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Jamie Carstairs on Remembering John Thomson in Edinburgh

Jamie Carstairs on Remembering John Thomson in Edinburgh

Final week a plaque was unveiled on John Thomson’s childhood dwelling in Edinburgh, Scotland, in his centenary 12 months. How did it get there?

John Thomson, 1866. ‘Mr Thomson, the visitor from overseas, with his piercing eyes, whiskers like a dragon’s, and a great forehead, Uses a lens to capture a man’s life…’ Part of a poem by Bao Yun (1806-91), translated by Yupin Chung and quoted in ‘Scottish Photography - The First Thirty Years’ by Sara Stevenson and A.D. Morrison-Law (2015), p230.

John Thomson, 1866. ‘Mr Thomson, the customer from abroad, together with his piercing eyes, whiskers like a dragon’s, and an excellent brow, Makes use of a lens to seize a person’s life…’ A part of a poem by Bao Yun (1806-91), translated by Yupin Chung and quoted in ‘Scottish Pictures – The First Thirty Years’ by Sara Stevenson and A.D. Morrison-Regulation (2015), p230.

In 2018, the John Thomson Commemoration Group* fashioned to revive John Thomson’s grave in south London. Throughout this course of, we realized that there have been no commemorative plaques for John Thomson (1837-1921) in both Edinburgh (the place he was born and lived till the age of 24) or London (the place he lived and labored after coming back from Asia).

Assembled guests at the plaque event at 6 Brighton Street, Edinburgh EH1 1HD, on 29 September 2021. Photograph by Michael Pritchard.

Assembled friends on the plaque occasion at 6 Brighton Avenue, Edinburgh EH1 1HD, on 29 September 2021. {Photograph} by Michael Pritchard.

The Historic Environment Scotland plaque commemorating John Thomson, outside his childhood home, 6 Brighton Street, Edinburgh. Photograph by Michael Pritchard.

The Historic Atmosphere Scotland plaque commemorating John Thomson, exterior his childhood dwelling, 6 Brighton Avenue, Edinburgh. {Photograph} by Michael Pritchard.

Historic Atmosphere Scotland (HES) run a bronze commemorative plaque scheme to have a good time the hyperlink between a big particular person and a constructing. Researching largely from my dwelling in faraway Bristol, I discovered from a parish file on the ScotlandsPeople website, that John Thomson was born in 1837 at quantity 3, Portland Place, Edinburgh. Google maps situated a Portland Terrace in Leith, Edinburgh, however no Portland Place.

Roberta McGrath, a buddy in Edinburgh, visited the resident of three Portland Terrace, Leith. However … Thomson was born in St Cuthbert’s parish, which isn’t in Leith. A neighbour of the resident of three Portland Terrace instructed us in regards to the renaming of the roads: there had been two Portland Locations, one in Leith (later named Portland Terrace) and one in Tollcross, Edinburgh Previous City. When the town of Edinburgh expanded into Leith within the Nineteen Twenties, the Portland Place in Tollcross was renamed Lauriston Place. This info fried the incorrect Portland Place pink herring. In any case, from Streetview it turned obvious that Thomson’s birthplace had way back been demolished to make approach for what’s now the College of Edinburgh’s Lauriston Campus.

In 1841, Thomson’s dad and mom and siblings moved from Tollcross, to a bigger house at 6 Brighton Avenue. The household is recorded as dwelling at this tackle within the 1851 and 1861 censuses. This was John Thomson’s dwelling for twenty years throughout his adolescence. The Georgian B-listed tenement constructing on this quick avenue nonetheless stands, so 6 Brighton Avenue might appropriately be named as the location for a plaque. Nevertheless, the HES utility course of consists of the stipulation that the applicant ought to search permission for the siting of a plaque from the constructing’s proprietor earlier than submitting a nomination. Letters had been duly written to unknown occupants dwelling in numerous flats at 6 Brighton Avenue. Roberta kindly visited the constructing in particular person, talking with a resident. Progressively, I used to be in contact with a few of those that lived there or who owned the flats.

Subsequent up: filling within the HES nomination kind, during which I acknowledged, in lower than a thousand phrases, as required, why John Thomson deserved a plaque, detailing additionally his life and achievements, and why the tackle was related to the nominee. Helpful info was supplied by Richard Ovenden, creator of John Thomson (1837-1921) Photographer, Debbie Eire, and Terry Bennett. Messages of help had been swiftly gathered up from the commemoration group, Roberta McGrath and Roddy Simpson (Scottish Society for the Historical past of Pictures) and endorsed by Professor Nick Pearce. The appliance was proofed by the Historic Images of China analysis assistant, Shannon Smith, and submitting to HES simply earlier than the scheme closed for the 12 months’s new functions on 30 August 2019.

The nomination was profitable, and was certainly deemed ‘exemplary’ by the impartial panel. The commemoration group then selected the wording for the plaque, for the foundry to solid. We ready a press launch to coincide with the general public announcement in March 2020 by HES of seventeen new plaques. Additional progress was delayed because the pandemic set in.

In the meantime, the date of the centenary of Thomson’s dying (30 September 1921) was quick approaching.  We deliberate for a plaque ‘unveiling’ occasion to happen on 29 September, which was the identical day because the opening of the exhibition China By the Lens of John Thomson, on the Heriot-Watt College (the exhibition is a part of Thomson’s alma mater’s bicentenary celebrations). Due to the efforts of the HES plaques and Estates groups, the plaque was put in in time.

With invites to the occasion despatched out, I wrote a speech for the ‘unveiling’, an occasion organised by Betty and attended by greater than thirty folks, together with relations of John Thomson’s spouse Isobel Thomson (née Petrie). Deborah Eire regaling the gathering with ten issues we most likely didn’t learn about John Thomson, together with that he had considerably boosted the Royal Geographical Society’s {photograph} assortment by encouraging explorers to carry again their very own or regionally bought pictures, in addition to coaching explorers in images.

Neil Gregory, HES Deputy Head of Engagement, mentioned that HES had been delighted to have the ability to have the John Thomson plaque put in in time for the centenary. He mentioned that he would love the disclosing to not be a remaining end result, however moderately extra of a starting: he and his staff are at the moment exploring how an engagement programme for HES’s Commemorative Plaques may very well be developed which might allow each vacationers and on-line audiences alike to be taught extra about Thomson’s fascinating life, his exceptional contribution to the event of images and our data of nineteenth century China.

Betty Yao MBE speaking at the Opening of the exhibition ‘China Through the Lens of John Thomson’ at the Heriot-Watt University. Photograph by Jamie Carstairs.

Betty Yao MBE talking on the Opening of the exhibition ‘China By the Lens of John Thomson’ on the Heriot-Watt College. {Photograph} by Jamie Carstairs.

Within the night, the exhibition China By the Lens of John Thomson was opened by Alex Hamilton, chair of the Scottish Society for the Historical past of Pictures (SSHoP). There have been speeches by Ma Qiang, the Chinese language Consul in Edinburgh, by Professor Richard Williams, Principal of Heriot-Watt College and by Betty Yao, because of whose tireless work thousands and thousands of individuals have a had an opportunity to see the marvellous giant prints produced from Thomson’s glass negatives digitised by the Wellcome Assortment. Conscious of covid, Betty gave guided excursions of the exhibition in small teams.

Betty Yao MBE giving a guided tour of the exhibition to Professor Richard Williams, Principal of Heriot-Watt University and Ma Qiang, the Chinese Consul in Edinburgh. Photograph by Michael Pritchard.

Betty Yao MBE giving a guided tour of the exhibition to Professor Richard Williams, Principal of Heriot-Watt College and Ma Qiang, the Chinese language Consul in Edinburgh. {Photograph} by Michael Pritchard.

The occasions of the day had been attended by photo-historians, curators and representatives from the Scottish Society for the Historical past of Pictures, HES and the Royal Photographic Society. The chance to have face-to-face discussions, so lengthy denied, will likely result in different initiatives. As for extra plaque nominations – to HES, English Heritage, different civic organisations – this will solely be inspired. Historic Atmosphere Scotland intention to re-open a name for nominations in Spring 2022.

I like to recommend a go to to China By the Lens of John Thomson, on on the James Watt Centre, Riccarton campus, Heriot-Watt College, Edinburgh, EH14 4AS (bus #25 from the Scott Monument) till 24 March 2022.

Coinciding with the John Thomson centenary occasions, MuseumsEtc has printed a two-volume set, comprising Avenue Life in London by John Thomson and Adolphe Smith, and an accompanying quantity with context and commentary by Emily Kathryn Morgan.

Looking at a peep show in the street, Beijing, c.1870. Photograph by John Thomson. The exhibition prints were made from glass negatives digitised by the Wellcome Collection. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

Taking a look at a peep present on the street, Beijing, c.1870. {Photograph} by John Thomson. The exhibition prints had been produced from glass negatives digitised by the Wellcome Assortment. Credit score: Wellcome Assortment. Attribution 4.0 Worldwide (CC BY 4.0).

‘The peep-show … is fitted with a series of lenses in front, through which the eye of the spectator beholds the wonders of the world. … The showman … gives a perfect specimen of the winter dress of a Pekinese labourer. … The smallest figure is that of a young Tartar or Manchu girl… The third figure is that of a poor Manchu bannerman in his regulation sheepskin coat.’ Image as originally published, and text, from ‘Illustrations of China and Its People’ by John Thomson (1873/4), vol IV.

‘The peep-show … is fitted with a sequence of lenses in entrance, by which the attention of the spectator beholds the wonders of the world. … The showman … offers an ideal specimen of the winter gown of a Pekinese labourer. … The smallest determine is that of a younger Tartar or Manchu lady… The third determine is that of a poor Manchu bannerman in his regulation sheepskin coat.’ Picture as initially printed, and textual content, from ‘Illustrations of China and Its Individuals’ by John Thomson (1873/4), vol IV.

*John Thomson Commemoration Group led by Betty Yao MBE: Terry Bennett (photo-historian), Jamie Carstairs (Particular Collections, College of Bristol), Geoff Harris (Editor, ‘Beginner Photographer’), Deborah Eire (photo-historian), Michael Pritchard (Director, Training & Public Affairs, RPS).

Weblog by Graham Hogg (Nationwide Library of Scotland): John Thomson: photographer, author and traveller

BBC: The pioneering Scots photographer who captured China

The Scotsman: Edinburgh photographer who introduced Far East to the world remembered on centenary

Historic Images of China: John Thomson – helpful hyperlinks.

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