In Pictures

Rare early photographs of Peking

Photographs of Peking, now known as Beijing, made by Thomas Child in the 1870s and 1880s are to go on show in London's Chinatown as part of Asian Art in London season.

More than 30 original photographs from the Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection, the largest holding of historical photographs of China in private hands, are included in the show. During two decades as a resident, Child documented life in the city with his camera.

Here we present a selection of the work in the exhibition at China Exchange.

Image copyright Thomas Child

This photograph by Thomas Child, titled Mongolian Lama, is one of the earliest photographic portraits of a religious figure in Peking. In the 19th century, the term lama referred to any Tibetan Buddhist monk or teacher. The lama and his pupil both hold prayer beads and bundles of sutras in their laps. Displayed neatly on the table are bronze sculptures and sacred Tibetan ritual objects including a skull cup.

Image copyright Thomas Child

This is an early photograph of Jade Belt Bridge, or Moon Bridge, located on the grounds of the Summer Palace in Beijing on the western shore of Kunming Lake. The elegant high arch bridge is a traditional Chinese design. The arch was constructed high enough to allow passage of the Emperor's dragon boat. On special occasions the Emperor and Empress travelled on Kunming Lake passing under this bridge.

Image copyright Thomas Child

Child took this photograph of the Marble Boat, or the Boat of Purity and Ease, in the 1870s, after it suffered damage from the Second Opium War. Child noted: "At one time there was a summer house on it, but it has entirely disappeared." The base of the boat is made of solid stone. It originally supported a traditional Chinese wooden pavilion that was burned down during the conflict in 1860. The pavilion was rebuilt in 1893, decades after this photograph was taken.

Image copyright Thomas Child

This photograph depicts late Qing dynasty commerce in the Chinese city of Peking. In his description of the scene, Child points out some of what is shown in the photograph. He explains that there is a "kettle in the fire for making tea, next to that is a shop that deals in cotton wool with its sign of wool balls hanging out and the fine-looking shop with the man standing at the door is a pastry cook's."

As a photographer, Child also mentions that: "The only chance of taking these scenes is when the roads are deep in mud and the people cannot crowd round the camera." Photography was a new technology in 1870 and the camera was intriguing and drew streams of onlookers.

Image copyright Thomas Child

Child took a series of three photographs relating to late Qing dynasty marriage customs. This one depicts the granddaughter of Zeng Goufan, a high-ranking Han Chinese official, seated next to her groom. Child describes this photograph: "Weddings are one of the stock ceremonies of the world, and every country has its own customs. In China the bridal colour is scarlet. This bride wore a scarlet satin coat embroidered with gold thread, with a skirt to match, her head dress was a mass of scarlet, gold and pearls."

It is interesting to note that on the reverse of this print is a German inscription that describes the bride as the "daughter of the dead Marquis Tsching".

Image copyright Thomas Child

The Azure Cloud Temple, constructed during the Yuan dynasty, is located on the eastern slope of Fragrant Hill in west Beijing. The photograph shows a 19th century view of the archway at the entrance to the white marble pagoda, the largest pagoda of its kind in China.

Though Child spoke Chinese, local guides were essential to his photographic endeavours.

Image copyright Thomas Child

While in China, Child was employed by the Imperial Maritime Customs Service as an engineer. He is quick to note early Chinese ingenuity and craftsmanship.

In his description of this photograph of an early astronomical instrument, Child states that the instrument is one of the finest pieces of bronze in China, saying: "Being made in the 13th century enhances its merit and adds further proof of the skill of the ancient Chinese."

Image copyright Thomas Child

This is one of the earliest photographs depicting 19th-century travellers of the Silk Road in China. Child explains that the camels "carry coal and lime into the City from the Western Hills, and merchandise between Peking and Mongolia".

Image copyright Thomas Child

This is an early photograph of an expansive portion of the Great Wall of China that leads to Mongolia. In modern times, the Chinese government has made a great effort to reforest many areas of the countryside. This section of the Great Wall is now surrounded by trees on both sides.

Image copyright Thomas Child

This is a 19th century view of the front gate of the Imperial City. Child explains in his description of the photographs: "The gate only opened on special state occasions for the Emperor to pass through. On the occasion of the marriage of the Emperor, the whole of the procession passed through this gate. The whole of the great traffic in and out of the Ch'ien men, has to pass round this enclosure."

Qing Dynasty Peking: Thomas Child's Photographs runs from 10-15 November at China Exchange, 32a Gerrard Street, London.

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