John Thomson / Young Boy, Siam 1865, The Wellcome Collection, London
CREDIT: John Thomson / Young Boy, Siam 1865, The Wellcome Collection, London

John Thomson and his photography of Asia

Event info

To commemorate the centenary of the death of John Thomson FRGS (1837-1921), a former RPS member, and in advance of a commemorative blue plaque being unveiled in Edinburgh, the RPS Historical Group is delighted to present Betty Yao MBE...

Betty's talk will focus on Thomson’s decade in Asia exploring his work in China and Siam, modern-day Thailand. The genesis of many of Thomson's innovative ideas and experiments date to this period.

Between 1862 and 1872 Thomson established his studio first in Singapore and then in Hong Kong.  This gave him the opportunity to travel to Bangkok where he gained access to photograph the King of Siam.  In Beijing he photographed Prince Gong, brother of the Qing emperor.  Thomson’s street scenes of China may have informed his most famous work Street Life in London published five years after his return. 

Thomson sailed back from Asia in 1872 with close to 700 glass negatives packed in three wooden crates.  Betty will recount how sheer chance and serendipity led to her the discovery of this valuable cache in the Wellcome Library, London.  These glass negatives, almost thrown away, formed the basis of her worldwide touring exhibition.

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. 

The talk will be chaired by Gilly Read, chair of the RPS Historical Group. It will be followed by a public Q+A.

The talk was recorded and can be watched here

Richard Ovenden OBE will talk about Thomson's life, photography and photobooks on 14 September 2021. To book a place click here


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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