Manchu Bride. John Thomson. China, 1871 1872. The Wellcome Collection, London
CREDIT: Manchu Bride. John Thomson. China, 1871 1872. The Wellcome Collection, London

John Thomson: his life, photography and photobooks

Event info

To commemorate the centenary of the death of John Thomson FRGS (1837-1921), a member of the RPS from 1879 and an early travel photographer working in China and Asia. The RPS and the John Thomson Commemoration Group are delighted that Richard Ovenden OBE, Bodley's Librarian for the University of Oxford, who has researched Thomson’s life in great depth will present a lecture in advance of a commemorative blue plaque being unveiled in Edinburgh. 

Introduced by Betty Yao MBE.

Richard Ovenden's online lecture will consider the life, work, and contribution to photography made by John Thomson, who died a century ago this year. From his humble origins in Edinburgh, through his ground-breaking photographic work in Asia, to his pioneering contribution to social documentary photography on the streets of Victorian London, John Thomson was one of photography’s innovators.

His work was disseminated through the medium of print, and his experimentation with the medium we now call ‘the photobook’ would help drive developments in the way photography was understood and received during crucial periods in its history. Thomson’s images are widely reproduced today, but his life and work deserve wider celebration and recognition.

The lecture will be followed by a public Q+A with questions being presented via Zoom chat. 

Richard Ovenden has been Bodley’s Librarian, the senior Executive position of the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, since 2014. Prior to that he held positions at Durham University Library, the House of Lords Library, the National Library of Scotland, and the University of Edinburgh. He is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, the Royal Society of Arts, and a Member of the American Philosophical Society.

His book John Thomson (1837-1921): photographer was published in 1997 and his most recent publication is the critically acclaimed Burning the Books (2020). He was awarded an OBE in The Queen’s Birthday Honours, 2019

Betty Yao MBE is the curator of the touring exhibitions Siam: Through the Lens of John Thomson and China Through the Lens of John Thomson which has been shown in 26 museums across 3 continents and seen by nearly 1 million visitors. In this centenary year it will be seen in Edinburgh, the city of Thomson's birth. Betty also led the John Thomson Commemoration Group which restored Thomson's grave in London. 

This event is free but requires booking. 

Your Zoom link will be contained in PDF document sent with your confirmation email and emailed immediately after you have booked.

Event Organiser

Michael Pritchard


Cancellation policy

This is an online event. The RPS will do its best to ensure that it keeps to the published timings and runs as planned. In the unlikely event that the event has to be cancelled all participants will be advised by email at the earliest opportunity.  No responsibility will be accepted for any consequential losses.



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