as delicate handling of the fragile glass plates, which had to be treated with potent chemicals such as cyanide in a dark location.[9]

Sometime around September 1865, John left Singapore for Thailand and Cambodia to take pictures of the Angkor Wat temple.[10] These photographs were well regarded when he exhibited them upon his return to Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1866. John returned to Singapore briefly in 1867, before heading out to photograph Vietnam.[11] He then proceeded to Hong Kong and later China in the 1870s. His four-volume publication, Illustrations of China and its People (1873–1874), is considered a classic in Asian photography.[12] In 1875, John published The Straits of Malacca, Indo-China and China, or, Ten Years’ Travels, Adventures and Residence Abroad, which includes descriptions of his time spent in Singapore and the Malay Peninsula.[13]

Although Thomson Brothers continued to provide photographic services, William faced ailing health, and the company was in financial difficulties. John had to bail out the business, and by 1870, William had returned to Scotland.[14] The premises of Thomson Brothers were then taken over by J. S. Leisk & Co.[15]

John left for England in 1872 where he continued to pursue his twin passions of exploration and photography. He set up a studio in London in 1881, upon the completion of an extensive photographic study of London’s poor and of his travels through Cyprus.[16] In 1886, he was made a photography instructor at the Royal Geographical Society where he trained explorers such as Henry Morton Stanley in the art of photography.[17]

1. Bastin, J. (1994). Travellers’ Singapore: An anthology (p. 80). Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press. Call no.: SING 959.5705 TRA-[HIS]; Falconer, J. (1987). A vision of the past: A history of early photography in Singapore and Malaya: The photographs of G. R. Lambert & Co., 1880–1910 (p. 19). G. Liu. (Ed.). Singapore: Times Editions. Call no.: RSING 779.995957 FAL; Cambridge University Library. (2004, May 10). RCS Photographers Index: Thomson, John, 1837–1921, photographer. Retrieved November 17, 2014, from http://www.lib.cam.ac.uk/rcs_photographers/entry.php?id=450
[Although Thomson himself wrote that he arrived in Singapore in 1861, Falconer believed that this was a brief visit before he became resident on the island in 1862.]
2. Falconer, 1987, p. 19.
3. Toh, J. (2009). Singapore through 19th century photographs (p. 20). Singapore: Editions Didier Millet. Call no.: SING 959.5703 TOH.
4. Page 3 Advertisements Column 3. (1862, May 3). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. Page 3 Advertisements Column 1. (1862, June 14). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved by NewspaperSG: Thomson, J. (1993). The Straits of Malacca, Siam and Indo-China: Travels and adventures of a nineteenth-century photographer (p. xi). Singapore: Oxford University Press. Call no.: RSING 915.9 THO-[TRA].
6. Toh, 2009, p. 20; Thomson, 1993, pp. xi, xxvii.
7. Falconer, 1987, p. 20.
8. Toh, 2009, p. 20; Thomson, 1993, pp. 8–10.
9. Worswick, C. (Ed.). (2008). Sheying: Shades of China, 1850–1900 (p. 13). New York, N. Y.: Distributed Art Publishers. Call no.: R 915.1043 SHE-[TRA].
10. Thomson, 1993, p. xii.
11. Thomson, 1993, p. xiii.
12. Bastin, 1994, p. 80.
13. Thomson, 1993, pp. 1–77; Thomson, J. (1875). The Straits of Malacca, Indo-China and China, or, ten years’ travels, adventures and residence abroad. Retrieved December 4, 2014, from BookSG.
14. Thomson, 1993, p. xiv; Falconer, 1987, p. 20.
15. Page 3 Advertisements Column 5. (1872, January 6). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. Falconer, 1987, p. 191.
17. Bastin, 1994, p. 80; Thomson, 1993, p. xvi. 


The information in this article is valid as at 2014 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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